Esen has spent his entire life an outcast, and he threw out his last chance at fitting in when he broke the engagement his family worked so hard to arrange. Sent to the royal palace to fulfill one last duty, he counts the hours until he is literally left homeless and destitute.
But hiding away in the royal garden, he accidentally overhears a private conversation and meets the mysterious Queen's Man...
Esen slipped outside, desperate to escape the stifling ball, the whispers that sprang up whenever he passed by a cluster of people, the reproving looks that he could feel like something slithering across his skin. He didn’t need the judgment of strangers. They had no right to be accusatory, disappointed, or to spout twisted speculation as to why he had broken his engagement.
Not that it stopped any of them.
He just wanted to fulfill his obligation to Queen Marga and then…well, go, though he had no idea where he would go. Home was out of the question, and tempting though it was to return to Mount Chiron, he did not really want to become a hermit, alone and forgotten by the world. Bad enough he had spent his childhood that way.
There was some appeal to traveling, to seeing the world—but he had always imagined doing it alongside someone, traveling with a purpose. The idea of wandering around aimlessly because he quite literally had nowhere else to go…
‘Fickle Wind’ was the term he had heard most that evening, though anyone who really knew Sylphs knew they were no such thing. More than any elemental, Sylphs needed stability, needed someone who would ground them so that they did not succumb to the whispers of the wind.
He just wished…
Esen sighed and stared up at the night sky, the yellow half-moon shining down on the queen’s garden. There was a sweet scent on the summer breeze, and he was tempted to drift into it, lose himself in it. Who would miss him? Certainly not his family, who had not bothered to recall him until he was sixteen. They had then crammed a thousand neglected lessons into his head so that he could be quickly married off to suit family ends, only to toss him right back out again when he had broken the engagement, sending him as a representative at the Gathering of Harmony with the understanding that he need not bother to return.
No family, no friends, and the entire court rife with gossip about why he would break such a fine engagement.
He fussed with the edge of his jacket, sad that after all the trouble he had gone to in picking out the dark pink fabric and the gold lace and the shiny buttons… It was so handsome and colorful, but all night people had looked at him as though he was wearing a flour sack.
Sighing again, he retreated to one of the stone benches set against the high garden wall, hiding himself from immediate view of the queen’s summer palace behind night-blooming jasmine and roses. He closed his eyes, reminded himself of why the rumors and looks and his family’s fury were worth it. After so much anger and pain, he would not doubt himself. He would not spend the rest of his life miserable.
But, an inner voice whispered, it would be nice if just one other person believed in him. He was so tired of being alone in everything he did. He did not need to be surrounded by people—he just wanted one person who made him happy, that was all. Why was that too much to ask?
The sound of voices registered belatedly, and Esen winced as he realized he should have been paying more attention. Did he reveal himself, or was it better to stay hidden and wait for them to leave?
“I’m leaving in the morning.” The voice was familiar, though Esen could not place it.
“You just got back, and you’re still banged up from those damned Manticores,” the second voice said angrily, then heaved a long sigh. To judge by his accent, the slight squawk to his words, the man was a Griffin. “Where are you going?”
It was the first voice, smooth and cultured, but with an underlying huskiness, that was familiar. “Mount Chiron, to have a word with the Centaurs. This is the third year in a row that they’ve refused to send a delegate to the Gathering of Harmony. They will not even send a message. Her Majesty has had enough.”
“Bugger the Centaurs, they never kept quiet about their contempt for the Gathering, or their contempt that a Dragon has taken the throne and intends to keep it. Let them sulk on their precious mountain.”
“Her Majesty bid me go and address the matter, and so I am going.”
“I suppose our plans don’t matter a wit,” the Griffin snarled.
The first man sighed. “I warned you when we began this that I spent a great deal of time traveling, and am often sent out with little to no notice. You said you were all right with that.”
His words were met with a stony silence.
“Justin,” the first man said quietly.
“You never stay put—you never even try to stay put.”
“I do as my queen bids.”
“You don’t like holding still. But,” he added bitterly, “I suppose that is part of your nature, isn’t it?”
The first man replied sharply, “That’s enough.”
“Yes, I rather think it is. Have fun on your bloody mountain, Gaston.”
Realization jolted through Esen. Gaston. The Queen’s Man, Master Gaston Chevaux. He was a powerful mage, and more intriguing still, his origins were unknown. Nobody, except perhaps the queen herself—and, Esen suspected, the Griffin who had just ended their affair—knew Gaston’s Nature. There were also rumors he was close friends with Chief Llew of the Lion Clan and Chief Gillis of the Satyr Clan, powerful and dangerous figures both, but Esen had little love of rumors. Gaston was not a court mage, or even a lord, simply a mysterious man who did the queen’s bidding. He traveled wherever she bid, and was seldom seen in court for very long. Esen had only seen him briefly, from a distance, on two other occasions.
The Griffin huffed off, and Esen waited for Gaston to depart as well, feeling bad that he had listened to such a private conversation.
“Are you coming out or not?” Gaston asked, voice dry.