A/N: I can't believe I just realized it now—I have over 200 reviews! *squeals and happy dances around the room* I can't believe that even up to this point, I still get new reviewers (Kamryn and Lunaquafy specially). And to those who reviewed from the beginning, thanks for sticking with me. :)

Dedicated to Mama and my cousin, whose birthdays are tomorrow.


Interlude: Bittersweet


Crashed on the floor when I moved in

This little bungalow, with some strange new friends

Stayed up too late, and I'm too thin

We promised each other it's 'til the end...


This wasn't the first time her father had sent her away.

She could remember that time clearly, although no one would believe her. She was only four, after all. Yet even then, she had a clear-sighted memory and an eye for detail. She could remember her mother, beautiful and loving and all she ever wanted to be, looking desperate as she chased after her father with Emerald in her arms. She could remember her begging, tears streaming down her face. One more chance. Please. One more chance for what, Emerald wondered at the time. She would receive a painful answer to this question much, much later. For Emerald's sake. One more chance.

For what? Her father had asked mockingly. A useless girl?

It was then that her mother had given up chasing after him. Instead, she let him walked away, her face undisguised with pain and sorrow. She took Emerald to a small alcove in the garden. Their secret place, she called it. No one could hear them or find them there. At that moment, Emerald had just wanted to hug her mother tight and stay there forever. Stroking her hair, her mother assured Emerald that her father was just angry at the moment. He didn't mean anything he said about her, and that he loved her very much.

"But what about you?"Emerald had asked innocently. "Father loves you, doesn't he? He doesn't mean the things that he said."

The answer to that question, she never got. Her mother just smiled sadly and pulled her closer. She made Emerald promise that, no matter what happened between her and her father, she would always play the part of a humble and obedient girl. It took a lot of persuading – they were in there for a long time – but when the sun dipped in to the horizon and cast a reddish, dreamy glow in the garden, Emerald gave her word.

In later years, when she would struggle to keep hold of her temper, the promise would save her life. In the realm of Richmond, anyone who disagrees with the King will be punished. Such was the law, she supposed.

Her mother had beamed at her and kissed her forehead. She fed Emerald her dinner all by herself, even if she had ladies to do that for her, and made a plane out of a soup spoon that zoomed around and flew in to Emerald's mouth. She helped her get ready for bed and put her nightdress on. She sat on her bed with Emerald and combed her hair with one hundred, careful strokes. Then she smiled again and kissed her goodnight. She said that she loved her.

Then, when she thought the ladies weren't looking, she leaned in close and whispered to Emerald that she loved her for whom she was, and even if she had the power, she would never change a thing about her. She told her that even if her problems became hard, she should never, ever give up. All problems have a solution. She just had to think of it.

Emerald, almost dozing off, was perplexed by why her mother was telling her this now. Surely it could wait tomorrow? They would have another happy, fun-filled day, feeding the birds and saying hello to the Koi in the pond.

As it turned out, Emerald would never have another happy, fun-filled day with her mother. The next day, her ladies were in a flurry to pack up her belongings and return to Hunsdon, a house that was a palace in miniature, fit for a duchess. She tried to protest. She liked Hunsdon, really, but her mother had promised that she would get to stay in the palace of Richmond for a few weeks with her. When she mentioned this to her main lady-in-waiting, the woman hissed, "I wouldn't mention your mother right now if I were you."

After more probing around, she got it out of a maid-of-honour that her mother had done something very wicked, and that she was going to the Tower, where the criminals were. Only that was wrong. Her mother would never do anything naughty, especially not against her father, whom she loved very much. It was all just a mistake, and it would get sorted in due course. In the meantime, she decided she would go willingly to Hunsdon, where her father proclaimed she should go. Then he could fix the mistake.

Soon, they were all packed and ready to go. Carlos, her driver, helped her ladies load everything to her carriage, trusting Emerald not to wander around by herself. Emerald did as she was told and stayed put in a nearby bench. She was gazing around the castle, thinking about the games she would play when she got home, when she caught sight of her mother, looking out the window. They hadn't transferred her to the Tower yet, and she was glad of that. She waved, trying to reassure her mother that it was going to be okay. Her mother smiled and waved back, mouthing something.

I love you.

Emerald never saw her again.


Her time in Hunsdon was horrid.

That was all the little girl – who was so used to being peppered with compliments at court – could say about the place. The servants were nice enough, but none of them were her friends. Sometimes she thought that some didn't like her, a fact that made her miss her mother even more. She knew her mother was the Duchess of Richmond (though she was too young to understand what that truly meant yet) and therefore a very important person, but that didn't keep her from wishing she was here.

Emerald wanted her mother, so they can enjoy those happy days when they played with a skipping rope or acted out fairy tales in the garden and had a picnic afterwards. She wanted her mother to help her with her lessons or, even better, teach her the lessons herself as she sometimes did, instead of that nasty Governess Ludmilla. Most of all, she wanted her mother so she can make sure those horrible whisperings of her maids weren't true. Mother wasn't in any real danger, was she?

She refused to believe that.

She refused to believe that, right up to that fateful night, when she put her ear in her ladies' door and heard them hear the news.

Mother was dead.

Dead.

Gone.

She had passed away, leaving nothing behind but her possessions which the next duchess would inherit, a few memories that would fade just a bit more as each day went, and a little daughter that would never stop mourning her.


A year later, when she was five, she was allowed to come back to court.

She was truly happy to see her father again—and for a while, that seemed sound for him as well. He took her in his arms and threw her up in the air and played games with her all day. Then, he introduced her to his new duchess Emerald plastered a smile on her face. The lady was pretty, she conceded, and nice, she wouldn't deny that, but she did not think her as beautiful or sweet as her mother. Her mother loved her.

She soon found the reason why her father was in such a good mood—her new stepmother was pregnant, and he was hoping for her to give him a boy. As much as she was glad that her father might get his greatest desire, she couldn't help but harbour a bit of resentment. Never once had he apologized or spoken of her mother.

