Copyright 2015 by Jennifer Ellision.
All characters and events in the story contained therein are fictional and not to be construed as real.
“The more laws, the less justice.”
“Justice is defined by those who hold the power.”
As my father closes court for the day with those words, I clamp down on my tongue between my teeth. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this recitation of his opinion. His explanation of justice is one he’s repeated to me often over the years, one of many lessons he’s given me in ruling over a kingdom.
Father dismisses me and I utter a silent blessing. Praise Egria. I grow tired and already resist the urge to rub at my eyes. After all, princes don’t show weakness no matter how fatigued they might be. I sigh and straighten my shoulders as the guards open the throne room doors for me to stride through. The urge to acknowledge them with a nod is there, but, still in my father’s sights, I refrain. He disapproves of such gestures.
“How was it?”
Aleta’s step falls in with mine. I hadn’t noticed her lingering around the corner, ladies in tow. Her green eyes pierce mine. Two years my junior, the princess of Nereidium is my father’s ward and my betrothed.
Her skirt is a green velvet so dark it’s nearly black and it trails on the floor behind us like an obsequious escort. Her ladies-in-waiting are just as close and she shoos them back with imperious hands that they pretend not to see, disregarding her wishes and moving closer.
The furious look she shoots me lets me know that if I don’t intervene she’ll blister my ears later.
I sigh. “Thank you, ladies.” I turn to them smoothly and smile my most charming smile. “I’ll see the princess safely back to your care after we speak.” They can’t ignore such pointed words from the crown heir and, though the look on one woman’s face suggests she’d like to fight me on it, they curtsy and back away.
“Well?” Aleta demands impatiently, crossing her arms. “Tell me.”
“There’s little to tell.” The lie squirms in my throat.
She grabs my arm and pins me with a look, scrutinizing my features. Try as I might, I find that I can’t hold my grin for her. My face must communicate all that I feel, for hers falls. “That bad?”
The thing is… if hadn’t been for one case, it wouldn’t have been terrible. Most of the cases had been ordinary: several appeals for provincial matters to be heard at a higher court by my father. He’d rejected a few, and commanded the scribes to gather further information on a few more. Any pleas for a special dispensation of Elemental duties had been summarily dismissed. Standard judicial proceedings, really.
But the farmer we’d seen— the farmer we’d judged weighs on my mind.
Suspecting my thoughts will reflect in my eyes, I turn, avoiding Aleta’s gaze as I mentally relive the hearing.
Browned hands, wrinkled and spotted by the sun, wring the farmer’s hat as he steps forward in the throne room to take his turn and have his case heard. I miss the herald’s announcement of his name, focused as I am of getting the measure of him.
I know not whether his lands are large or small, plentiful or barren, but he has the look of a hard worker. The barest hint of paler skin peeks out at his clavicle, several shades lighter than his hands and face. Plenty of time in the fields then. He must work them himself.
His clothes are old. Faded from exposure to the elements, but well taken care of. He has a care with his finances. Finally, as the man begins speaking, my scrutiny moves to his brow. Deep carvings of worry sit between his eyes.
I shift in my chair, the crown atop my head a weight that I’m accustomed to by now. The farmer begins by stating his loyalty to the Egrian crown. A wise move; I credit his intelligence there. Promises of fealty are a smart tactic, if you know my father. In truth, if one has so much as heard of Father’s reputation, it’s a promising start.
The bristles of my father’s red beard crumple in his hand as he leans into it indulgently, gesturing with the other for the man to continue.
Encouraged, our subject elaborates. Though only a simple farmer, he says, he’s contributed many of his crops to the king’s war efforts, often at a loss to himself and his family.
His request is simple: the Torchers my father has stationed nearby have a habit of running Fire Elemental drills in the man’s fields. His crops span several acres and is ordinarily prosperous, excepting this season. His harvest yield has been scorched, a large portion of it unsalvageable. He simply asks that the king issue an injunction; should his appeal be granted, his farm will be off-limits to the troops.
My father leans back on his throne, thoughtful. He purses his lips as though mentally calculating large sums. “How much would you say you’ve earned over the last year, Walden?”
I stay silent, but cut my gaze at him. What point is he attempting to make? What has the man’s income to do with the petition?
The farmer falters. “Your Grace?”
“Majesty.” My father is sharp, the point of a blade that, if pressed, will draw blood. He levels his eyes at him, a shade of gray that matches my own. “You say your farm is profitable. I wish to know the extent.”
The farmer’s throat bobs. He names a figure so high that my eyebrows shoot up.
“You say you’ve come from the West?” I ask, unable to help myself. I don’t ordinarily speak up at these hearings, but curiosity gets the best of me in this case.
