Author's note: I have revised this from the original version, and have decided to split the story into three smaller novellas in the hopes that the story will now be richer and make more sense :) I have added a lot of new material, so for people who read the original, it's worthwhile to look this over again.

Aubrey of Tirragen self-consciously adjusted his belt around the waist of his saffron-colored tunic, tugging at it until he felt it was in the proper position. He peered through the arched doorframe into his former knight-master's room to see if the Duke of Naxen was ready yet for his assistance. Helping the Duke get ready for the Midwinter feast went above and beyond his duties—but Sir Gareth had asked for his help, and Aubrey really had nothing better to do.

The Duke of Naxen came whirling out of his dressing-room, adjusting the cuffs of his sleeves as he came. Aubrey stepped forward and fastened the clasps which held the cuffs down, a task the Duke seemed to have trouble with, with his thick, sword-callused fingers.

"Aubrey, you're absolutely indispensable," the large, brown-haired man said with a laugh.

The dark-haired young man grinned quickly as he fastened the other cuff, then turned to grab the Duke's cloak, which lay folded on a chair, and handed it to his former knight-master. Duke Gareth gave him an odd look as he took the garment.

"Is that what you're wearing to the feast?" he asked with a wry smile.

"I'm not going to the feast, so it's a perfectly fine shirt to wear."

The Duke raised his eyebrows at the youth's sudden defensiveness. "Why not?" he asked. "His Majesty always puts on a good banquet for Midwinter—and don't you want to see all your year-mates again? They'll be back at court now."

"Not particularly," Aubrey answered, his tone dry.

The Duke frowned, not at all satisfied with the boy's response. Aubrey sighed.

"I feel like I've got no place there, Sir," he said. "What happens to you in the Chamber of the Ordeal is supposed to be a secret, but everyone knows what happened to me." Even remembering that time brought a flush of shame to Aubrey's dark face—no one not even the King, or the mages and scholars at the University, could explain why, when he had entered the Chamber after his night-long vigil in the Chapel, the room had remained a silent, lifeless expanse of gray stone. His fellows squires had all stumbled out, terrified but triumphant; he had simply walked in and walked out again. Was the spirit that inhabited the Chamber telling him, "You may have learned to read your books and swing your sword, but you're not a real knight" ? Was it because he was the son of Alexander of Tirragen, the son of a traitor? That thought was almost as shameful. One way or another, Aubrey has always been marked out as different. He did not want to go to the Midwinter feast because he was not a courtier or noble, or even a proper knight. He was a bastard son from a disgraced house.

Duke Gareth stirred uneasily before the mirror, perhaps sensing the unhappy direction of his former squire's thoughts.

"I wish you'd come," he said after a moment. "Midwinter is one of those times every year when you should be able to put your cares aside, at least for one night." He turned to face Aubrey, his expression serious. "You do have a place there, you know. You think your status is unclear, but you're a knight by anyone's measure. I've known your grandfather all my life, Aubrey—he wouldn't have risked the King's wrath by enrolling you as a page unless he really saw something worthwhile in you."

Aubrey felt his jaw clench and his face grow hard. True, the Duke had known Lord Hugh of Tirragen his entire life—but he did not understand the old Lord's motives for sending Aubrey to Corus. Aubrey did not fully understand his grandfather's reasons either, but he knew that they weren't as noble as the Duke of Naxen made them out to be.

"I suppose I'll come for a short while," Aubrey sighed after a moment. "If I don't show my face once in a while, the whole court will be convinced I'm up to something."

The Duke gave him a reproachful look. "You have more friends than you think," he said.

"Yes, and more enemies than I care to think about," the dark youth retorted. He went to the door. "Well, I'd better go change my shirt.