A few months later, the new duchess miscarried.

Emerald was sent away again.


At least this time it wasn't Hunsdon, with the spying maids and Marcy looking through her as if she were glass.

This time, she was going to the kingdom of Brightvale, one of the two larger kingdoms in the Medieval Lands. Her aunt's family had recently moved there, and she had offered to take Emerald in for a while. She was really grateful. She liked Aunt Garnet, and she knew that her mother and she were great friends when the former was alive. Still—she was a grown-up. Her cousin Sapphire was three years older, and Emerald supposed that they could have spent time together, but Sapphire had her own crowd; and though she didn't say so, Emerald knew she didn't want to bring her along. So, she kept back, and was alone once more.

That is, until her aunt decided to introduce her to a few prominent families. None of them would be equal to her status – indeed, in any other case most of them would be too low to contemplate talking to – but she didn't really mind. She never liked judging anyone else for their status; once upon a time, her mother was only a Lady. Then her father married her, and she became the most important woman in the kingdom.

Things change, she knew, and there was a chance that the people there might rise high.

So, she was introduced to a bunch of her aunt's neighbours. They were all nice, she thought, but she doubted any of them actually liked her. If there was one thing she was good at, it was seeing things for what they were. Most seemed more curious on how her father was doing and how much favour she had more than how she was settling in.

But eventually, the adults got bored talking to a five-year-old and began chatting amongst themselves. There were some kids in that place, but most of them were either too shy to talk to her, or thought she wasn't worth it. Sapphire introduced her to some of her playmates; but after a few minutes of talking, she realized that they weren't the type of girls she would want as friends and got away from the group.

She was just deciding that she'd rather go to the library and read for the rest of the afternoon when a tall man, an Usul, made his way to the front. He was dragging a very irritated boy about her age alongside of him. "Duchess Emerald," he said respectfully, bowing low, and Emerald instantly knew he was a power-hungry person who wanted to use her to gain more positions. The boy, however, simply gave her a nod—and she didn't know what to make of it. The man pushed the boy in front. "Allow me to introduce myself," he said in a polite tone. "I'm Black Tennyson Adonai, and this is my son, Ebony." The boy just raised his right hand half-heartedly. "I'll leave you to make acquaintances." With that, he dashed off.

Ebony sighed with relief. "Right. Glad that's over." She looked at him questioningly. "Oh, sorry. My father's been teaching me the art of charming people." He said the last two words in a sarcastic tone. "Wants me to be charismatic when I grow up, for some reason. He made me talk to a bunch of people all day and suck up to the lot of them. I'm tired of doing it."

"So I'll just have you instead of your polite façade?"

"Pretty much," he replied bluntly. She blinked, not used to such honesty. "I'm six, I don't want to spend all day bowing to people. Besides, you don't seem to fall for it."

"No, I don't."

"Hey, Ebony," said a girl's mocking voice. "That your new girlfriend?"

"Ooh, a duchess!" said a boy. "You scored big!"

Ebony gritted his teeth. "Emerald…Em – can I call you Em? – this is Ivy." He pointed to the red Wocky. The girl flashed a mischievous smile at her. "And this is her trusty side-kick, Hawk Aves."

"Hey!" said the Xweetok, looking offended.

"He didn't say anything wrong," Ivy said, smirking.

He stuck his tongue out at her. "I thought we were on the same side, Adonai."

"But you are my side-kick."

"Yeah, side-kick this," he said, kicking her in the shins.

"Ow!" She scowled at him. "You'll pay for that, Hawk!" With that, she launched herself at him, knocking him over flat and starting a fierce fight, effectively ruining her dress in the process. Emerald stared.

"Don't worry, they're always like this," said Ebony. "Hey, Windsor! You mind breaking them up?"

A Lupe about their age – one of the people who appeared a little intimidated by her status – strode up confidently when he saw his friends were near. He grabbed Ivy and Hawk by the collar and split them apart, still wriggling. Then he bopped them back together, banging their heads. "Ow!" they cried in unison. "What the heck did you do that for?" Ivy snapped.

"'Cause it was fun," Harry said, as if that explained everything. "And you wouldn't stop moving." They both glared at him. "What, you'd prefer if I make you kiss each other?" The Lupe swung them around to face each other and began getting them closer.

"No! Gross!" Hawk screeched, kicking.

"Get off, Harry!" Ivy yelled. The Lupe let out a slightly evil laugh and dropped them. "Think you're such a tough guy," she muttered. "Pick on someone your own size, will ya?"

"Manners, manners, sis," said another Wocky. He bowed at Emerald—unlike most of the other people, his courtesy seemed genuine to her. "My name is Harlequin, miss…but you can call Harley. You've already made the acquaintance of my lovely sister?" He grinned at her. "Don't worry. I have an older one who's much more polite."

"I can be polite," Ivy protested.

"Sure you can. Just not when Aves is here."

"Right," Hawk agreed. "I'm a bad influence." They both laughed.

"Are we allowed to go to your place now?" Harry asked Ebony. He glanced at Emerald sheepishly. "Er, no offense, but it's getting a little dull. His mom might be making something."

"As a matter of fact, Mum suddenly had a craving for brownies today," Ebony said. "I don't think our parents will mind—we've already done our duty for today."

Ivy mimicked a deep bass voice. "What important step in the social ladder did you take today, kids?"

"We met a duchess!" they all chorused.

"And what important step do you take now?"

"Eat brownies!"

"Agreed," Ivy quipped. "Lead the way, Master Windsor."

The Lupe happily walked out of the mansion and ran down a road. The rest followed with enthusiasm. Emerald smiled faintly; that was an interesting group. She'd have liked them for friends, though she supposed they were too busy and too wrapped up in each other to really have noticed her. She turned around—and found that the Adonai boy, Ebony, was still there. "Sorry," he apologized. "They can get kind of distracted if pastries are involved, especially if Mum made them. Of course you're coming, too."