A bit rattled, he nods, a wary eye on my father. “Three day’s ride from the Aridan border, Your Highness.”
“That’s astonishing!” I grin, happily surprised by this turn of events. “Your region has a historical difficulty with turning out a carrot crop. It rarely takes in the West’s soil. And you say you’ve acres of it? You must share your innovations.”
My mind fairly races with the possibilities. We could grow anything— at least, we could grow the crops that are notoriously dependent upon a certain type of soil. Perhaps even off-season fruits. It could revolutionize things for hungry people in the cities, if we were able to mass-produce those difficult crops.
The farmer’s eyes flick uncertainly between my father and me, and my grin fades like a dying candle, uncertainty unfurling in my chest. Father leans forward, expression dangerous.
“It was—it was simply hard work, Your Highness,” the farmer says.
“Prince Caden,” Father says. His eyes remain trained on the farmer. The man’s hat is now wound into a coil and his hands tremble. “Have you heard of any others successfully growing carrots in the West?”
His point strikes home as my heart sinks. How has the man been able to sustain the crops that no others have? I can think of only one explanation and I find that I can no longer look the farmer in the eye as I skirt the inquiry. “Your Majesty is undoubtedly aware that I am not an agricultural authority,” I say, turning a self-deprecating smirk toward the other throne.
Father doesn’t return my glance. “But I am aware that you are a scholar of a high order,” he says softly, watching the farmer. “The court’s tutors have seen to that.”
My father and I are of an accord that a well-educated ruler is a strong ruler. I’ve never had to fight him for a bit of extra time spent pursuing academia in the palace archives so long as I devote equal time to his military training. I have been schooled among both academic teachers and royal advisors awarded with the honorary title of Tutor.
But in this moment, I’d gladly trade education for ignorance.
I’ve stayed silent too long and my father’s voice breaks the quiet. “Your king has asked you a question. You will answer.”
I swallow. “I have not heard of any others. No, Your Majesty.”
The farmer closes his eyes like I’ve pronounced his death sentence. And he isn’t very far off.
I come back to the present as Aleta prods me. “Caden? What happened?”
I’d managed to expose the farmer as an Earth Shaker—one who had somehow managed to escape detection from my father’s Elemental Adepts all these years. Instead of making the ground quake beneath the feet of Egria’s enemies, he’d eked out a life for himself, quietly coaxing a valuable crop to rise from the soil. The king’s soldiers had dragged him from the throne room as he begged for leniency.
That’s what happened, Aleta.
But, parroting my father, I force a smile. Rulers don’t waver. “Justice was served.”
I wonder if she can hear the echo of the farmer’s screams beneath my words.
Aleta and I have been betrothed since before either of us can remember. I’m told I was three when she was stolen away from her homeland to Egria under my father’s bold pretense of “sanctuary.” One of my earliest memories is of her rounded toddler face looking up at my father and plainly saying, “No.”
If the Makers are real, I thank them both that I don’t remember what happened to her after that.
Playtime is different for young royals than it is for other children. We played chase just as the rest did, but we were more often called away for lessons or affairs of state. There were always some children of nobility visiting the palace, but Aleta was a constant in my life—sometimes a relief, sometimes a frustration during an age when I didn’t even think to defy my father. She’d be my wife someday. I was stuck with her.
I was thirteen and she, about eleven the first time I realized that she was growing to be unsettlingly pretty. I spent an embarrassing few weeks in our literature lessons trying and failing to come up with an appropriate metaphor for the green of her eyes. Emeralds were wrong. Leaves were banal.
I’m grateful that I hid those scribbles long enough for the feelings to fade. She’d never forget my precise, humiliating phrasing.
Years passed. I turned fourteen, fifteen, then sixteen, and there was the usual celebration. The meaningless inundation of gifts. Wine that flowed like a river.
The nobles who were beginning to wonder when my betrothal would turn into a marriage.
Aleta’s hands were folded neatly in her lap as my father talked over her. As the years went by, she kept her own council more and more, but wielded her words and actions like instruments of precision, finely tuned for the performances she chose.
“In due time,” my father responded to the pressing requests for a wedding date, ‘any date, Your Majesty.’
“Let’s see a kiss, then,” one woman demanded. A baroness of some lesser house. But a wealthy house. My father plied her with drinks, trying to encourage a pledge of extra funds to the treasury. She was drunk on wine and royal favor. “Between our future king and queen.”
I was… not entirely averse. I’d once spent what was probably an unwarranted amount of time contemplating Aleta’s lips, wondering if they would feel different or the same from others I’ve kissed. Wondering if she’d react the same. Would she blush like some of those other girls? Turn her eyes down and giggle?
