Summary: Delia of Eldorne wasn't born evil. When she arrived at the palace, her plans were to marry a man and save herself from beinglady of the poorest fief in Tortall.She didn't reckon on falling for a handsome prince and becoming part of plot for the throne…

Disclaimer: The characters you recognize belong to Tamora Pierce.

Chapter One

Nocking an arrow onto my bow, I release it with a soft twang and watch with satisfaction as it buries itself near the center of the target. The other girls squeal in admiration and gather around me to offer their praise, and I glance over at Cythera for her reaction.

As usual, she is intolerant of my smugness. While the girls continue to praise my archery skills, Cythera puts an arrow to her own bow and releases casually. The arrow finds the dead center of the target and she swings her bow down nonchalantly, a small smirk playing about her lips. Instantly, the younger girls leave my side and flock around Cythera. She obviously thinks it unhealthy for me to have a speck of self-esteem to my name. Disinclined to spend the rest of the spring day outside having an archery competition with Cythera, who can best me at anything, I stalk back inside with my bow in hand.

As soon as I reach the airy halls of the convent I begin to loosen the knot of my bonnet around my chin. I can't get away with having tan skin, but if I could I would rid myself of the bonnet immediately. My complexion is infuriatingly fair and freckles appear on my nose at the very mention of sun.

The bonnet is three years old and very much out of fashion. If Cythera were not my best friend I am certain the other girls would mock me for it. I wish dearly that I could be like any other girl and write home for money to buy a new one, but Eldorne is probably the poorest fief in Tortall and we can barely afford to buy fresh meat everyday, so any clothes that are not strictly necessary are out of the question. Not to mention that my father is a selfish drunk and continues to spend our precious little money on the strongest Carthaki brandy.

As I continue to make my way through the convent halls towards the dormitory I share with Cythera, I nearly knock down Sister Clarence in my distraction. She does not seem to mind, however, and squints at me with her near sighted eyes. "Delia, is it? You'd best not be so clumsy at the palace next week, miss. Men don't find it attractive." She chokes out a wheezing laugh as if there is something funny about this. It's no wonder that she never found a husband at the palace in her day – a squat, dumpy figure coupled with a bad sense of humor never leave the men impressed. Goddess, I sound as vicious as the other girls.

Suddenly her words sink in. "Palace…next week? Are you certain?" A mad desire to scream in delight and terror clutches at my vocal chords, and I struggle to repress it. Finding a husband in Corus is my last hope for escaping the two other options I have if I fail to attract a man: Either become a nun here at the convent or spend the rest of my days at Eldorne with my father for company. Cythera once offered to let me live with her and her husband and be a governess to her gaggle of children, but it was in jest only. She is confident of my abilities to win a man and will not talk with me about my growing insecurities concerning my future.

Sister Clarence's jowls quiver with the pleasure that she has a tidbit of interesting knowledge that I am not privy to. "Oh dear, did I say that? You girls aren't meant to know until tomorrow. Be a dear and keep that to yourself, Delia."

I give her my trademark sugary smile and nod in assent. "Of course, Sister Clarence. Good day to you."

And with that, I wheel around in the corridor and scurry back along the corridor as fast as three layers of petticoats, a corset and heeled slippers will allow. All strife with Cythera is forgotten as stumble out into the sunny spring day and hold my bonnet up against the sun to shield my face from damaging rays.

"Girls!" I bellow in a manner that befits Sister Clarence, not a well-bred lady like myself. "Convent! Next week!" It is all I can get out before I sink onto a bench in exhaustion, but it is enough to bring all the girls eligible to go to Corus rushing to my side. I shoot Cythera a triumphant smirk from where she stands at the archery court. Hah. I'd like to see you win the girls' attention back now, Cythera.

She doesn't even try.

Six Days. Six days. Six days of what, you ask? I'll tell you what. A carriage ride through freezing mountains listening to the endless chatter of new dresses that my peers from the convent are having made for them in Corus. I'll be lucky if I get two dresses. If we weren't arriving at the palace today, I fear I may have gone insane. I once read a penny dreadful of Cythera's where a man took to feeding of the spleens of young ladies, and I confessed that the idea crossed my mind more than once during the later part of the carriage ride.

I am not usually so cross with the other girls, but I find that their company is best taken in small doses and six days in not my idea of a small dose. It probably would have been bearable if Cythera were in the carriage with me. Although she does abandon me to gossip with the other girls from time to time, she is a moderately loyal companion and might have distracted me from spleen-eating fantasies if she had come along to Corus.

The night before we left for Corus Cythera got news that her father was dead and her mother required her at home immediately. She threw a tantrum in our dormitory that night that was so violent I fear for the husband she finds at the palace, because it will certainly be an abusive relationship if he is anything less than a complete puppet. Not that you would guess it from the docile front that Cythera puts on, but she can be brutally aggressive when she is displeased.

I am so fixed in my memories of Cythera's unladylike manners that it takes me a moment to notice that the carriage has stopped moving and the other girls' voices have cut off abruptly. Moving the curtained window aside slightly, my suspicions are confirmed.

We have arrived. I am in Corus. My whole future is counting on these next few months. I can see a cluster of knights standing outside the carriage awkwardly, and I realize that we are supposed to get out.

"I think we are supposed to get out of the carriage," I say in a slightly quivering, slightly higher than usual voice.

Apparently this thought hadn't crossed anyone else's mind, because a sudden excited whispering breaks out at this realization.

"You get out, Anne!"

"Me? No! It's your idea, you do it."

"Clara, go on. All the knights are waiting. Ooooh look out the window, so you see that chestnut-haired one there?"

"Come on. Someone, get out there."

Unexpectedly, somebody decides that I am a likely candidate for this role. Before I have time to protest the carriage door opens and I am pushed out forcefully, falling to the ground and twisting my ankle on a borrowed pair of Cythera's high-heeled shoes. She despises heels, being on the willowy side, and I am always grateful to receive anything that will heighten my petite frame.

As my ankle gives out completely and I feel myself hurtling towards the ground, somebody steps towards me and I fall into sturdy arms instead. "Steady there," he murmurs comfortingly. I feel a hot blush rising to my cheek as I raise my head from his chest and look up to identify the man who caught me. It is the chestnut haired man that Maria was admiring in the carriage. I feel triumphant as I imagine what she must be thinking about me now, as I inadvertently claim the man she's probably set her sights on.

"Thank you," I breathe softly, letting my lips rest in a not-quite-shut pout that might either look ridiculous or seductive.

He doesn't burst into uncontrolled laughter the way Cythera does when she catches me making faces in the mirror, so I can place hope in the latter. Instead, he grasps my hand firmly in his calloused one and raises it to his lips, keeping his eyes on mine. "Gareth of Naxen at your service, Lady…?"

"Delia," I supply, leaving out my fief. It is nice to be looked at with admiration instead of the mingled pity and disgust I am greeted with when I mention that my title is Eldorne.

I take a step forward, only to discover that my ankle is still not steady, and Gareth is forced to catch me for the second time. "Oh Goddess," I say, putting a bit more pain into my face than is accurate. "I'm afraid I cannot walk on my own…could you help me up to my room?"

A cry of indignation that is awkwardly concealed by a cough comes from behind me, and without turning around I know it is from Maria.

Gareth grins good-naturedly and snakes his arm around my waist to support me. As I hobble into the castle, leaning into Gareth a good bit more than is necessary and twining my own arm around his shoulder, I can't help but feel slightly grateful that Cythera isn't here yet to capture the men's attention. It is nice to be the one wielding the power, for once.