"I'm not sure if my aunt would-"

"Aw, come on," he said, nudging her. "You're in Brightvale Uptown. You don't have to be so strict. I'm sure your aunt will understand."

"And your father?" she asked, thinking of the domineering man who so badly wanted them to be friends.

"Technically, I'm fulfilling my duty by doing this. He'll be ecstatic when I tell him about it."

"Right," she said disapprovingly. "You're taking me to your house because of duty. I think I'll just stay here."

"Hey, I didn't mean it like that!" He grabbed her arm. "It's not like I actually care about anything he says. He won't punish me, no matter what. I'm his pride and joy, being his only son and all. And if he dared mistreat me, Mum would just whack him with a frying pan!"

"With a what?" Emerald asked, but he was already tugging her down the street.

He stopped at a large house. Emerald couldn't help but gulp. It wasn't nearly as big as any of her places, but it looked ten times as threatening, with Adonai relatives scowling disapprovingly at her. "Yeah, they creep me out too," he said when he saw her expression. "The kitchen's a lot more fun." Sure enough, she was led to a brightly lit room with bunches of flowers and the aroma of warm cookies. The other kids were slumped on the floor, their bellies bigger than usual. Ebony eyed the empty plate with dismay.

Then suddenly, a lady popped out of the pantry. She was pretty, with long, honey-blonde hair, warm, friendly eyes, and a face that had a mischievous air to it. Her stomach swelled, indicating that she was pregnant. Ebony lit up at the sight of the tray she was carrying. "What, you thought I'd leave my favourite boy nothing but crumbs to it?" she asked, smirking. She nodded at Emerald. "Who's that?"

"The duchess father wanted me to meet," Ebony said, grabbing a brownie. She hit his hand lightly with a spoon. "What?"

"Aren't you going to offer her some first?"

"Oh, all right. Em, would you like a brownie?"

"Sure."

"Too bad." He ate it.

"Ebony!" the lady huffed.

"What? You only said I had to offer," Ebony pointed out. He pushed the rest of the plate to Emerald. "Okay, you can have your pick." Hesitantly, Emerald nibbled a piece of it—and then gobbled it up as quickly as the rest of the kids before she could remember her manners. Never, in all her years of eating the finest food in the kingdom, did she ever taste brownies this scrumptious. Chocolate cream oozed in her tongue, so light it vanished quickly but sweet enough to leave a delicious taste in her mouth. In no time, she and Ebony began warring with each other for the rest of the pastries. The lady just laughed.

"Oh, this is Mum," Ebony said once they've finished. Grudgingly, they agreed to split the last brownie in half. "Grace Adonai."

"Technically, it should be Honey Adonai," she corrected. "But I like going with Grace better." She smiled at her. "I really hope we'll see more of you around, Emerald."

"So do I," she replied, managing to grab a bit of Ebony's brownie and pop it in to her mouth.


She did have to stay there for quite a while; unlike her previous banishment, when all she could look forward to was studying from dawn until dusk and practicing her etiquette, here, she finally had friends who didn't care much about her position. Apparently, none of them had any ambition to go to court except Ebony; and he was much too principled to use her as an advantage. To her surprise, the kids there actually didn't meet that much at all. They were too wrapped up in their own activities—a fact that she fixed by frequently calling meetings. Eventually, even Harry would drop his sword practice the first time she asked him to come.

She loved observing them, these curious kids of Brightvale. Despite being fairly popular among others, these seemed different. On the outside, they did everything their parents told them to do and followed the rules; on the inside, they absolutely rebelled against the idea of conforming. It was curious how they were so unalike, yet she loved spending time with each of them, from watching Harry sword-practice to observing Ivy in her little workshop.

Especially Ebony. Unlike the others' hobbies, he loved playing chess; especially against his mum. For hours on end, they would sit opposite each other in the chessboard and compete, destroying each other's armies mercilessly through deceit and strategy. They never got up until the game was finished. Ever. Emerald was almost certain that if Grace went in labour during a game, she would insist on finishing it before she went to the hospital. Sometimes, they barely noticed she was there.

That was all right. She liked how they spent time together on a hobby they both enjoyed, with Grace teaching Ebony lessons and exchanging sarcastic remarks over it. It made her miss her mother all the more, when she watched how Grace told Ebony he did a good job even when he lost badly, when Ebony would sometimes tell funny stories about the chess pieces when his mother looked tired and weary. In a good way. Remembering was painful, but she knew she'd feel even more awful if she forgot.

And afterwards, when the games were over and Grace needed to take a nap or something, he'd grin at her in a sly way, and they'd pore over poems or play in the garden or simply just lounge around, talking. They had random conversations about everything, and for the first time since her mother died, she found it easy just being herself. Through unspoken agreement, they decided they'd be best friends.

She always knew it couldn't last.


With a stroke of bad luck, Emerald found herself recalled back to Richmond a few days after little Violet was born.

At least, she supposed, she was actually there when Grace had her labour pains. She didn't know what Ebony would've done if he and his mother were alone—her oh-so-brave best friend simply cowered while Grace, smirking despite the pain, ordered Emerald what to do and who she should get. They were then hastily pushed out of the room and absolutely forbidden to enter the birthing chamber, something that none of the group, not even Ivy, challenged. They were freaked out enough as it was, and spent the rest of the day waiting in suspense at the new playground. Ebony was especially fidgety, twisting and swooping down the swing with agitation.

He was a lot happier when the baby was born and his mother was all right again. For a moment, Emerald wondered if he'd be disappointed not to have a little brother–which was what his father was telling it would be. To her surprise, he seemed delighted that he had a sister instead. "I didn't really want anyone to replace me," he confided in her. He smiled faintly. "Though I suppose we should hope you get a little brother soon, right, Em?"