There, I was certain, the answer was no.
“You speak out of turn, madam.” Aleta’s chin raised and I was instantly ashamed with myself for not voicing that first, jumping in hastily to agree with her.
The woman sobered a bit. Her apologetic curtsy wavered. “I didn’t mean to offend, Your Highnesses.”
“They needn’t demonstrate their affection here,” my father had said, and I felt an absurd amount of relief that it was not a battle I’d have to fight that day. “Trust that when I command it, it will be done. Until then—”
Aleta seized my shirt and yanked, and just like that, her lips were planted on mine. I barely blinked before it was over, entirely underwhelming. I suppose that was one mystery solved. There weren’t any sparks when my lips touched hers. No yearning to explore the rest of her. In fact, I felt more excitement when I kissed the ground in training practices.
The nobles laughed and whooped and applauded. Something dark crossed my father’s face for an instant as Aleta looked him dead in the eye.
She couldn’t have made her resistance to his will any plainer than if she’d told him ‘No’ once again.
She isn’t exactly the prying sort, Aleta. She asks what happens in the hearing. She waits. But she doesn’t pry. She doesn’t need to. As soon as I have regained my wits, I am eager to tell her all that happened.
Father would say that I am too weak to keep my private struggles private. I say that two pairs of arms struggling to lift a burden have an easier time of things than one.
The trouble is finding a place where my father—or, to be more precise, his devoted Court Air Rider, Lady Katerine— won’t see or overhear us. Where she can’t spy on us by sending a breeze to fetch our conversation to her ears.
We’ve found only one room that meets our requirements in all our years living in the capital’s palace. Without windows and with a closed door, it would be difficult for a spare breeze to circulate. Aleta sits, waiting for me to begin, and the story of the farmer and his fate spills from my lips.
“And,” I conclude. “Thanks to my father’s idea of justice, the poor man is probably locked in the dungeon now, his lands taken from his family, awaiting conscription. Or worse, execution.” I kick bitterly at the ground, achieving no result except a blunt pain in my toes.
Aleta’s quiet and I look at her, expectant. “Have you nothing to say?”
She looks heavenward, as though praying for strength from the Makers. “I’m going to ask you a question,” she says carefully. “And if the answer isn’t what I hope to hear, I won’t bother you on the subject again. But here it is: what do you think justice is?”
I think for a moment. “Justice is defined by those who hold the power,” I say slowly.
Her face falls, her sharp eyes skewer the floor, and I lean forward. “No—Aleta. You misunderstand me. It’s defined by those who hold the power. I’m the crown prince. I may not be able to match my father yet, but I am far from powerless.”
Though Aleta tries to persuade me otherwise, I insist on trying reason first before taking more serious action. Two nights later, I formally request an audience with my father. Not as my father, but as my king.
I return to the throne room where two seats sit vacant. My own, and Aleta’s— though the rules governing her presence are far more strict than when I bear witness to proceedings. She is only a ward. Only an honored guest. Though she will be queen, she cannot speak as one yet.
No other witnesses are present when I enter the room. Not even a solitary scribe to record the ruler for posterity.
It does not put me at ease.
“Your Majesty,” I say, taking a hesitant step forward.
Before I can ask, he offers an explanation. “I thought it preferable that we be alone so that we may speak plainly with one another.” He is amiable. In a good mood. Smiling, without malice hiding in it.
“Your Majesty,” I reiterate firmly. “I come to you today not as your son, but as a subject—”
“Preposterous,” he scoffs.
“Please.” I raise my voice, holding up a stalling hand. “Please think of me as though I am just a simple vassal.”
He raises a brow, but waves a hand, indulging me. “By all means.”
My fingers tremble for a moment before I get a hold of myself, fisting them and holding them at my side. “I bring before Your Majesty a proposal on the matter of Elemental Adepts.”
Father’s good mood vanishes. “Think quite carefully before you continue, Prince Caden.”
“I have thought, Your Majesty. Very carefully indeed.” I swallow— imperceptibly, I hope.
“The conscription of Elemental Adepts is an old and respected tradition within Egria,” I say. “Old, respected— and outdated. The country was at war when the practice was established. We needed every advantage then.”
“Do you mean to say that we can spare such advantages now?”
“Is there a war on that I am unaware of?” I shoot back, then ease a breath out between my teeth in an effort to regain myself. Easy. Don’t overstep. Keep your calm.
“The people are ill at ease, Your Majesty. Even at court, I hear the whispers of nobles with children approaching seventeen. They are fearful. Some go so far as to pay for asinine ‘tests,’ endangering those they fear for, exposing them to the worst of the elements and seeing which fail to harm them.
“Imagine the loyalty they would feel for a monarch who puts an end to that fear. Who saves their children. Who sends their wives, fathers, and siblings home. Without a large army to constantly feed and provide supplies for, we could lower taxes substantially. And more agriculturally-inclined Adepts may band together to revolutionize crops, as the farmer we saw a couple of days ago did. It could improve our economy, our trade with other nations… the benefits are too numerous to properly count.”
“This is a very heartfelt speech, Prince Caden, but if you have a point, I suggest that you state it outright.”
“I humbly propose that Your Majesty end the draft,” I say in a rush. “At least until such time as Egria finds itself at war again. And, perhaps, think on the release of those who hid their abilities and were discovered. Those who now face imprisonment or execution for a victimless crime. For breaking an outdated law.”
He nods, index finger at his cheek as he considers. For a moment, I am hopeful, but then— “No.”
“No.” He rises and descends the steps from his throne to circle me like a hawk. “You want to be treated like a vassal. I owe my vassals no explanations. Were you my son, I might tell you that empires are not built on peace. I may enumerate the many ways that sending the Adepts home would leave us vulnerable to attack or remind you that the Nereids have Water Throwers and that we sit on the ocean’s cliffs with none. I could say that fear can prove equally useful in engendering loyalty.”
“Oh, are you my son again?” He draws close and hisses into my ear. “Then start acting like it.”
I clench my jaw and close my eyes in defeat as he leaves the throne room without another word.
I have never openly defied my father before. Debated a point of state? Certainly. Parried a sword thrust? Of course. But outright defiance? Working against him? No.
However, after our meeting and his outright refusal even to entertain the notion of revising the law, I don’t see that I have a choice. Not one that my conscience will permit at any rate.
And if this endeavor goes as I hope it will, no one will say that I’ve done any differently than obey him.
I ask to be served in my quarters tonight, but Aleta will attend dinner so as not to raise talk of the two of us missing at once. She appears at my doorway prior to the meal, bearing a ruby cuff draped over her fingers. I balk, understanding immediately what she intends.
“I’m not wearing that.” We both know what red means. It’s the mark of a murderer. If I am to play at honor and justice, I won’t sully myself with the connotation.
“Wear it,” she says, her tone brooking no arguments. “Say nothing about it, but let it make its implication silently. Suggestion and imagination are powerful tools at your disposal. Use them.”
I wear the cuff.
After my food is delivered, I wait just a moment before slipping away. My chamber guards think nothing of it; they’ve been with me for some time and are used to my unusual comings and goings. Walking often helps me think. I am counting on the fact that they are too used to my wanderings to take note of this one.
I use a tunnel to sneak into a visiting Elemental Adept’s room while he attends the dinner I am missing. The Fire Torcher whose rooms I visit is a high-ranking colonel in my father’s army and his status affords him a stay in a hall largely populated by lower nobles. I have no trouble locating his wardrobe and fetching the black, hooded robe I require to disguise myself as an Elemental Adept.
My face is wreathed in shadows as I approach the guard station outside the prison. It’s a bit closer to the palace than the dungeon we use to house high criminals and I make good time. They’ll be preoccupied at dinner for some time yet.
I try not to breathe an audible sigh of relief upon noticing that none of the guards wear a robe that matches mine. I’d feared encountering a Fire Torcher, one who could easy lift a palm, flames alight, to have an unobstructed view of my face. As it is, I keep my face turned toward the ground. It would spoil all of my efforts if I were recognized.
I clutch a sheaf of paper in my own handwriting, bearing my own seal. Its wrinkles are creased with my sweat as I pass it over. “I’m to escort some Shaker for a hearing,” I say gruffly.
The guards cracks the seal with a suspicious hand. “Bit late, isn’t it? Besides, truant Elementals are s’posed to await trial here.”
I shrug. “Not for us to question the royals, is it?”
He doesn’t look convinced. Damn. I’ll have to use Aleta’s method after all. Nonchalantly, I adjust my sleeve so that the ruby cuff peeks out. The move has the desired effect: the guard recoils when it glints up at him like a bloody star in the darkness.
“Fetch the newest truant,” he barks.
The farmer—Walden, I seem to remember Father calling him— looks bewildered when he’s dragged out. The guard thrusts his shackles and the keys that will free him into my hands. It’s been mere days but already he looks worse for the wear. A bruise blooms on his cheek and black circles rest beneath his eyes.
“Where are we going?”
“Never you mind,” I grunt, releasing his shackles and shoving him ahead of me. I prod him forward. “Walk, truant.”