It was the third time her stepmother was pregnant. She had miscarried again the second time, and though she was far away from the gossips of her ladies-in-waiting from Hunsdon, she knew all too well that this was her stepmother's final chance to give her father what he wanted. She wondered, sometimes, what would happen if they baby was a girl.

She'd end up like my mother.

This time, the prospects were really hopeful. The Duchess had now reached her eighth month of pregnancy, and the whole kingdom was crossing its fingers for it to be a boy. As the ninth month got nearer and nearer, Father spent more time with Emerald and decorated her with lavish gowns, which she was now growing increasingly tired of. Those days, she wanted more than ever not to care jot if her gowns were smooth or crumpled and climb the trees with Ebony. But she was a duchess, and duchesses, whether she liked it or not, were supposed to care.

It was all for naught, anyway. The baby was stillborn.

The Duchess was lucky, though; she died a few weeks afterwards as well, clearing way for another stepmother without having to be forced to step aside. After her father waited an appropriate amount of time, he chose yet another bride, a red-headed beauty from across the sea. "You'll like her," he told Emerald that night, when he had come to play with her in the garden. "I'm sure she's the one. She has to be. She'll get you a brother within a few years, Emerald, I'm sure of it."

She shivered at the shadow of his almost mad smile.

She can't really judge the wedding, as she's never been one before – they didn't invite her for the last one – but all things considered, it seemed to be a good party. The bride was lovely, but justifiably nervous. Her father was handsome as ever. A few courtier boys even got up the guts to talk to her. Had she not have been in Brightvale Uptown, she might have been flattered and fascinated by them. In her desperation – oh, she was so terribly lonely now – she might have even willingly fallen for their tricks. But she's learned a few tricks herself since the last time she came to court, and she knows what having real friends feel like. Whenever she spoke to one of them, she always noticed a grown-up, a father or mother, watching hopefully in the side-lines. And she knows what those boys are really here for.

During the ceremony, she fought hard not to say anything. She loved her father more than any other person in the world, but didn't he already have enough wives? Didn't he have enough heirs? Didn't he have Marcy…and her? That was it, wasn't it? Like Eb, she didn't want to be replaced, even when Marcy was clearly more favoured than she was. She was scared that she wasn't good enough for her father. She clenched the rim of her seat tightly to keep herself from crawling under the table.

She missed the girl who'd whisper something snarky about the overly serious best man to make Em laugh, and the girl's brother who would most definitely have told her to be quiet. She missed the boy who was really a big softie beneath the whole bravado he put up, and who'd have assured her that he'd defend anyone who sought to harm her with his awesome mighty sword (which didn't have yet). Most of all, she missed the best friend who would've known what she was thinking before she said anything, and who would've given her that sad, understanding grin that always made her feel better.

Ebony always understood. Not that she'd ever admit it, of course.


It was a dreary dinner in the Month of Sleeping that had been her undoing. Tempers were rather short in the palace that day. Including her own.

"Father, what will happen if you don't have a son to inherit the kingdom?"

It was stupid of her to ask that. Extremely stupid. But Tessa (it was supposed to be Topaz, but her father didn't object to her being addressed by her real name) and she were getting to be great friends. Her last stepmother was always overly sweet to her, treating her as she would a little child, but Tessa believed that children should be like equals and treated her with respect. The new duchess, originally from Kiko Lake, was used to wide open spaces and meadows. She and Emerald spent many long hours playing games in a nearby forest and weaving flowers for crowns.

That night, her father was hinting – not subtly at all – that he was displeased with Tessa for not being with child yet. Tessa meekly bowed her head to acknowledge this, her cheeks coloured with embarrassment and her eyes wide with fear. And Emerald, forgetting her promise to her mother for the very first time, simply snapped.

"I think, my daughter," he said through gritted teeth, "It's time for you to move out of the palace again."

She quickly tried to backpedal. "But Father, I-"

"You need to learn your place, Emerald Navarette."


Silly as it was, she was even more frightened when she heard the news at Brightvale.

It was her first night back, and her aunt absolutely refused to allow her to go anywhere before she was bathed, dressed, and fed. By the time that was accomplished, the moon was already high in the sky. She briefly considered paying Eb a visit by throwing stones at his window, but she eventually decided against it. One thing she had learned is that no one, not even her, could get her dear best friend to wake up before nine a.m. She was just pulling her socks up and crawling in to bed, when Sapphire came in. "I'm supposed to wish you goodnight," she said in an apologetic tone. "To, uh, be a welcoming hostess and all." She looked awkward. "Good night and a pleasant evening, Emerald."

"You can call me Em," she said impulsively.

"Call a duchess by a nickname?" Sapphire couldn't seem to wrap that idea around her head.

"A lot of people do," Emerald assured her. "Ebony, Harley, Ivy, Hawk, Grace, Azure, Harry…" As of last month, she could also add Tessa in the list.

"You're pally with Harry Windsor?" Sapphire's eyes nearly popped out of her sockets. Emerald nodded, confused. Whenever she mentioned her friends, it was always Ivy or Hawk who got the special attention, particularly if their names were used in the same sentence. And particularly after the incident. Harry, however, never really caused too much trouble. She was puzzled by what changed. "Did you know what he did?"

"Um, no."

"Oh, yeah, you were in Richmond." With that, Sapphire launched in a full tale about Harry and his choice. In all honesty, Emerald didn't pay much attention. She wished she could have said good-bye to him – popping up in the Brightvale Castle unannounced is considered rude if you're part of another kingdom's family, and her father would never give his permission – but secretly, she was more than a little proud of him. A step in the right direction, she supposed, though he gave up quite a bit in exchange for it; she was worried how that might affect him. Harry was nice, but he was also known for seeking retribution whenever he thought the person deserved it; one of the few traits he shared in common with Ebony, unfortunately.

She bit her lip, wondering. Did Ebony Adonai make the same choice?

She was being selfish, she knew that, but she really, really hoped that he didn't join the Guard. She…well, she needed him right now. Whether he joined the Uptown one or not, she wouldn't be able to see him quite so often, and she feared that when they did meet up, they wouldn't be as close. But she was being silly. They'd still be the best of friends, even if he decided he'd be a guard. She'd stand by his decision, whatever it was. That's what friends do, right?

Still, she didn't even bother to hide her relief when he tackled her from behind right after breakfast. She hugs him right back—which surprised him, since she usually shrieked not to scare her like that. "You would've missed me," he said smugly, pulling out of her embrace.

"I would," she replied honestly.

"I suppose your gossipy cousin already told you what Harry did."

"Yep." He waited. "I think it was really brave of him," she admitted.

He grinned. "I thought you might see it like that. I think so, too. The others disagree with me."

"Even Harley?"

He nodded. "Personally, I think he's a little jealous. His dad refused him point blank to join the Guard. Not that he'd actually want to do it—he just wants to get out of marrying."

"And you?" For a moment, she felt a wave of unlikely gratitude to Black Tennyson Adonai. "Your father didn't allow you either?"

"Of course he did," he said, waving dismissively. "Took me aside and gave me his blessing, if that's what I wished, but I could tell that he really wants me to be a courtier. Well, he's getting what he wants. I told him I didn't want to join. Got me a little ruby ring to celebrate," he said, taking out of his pocket and showing it to her. She blinked at it, mesmerized. "It's supposed to have a hidden meaning, I think."

"But if he allowed you," Emerald exclaimed, tearing her gaze away from the jewel, "Why didn't you go? You have no problems with being athletic or getting your hands dirty. You could've gotten away from the Traditon."

For a moment, his smile faltered. "Well…I had my own reasons. Let's leave it at that, okay, Emmy?" Before she could protest, he grabbed her arm just like he used to. "You should see what they've done to the playground!"

During the following months in Uptown – happy months, despite her constant guilt for displeasing her father – she noticed some changes. Small ones, but they were there nevertheless. Relations between Ivy and her siblings became strained; they always had been, ever since what happened with Hawk, but they were just a little more stiff. The same went with Ebony and his mother; apparently, she went by the name Honey now. They still spent some time together, still spent snatches of chess games and discussions of strategy, but the slightest cry from little Violet and Honey was off. During those times, Emerald noticed her best friend's smile just became a teeny bit more forced.

And all of them felt the loss of Harry keenly, despite not one of them ever admitting it. As active and reckless as their friend was, they couldn't lie to themselves that he became a guard simply because he wanted to. It was as if playtime was over, and that the countdown to their unfortunate marriages was beginning. Emerald, never having to worry about this, couldn't imagine what pain her friends were going through. They've all heard the horror stories. They've all read the rule book. It was just a matter of time before one of them got hitched for good.

She wished she could help them somehow, but she wished in vain.

Then, one day, she received a letter.

My dearest Emerald,

I hope you're having a good time in Brightvale. I remember you telling me about your lovely little friends and the adventures you've had there – perhaps I can come one day as well? Not any time soon, I fear. Your father, my most gracious husband, has allowed me to send you one letter to bear the news: I am with child.

I hope you don't think I'm putting pressure on you, dearest, but it would be such a comfort for you to come back. I think that there's a good chance that if I ask him now, he'll agree that you've learned your lesson and let you return. Ah, don't think I blame you, sweeting. I never fully thanked you for standing up for me. You're always so brave. And that's why I want you to stay with me, my little jewel, although I will not be offended if you can't say the same. I hope you understand. I need your bravery more than ever.

Love,

Tessa

"She's afraid," Emerald told Ebony. "She's afraid of what my father might do to her if she fails. And it's a justified fear, too."

"I suppose your conscience isn't going to let you stay here?" he said flatly.

"I'm afraid not. I already sent a reply." She shuffled her feet. "She got it wrong, though."

"Got what wrong?"

"That I'm brave." Emerald gave a little laugh. She'd spent her entire life hiding behind others, whether it was her mother or her father's secretary or her friends.

"But you are," he said unexpectedly. "Don't deny it, Emmy. You're one of the bravest people I know." He sighed. "When are you leaving?"

"Tonight, probably. Father's good mood won't last, so it's best if I hurry."

"When will you be back?"

"You'll miss me, won't you?" she teased.

"Absolutely," he replied.

She smiled uncertainly. "I don't know, Eb. I don't want to displease my father—I'm going to take extra care not to. And he'd never let me correspond with you through letters because of your status."

"So I won't hear from you for a very long time, I guess." He looked glum. "Let's just get our good-byes over with, then. You know we have act really proper among the adults later tonight."

"I'm sorry."

"What are you apologizing for?" he asked, his tone lighter. "It's just that…well, I'd miss you. And with Mum being so occupied with Violet, and my cousins getting so wrapped up in their own lives, and Harry moving away…it tends to get a bit sad sometimes."

"You can always play with your sister."

He rolled his eyes. "Believe me, I do. She's a little tyrant in the nursery." Was she imagining it, or did she detect a hint of brotherly pride in his voice? Then he grinned, grabbed a familiar ruby ring from his pocket, and gave it to her. "Just token to help you know that you do have friends here," he said, when she opened her mouth. "And a reminder that, whatever else you are, Emerald, brave is one of them. Truly."

"Getting cheesy, are we?"

"Yes. Speaking of cheese, I'm certainly not saying this just because I felt guilty I ate Mum's good-bye present of cheese buns for you."

"What?" she shrieked. "But cheese buns are my favourite."

He smirked, gave her one last hug, and their good-byes were over.


It's a boy.


She was around ten years old when she was sent away again, this time because her father wanted to focus on Ekanite's very special birthday of two years, which was longer than any of his sons ever lived. She supposed he thought it would be a compliment for her; Meridell actually was the biggest of the kingdoms, and besides, Brightvale was where he sent her when she was punished. But oh, it was so utterly dull. She wasn't allowed to go help the farmers harvest, there was no library or any form of entertainment, and all the children in the Meridell Uptown who were old enough to associate with her either was too intimidated, or wanted to use her for personal gain.