We can’t move quickly. Walden’s footsteps are shuffles, his ankles shackled just enough to let him walk, but not easily. I have to wait until I’m sure we won’t run into any well meaning guards before I undo his restraints.
I’d headed toward the castle at first in order to throw off any suspicion from the prison guards, but now I loop us back around the stables. The head hostler and a few select stable hands sleep above the horses, but the others will have gone home by now.
Walden tries to look back at me, but I tilt my head lower, ensuring that the hood obscures my features. The unfortunate result of such a move is that I can see only my feet and Walden’s on the ground before me. Thankfully, I know this route well. I’ve set us on the path toward a vacant pasture and to my hunting grounds, lush and green and untamed; much of the growth that my father’s Shakers pulled from the Leeched Desert that surrounds our city lives there. What’s more: it’s—
Walden’s shackled feet hop in place and a jagged stone hurls itself up from the ground toward me.
I leap backward before I’m impaled on the rock. Walden takes off for the hunting grounds as fast as he can, shackles rattling. He throws a terrified look back at me as I maneuver around the new unexpected obstacle.
The fool. I grit my teeth, trying not to lose my temper. He’d best thank the Makers that I took him this way. It’s unguarded. If he’d tried this foolishness along any other paths, the palace’s soldiers would be on us instantly and he’d have assured his own execution. As it is, however…
When he sees me coming for him, he desperately slices his cuffed hands across his body and I’m walloped in the back of the head by a tree branch.
The hood drops to my neck. I blink for a moment to clear the stars from my vision. Gingerly touching the rising lump on my skull, I’m relieved to find it free of blood. I’ll be able to keep the bruise hidden under my hair until it heals.
My mouth solidifies in a determined line. Enough of this farce. Walden hasn’t been able to get far, shuffling as he is. I manage to get close enough and launch myself at the man, tackling him to the ground. We land loudly, the path protesting such an affront.
“You damned idiot,” I mutter, scrabbling for the keys I’d looped onto my belt. I unfasten Walden’s wrists and he blinks.
“What are you—”
“Go.” I concentrate now on freeing his feet, the key fumbling in its lock. He stumbles as he stands and steps from the shackles’ grip.
“How did you manage—who—”
He pales when he sees my face, free of its hood. Recognition dawns in his eyes as he places me in his memory. “Your Highness?
I rise, holding Walden’s gaze. I should be more dismayed over the fact that he knows the identity of his savior, but I can’t bring myself to feel that way. It feels good. To know that I’ve helped someone and to have them know it too. Good to know that at least one of my subjects will believe someone in the royal family understands that we should be loyal to our people if we expect their fealty.
It’s a start.
“Go,” I say again.
“Prince Caden,” he says, reiterating my identity. I nod. “Why, though? Why free me?”
I meet his eyes. “Do you feel like you’ve done something wrong?”
“I broke the law,” he says.
“That doesn’t make it wrong.”
He waits for more, but it’s the only answer I have to give.
It would seem he’s not a man given to pressing his good fortune. Walden bows low. “I am— eternally grateful,” he says. He stands again, looking at me searchingly. “Thank you, Your Highness.”
“I wish you good luck,” I say. And then he’s gone.
I don’t know where he’ll go as he scrambles off into the darkness, withdrawing into the shelter of the forest-like grounds. If he makes it back to his family, they will have to run.
I truly hope he makes it.
But this is all I can do for now. I listen to the crunching of leaves swallowing his retreating footsteps. It’s not long before the trees and creatures that fill the hunting grounds gobble up those sounds too.
Later, I will protest that the note extrapolating Walden from his cell was forged. A search will reveal that my seal is missing. Stolen. I will demand that the Adept who dared to misrepresent the crown in order to free a truant Elemental be found and brought to justice for his crimes.
They will never find him.
Justice has many definitions. True justice—a justice that is righteous and fair—is a rare thing. But my father isn’t wrong. Justice is defined by those who hold the power.
And perhaps it’s time he held a little less.
And thank you very, very sincerely, from the bottom of my heart.
About the author
Jennifer Ellision spent a great deal of her childhood staying up past her bedtime with a book and a flashlight. When she couldn’t find the stories she wanted to read, she started writing them. She loves words, has a soft spot for fanfiction, and is a master of what she calls “The Fangirl Flail.”
She lives in South Florida with her family, where she lives in fear of temperatures below 60 Fahrenheit. She makes her internet home at or you can find her on Twitter . Stay up to date on all of Jennifer’s new releases through her or like her .
If you love your romance mixed with magic— or fantasy with a smattering of swoon, join Jennifer and other fantasy authors over on Facebook in the reader group!