All but one.

Charlie was a sweet little Kacheek who always ended up in the most ridiculously awful situations. He had been lost in the berry field, nearly drowned in apple juice, and even accidentally switched places with that other Kacheek who ran the rubbish dump. "'Ere you go, Miss," the man said good-naturedly, handing the little boy over whom she considered her personal responsibility. "A fine rascal, that one. I sleep one hour late and he'd already charmed enough folks to give up their best treasures. Too late to claim them back, though."

"I didn't mean to trick them in to giving anything, honest, Em," the little boy told her petulantly. "They just asked me about the rubbish dump, and I didn't know what it was, so I guessed it was a place where people put their stuff to keep them safe and then they put all their items and money there." He bit his lip. "Mummy will be cross with me, won't she?"

"I'm afraid so," Em said regretfully. While she had to admit Charlie needed a little punishing for this instance, she loathed the methods his mother used.

"This isn't fair!" he pouted. "Mummy is even more irritated with me, just 'cause I don't measure up to my cousin Harry's example-"

She froze. "Did you just say you have a cousin called Harry?"

"Yes," said Charlie casually. "Actually, he's my third cousin twice removed or something. I forget sometimes. I don't see him much, 'cause he lives in Brightvale and is a guard, but I don't like him much so that's okay."

"Charlie, your last name wouldn't happen to be Windsor, is it?"

He blinked. "Oh, yeah, it is. I forgot to tell you, I guess."

"Where's your cousin now?"

"At my house," he said, confused at why she was so interested in this. "He's usually busy working so he gets to miss family reunions and those type of things, but his mother put her foot down so he has to attend-"

"Sorry, dearest, but I must get going. I'll see you back at your place, okay?" She ran off without hearing his response. She could hardly believe it. Almost two years had elapsed since she had met any of her friends from Brightvale, and three years since she had seen Harry. Now, one of them was here. She simply couldn't pass this opportunity up, and raced to the Windsor house with agility even she was amazed she had. Soon, though, she found herself mixed in a throng of Windsor relatives; she was forced to slow down, much to her irritation. She quickly scanned her surroundings, trying to catch a glimpse of the boy.

To her amusement, she soon spotted him in a business suit—exactly the kind Ebony always wore and took for granted, and exactly the kind every other boy in Brightvale found uncomfortable. He had plastered a smile on his face and was nodding to his relatives, but his eyes had a sort of glazed looked about it that indicated he wasn't paying attention. She giggled. Some things never change. As soon as his relatives had grown bored and dispersed, she tapped him on the shoulder. He jumped. "I warn you, Charles, if that's you again I'm going to-"

"Is that any way to treat a duchess?" said Emerald, mock-disapprovingly.

His jaw slackened. She smiled at the undisguised happiness (and disbelief) that showed on his face. "Emmy?" he said tentatively.

"Yeah."

"You're here!" And just like that, he pulled her in to a big hug and nearly squeezed the life out of her.

"Harry, dearest, I'm suffocating!"

"Sorry," he said, backing away. But he didn't stop grinning. "Wow—long time no see! You don't look like you changed a bit, though. You're still a midget."

"Am not!"

"Are too!"

They smirked, remembering the times when they argued about that very thing one summer's day years ago when she couldn't reach the top shelf. "Anyway," she said, brushing herself up, "Aren't you supposed to be in a uniform or something? A little birdie told me you've become a guard now." For a moment, his smile faltered, and an uneasy look crossed his face—as if he was afraid she was going to reprimand him. "I think that's pretty cool," she hastened to assure him. "I don't know many people who'd have enough guts to do what you did."

"Yeah," he boasted, visibly relaxing. "No one has guts like me."

"Of course," she agreed, trying to hide her amusement. "Mind telling me the whole tale?" He frowned, hesitating. "Come on, Harry," she said, tugging on his arm playfully. "We're friends, remember?"

He smiled ruefully. "Yep. A lot like some people in the guard."

"What?" she exclaimed. "I thought guards were supposed to be noble and all that."

He shrugged. "They think we're all spoiled and snobbish. Kind of hard to make something of yourself there with that hanging over your head, y'know?" He sighed, and Emerald saw he had a much more difficult time than he let on. But then, this was Harry, who loathed appearing weak. If she tried to interfere, he'd only be hurt that she thought him incapable of taking care of himself; which is completely not true. But for all his outward bravado, he was sensitive like that. "Anyway, it's okay now. I'm a lot more…shall we say, respected."

"Harry," she said suspiciously. "Did you do anything?"

He tried to look innocent. "Of course not." She stared at him. He squirmed. "You know that your eyes are really creepy when you look at me like that, right?"

"I know," she said unblinkingly.

"Em," he said, exasperated. "I don't want to talk about it, okay? Come on. It's the first time I saw you in years, and I'm leaving tonight. You really want to ruin that with me tell you some dumb story?"

She sighed. "I guess not. But you're going to have to tell me someday, you know."

He looked uncomfortable. "Uh, sure. Can we talk about something else now?"

She grinned at him. "Did you get that sword you wanted?"

"No," he said sulkily, frustration evident in his voice. "I only have a blunted one now. We're going to have a proper one when we're eighteen. Eighteen! How am I supposed to live that long?"

They talked about news of their lives - though really, she hadn't had much to say and he didn't seem to want to say anything about his time as a guard - their family, their interests (though she was uninterested in fencing herself, she liked it that he was so enthusiastic about something, and it was nice for him to have someone who genuinely wanted to hear what he said), any books that they read (unsurprisingly, Harry struggled with this, and they quickly changed the subject) and any cool pranks that they did (Harry had filled a teacher's boots with milk, and the duke's secretary, who was one of Em's few friends in Richmond, simply couldn't find his stationary set anywhere). Charlie came in at one point, looking very confused.

"We're still friends, right?" he asked her innocently.

"Of course she isn't," Harry snapped at him.

"Yes I am," she said, glaring at Harry. "Charlie is a very sweet boy. Apologize to him."

He looked taken aback. "But-"

"Harry, do you want me to stare at you again?"

He gulped. "Sorry, Charles."

"Good," she said, satisfied. "See you later, Charlie. I think it's way past your bed time." The Kacheek nodded and walked away sleepily, mumbling something about finding Mrs. Daley to tuck him in.

Harry shook his head in wonder. "Why that weird little kid has anyone who likes him, I'll never know."

"Harry!"

"What? He really is weird. Probably would fit right in with little Hazel."

"Hazel? Who's Hazel?" Emerald asked. "Someone related to Ebony?"

He chuckled. "I'll say. She's his sister."

For a moment, she gaped at him. "I thought her name was Violet."

He burst out laughing. "Aw, Emmy! Don't you know? He has two sisters. Hazel was born the same year as Charlie was." He shook his head. "Once you've met both of them, you'll never mistake them for each other. They're just so different. Hazel is all meek and obedient – a lot like what Ebony's mother is nowadays – while Violet is all…" He shook his head. "She's a lot like Ebony, in a lot of ways. Fiery. Unpredictable. But unlike him, she doesn't try to control herself or think about each move before she makes it. Completely reckless—though I can't say anything to her about that."

Emerald forced a smile, trying to hide that she was stung. He didn't mean to hurt her, she knew. But she couldn't help be a little sad that Harry, who actually was working, knew more about her best friend's life than she did. "You two get along?"

"Heck, no. Put us in the same room and we start bickering immediately. She's got Honey's looks, though, so I wouldn't be surprised if she turns out real pretty, even though she has a sharp tongue. Good luck to her father trying to find a husband for her."

He checked the clock.

"Nearly time to leave the ball, Cinderella?" Emerald teased him lightly.

He looked regretful. "Yeah. Sorry. The Captain only let me have three days off, and I'm supposed to go back tonight so I can reach there by tomorrow afternoon. But you come back soon to Brightvale, okay? We all really miss you." He hesitated. "Especially Ebony. It isn't really my business, but I think he needs you right now."

"You know I'd love to be there for him, Harry. But if I can't…just remind others about Rule Number One." She referred to a set of rules they made up together the first time they visited, the set of rules which they swore that, no matter how older they got or how different they eventually become, they would always abide by.

He smiled. "Sure. I'll do that. Take care of yourself, little midget." Before she could protest at that again, he was gone.


It was the last happy day she'd have for a long, long time. The next day, Emerald was recalled to Richmond.


Five years.

Nearly five years of being cooped up in a stuffy castle, always having to observe propriety, always having to mind her manners. Oh, she didn't hate it. She actually liked going around in court, being the centre of attention once in a while - even if only they considered her as a possible chess piece – instead of being constantly ignored by…some people. And she loved Ekanite, her father, and Tessa (who, since she had given her father's greatest desire, knew she was going to stay). She'd finally grasped the importance of presentation, too; she now understood what Ebony meant that dressing up differently actually will get people to treat her differently, and from then on she wore gowns and rich clothing without a murmur (and yeah, she had to admit…she had begun to like them as well).

But it was also five years since she had seen her friends all together. Since Harry, she'd managed to make an occasional trip to Brightvale by visiting Sapphire, but they were only for a few hours for so, a day at best, but no more. Charlie had eventually moved there, and she enjoyed seeing him and how he became more and more grown up as he got older. Ivy was as sharp-tongued and skilful as she ever was, Azure always unfailingly polite, Harley always with the eloquent speech, and Cerise (their new little sister) a true trickster in the making. Hawk was doing all right, too, but she had the impression that he was kind of lonely—although he had his own group of friends, she'd still catch him looking wistfully at the direction of Ivy's workshop.

She'd also managed to finally and truly meet the other members of the Adonai family. Harry's description of them was completely correct. Hazel…Emerald didn't know what she thought about the girl with the big brown eyes. She was friends with Charlie, and Emerald was glad about that, but…she didn't know. Something put her off about the girl, and it seemed the same was true vice versa. It's not like they hated each other or anything, but they always made a point of staying away whenever Emerald came to visit.

When she had first met Violet, she had been six and the little girl was just a new-born. Now, she was thirteen, and little Violet was six and as fiery and as pretty as Sapphire told her to be. She had no recollection of Emerald, but they had become fast friends—and why not? As Harry had said, she was quite a bit like Ebony, and had his talent of melting even the icy cold aura Emerald sometimes thought she had about her. She seemed awfully impressed that Emerald was friends with her brother, who she said seemed to be playing more and more boys-only games lately (though she loved him anyway, the little girl conceded). Emerald completely won her over by presenting her with a hair kit and letting Violet braid her own hair.

But Harry, she had never seen since that day at the Windsor family reunion.

As for Ebony, the whole five years had elapsed since she'd ever so much had a glimpse of him.

She truly was lonely. And bored. She supposed those two were the driving force in her sudden urge to be rebellious (she truly hoped there wasn't really anything in Tessa's talk that now she was a teenager, she might find her emotions a little difficult to handle—and as she enough of a short temper as it is, that was very bad news). That day, she had the urge to do something reckless. Her mind brought back the memory of once, when she was a little girl and was supposed to stay inside because her aunt deemed the weather to be too bad, she had dressed up in her maid's clothes and ran off to play with her friends. No one had ever caught her.

Her lady-in-waiting had left her dress and shift in her room adjoining Emerald's.

The time was as good as any to try that trick again.

It was a crisp January day, and there was still snow in the courtyard. She couldn't help but smile at how free she felt, even though she had been this way many times. The guards didn't even recognize her; if she wanted to, she could even go out…She closed her eyes, trying to control herself, but the idea was too mad and exciting to not do. The guards opened the gate for her readily; one even gave her a small smile. Once she was actually outside, she couldn't help but laugh and do a little dance.

It had been five years since she had been this free.

She surprised herself as she wandered about the kingdom. It gave a little ache in her chest, she had to admit—she knew Brightvale and Meridell better than her own homeland. But that would soon change, she was determined at that. Perhaps Tessa could have a word with her father on her going around Richmond. Marcy did it often enough, and after all, she was a lot older than when her half-sister first made her debut appearance among the people. Not that they'd actually recognize her, Emerald admitted to herself. While her siblings made regular appearances, she was normally kept back.

Now, she wondered why.

She loved it, blending in the crowd; partly because she never truly blended in. An old baker smiled and gave her a free cheese-bun just because she looked cold. A little boy ran around playing tag with her. Two carollers, not quite yet ready to let go of the Christmas season, serenaded her with a song. An old lady even took her aside to tell her fortune. She told her that she was going to have a difficult path, make huge sacrifices, and end up wondering if the entire thing was worth it. "On the bright side," the lady said with a wink, "You're going to have a very interesting love life!"

Eccentric, the people of Richmond were.

Her undoing came when she stopped to see an old mill-house. She had never seen one before, and she was curious to see how it worked. An old, stooped Ruki who appeared to be working there saw her staring. "Evening, Miss," he told her. He looked at her hopefully. "Are you the help I sent 'fore? If so, I hope you know you're late by hours. It's going to come out of your pay."

Emerald found her voice. "I'm sorry, but I'm not the help."

"Blast it," the old man groaned, his smile melting away. "She's not going to show up now, that much is for certain." He looked tired. "There's a fella who comes and goes at times—gosh, wouldn't I wish he was here now? But darn it all, he's as unpredictable as the wind, shows up only at the last moment. And I can't have the last moment. It'll be hours before this thing's done."

"I can help, though," Emerald blurted out. He looked at her, surprised. "I mean, if you want me to. And if you teach me. I'm afraid I don't know how to do that very well."

He eyed her curiously. "Give me your hand," he told her. She did as she asked, thinking that this was probably a bad idea. What if he was crazy and did something? Fortunately, he only held her smooth palm up next to his own, gnarled fingers. "Huh. No calluses. M'dear, you seem to have never worked a day in your life."

She snatched her hand back. "I'm from the palace."

"Indeed," he acknowledged. "But I've 'ad girls from there come to my shop for cloth, and theirs were never this delicate. Well. I suppose you've simply got an easy job, haven't you?"

"Look, you don't need to accept my help," Emerald said, a touch angrily. "I do have a hard job, even if it isn't really hard labour. If you don't need-"

"I meant no offense," he told her gently, holding her shoulder. "We each have our place in the world, and indeed, you don't seem the type to laze about, like some other teenagers I can name. But this is hard labour, lass. Are you sure you know what you're doing?"

She gave a little laugh. "No, I don't know what I'll be doing, thank you. But I'm sure I want to help."

He broke in to a smile. "Well, I'll show you."

She spent the next few hours working in the mill: spinning cotton, managing the machines, dyeing the cloths, and finally, selling the products (or rather, holding the products up while the Ruki sold them). The old man was right—this was no easy task. But hey, if Ebony could do half the housework in his huge mansion and still have the wits to put up a fight in a chess game, if Harry could practice hours in sword fighting and still help her reach something too high for her, if Ivy could work on something for hours and fail but still be satisfied, if Hawk could stand being a loner and yet still friendly, if Harley and Willow, no matter what insults thrown at them, could always be polite—well, she could do this, too. She was glad that she didn't leave the old Ruki alone, either. She knew that as hard as she found it, he would've had it much worse if she didn't come along, with his old back and his nearly-blind eyes.

"Lass, you're a blessing," he said happily once they got everything done. He glanced up at the sunset. "Though I've kept you here for far too long. Is anyone expecting you?"

She bit her lip, thinking about it. She certainly hadn't planned to be gone this many hours; she definitely hadn't planned on being sweaty, tired, and colour-stained by the end of it. But for all that she was a duchess and one of the most high-ranking people in society, she also knew that she was the most invisible one of her siblings. Possibly, nobody had noticed she was gone, except perhaps her servant which she stole the clothes from. She doubted that the girl would tell, though; she'd be scared of the game. "I don't think so."

"Would you like to stay for dinner, then?"

"Oh, no," she said, turning red. "I mean, I don't want to intrude-"

"No intrusion," he said cheerfully. "Least I could do for helping me with the mill. I'm sure I was done for! Come on in." Before she could protest, he took her shoulders and gently pushed her inside, cutting off further remarks. The food was simple, but delicious: cheese on bread, with crackers. He even threw in a cup of borovan. Still, Emerald couldn't help but feeling guilty. It was clear the old Ruki lived alone, and he didn't seem like to have much that much. "You don't talk much, do you?" he said after a while.

"No," she said, turning red. "Sorry."

"Sorry?" he laughed. "What are you sorry for? Some people are quiet. All there is to it." He poured her more chocolate. "So, girl, you've been working for me with hours, and I still don't know your name. Your clothes are fancy, and yet you're humble enough to help an impoverished peasant on the side of the street. You look like you've never worked a day in your life, and yet you've been more diligent than any of the hands I've hired here. Forgive an old man for prying, but I have to ask…who are you?"

"Call me Em," she told him.

He chuckled. "Mysterious one, aren't you? All right, Em. If you're not going to say anything, why don't I fill up the silence with a little history about the mill?" She smiled and, taking that as a yes, the old man launched in to the account of the first Woodson man who saved up to start a business and decided to use it for spinning wool and cotton. After that, it got passed out down to his son, and then his son, and then on and on. Enthusiastically, he showed her some old relics of china pots and embroidery done by the Woodsons of the past. Then, he smiled. "It's all down to me now. My grandson – my son didn't want the mill, see – is going to turn seven soon. Once he turns fifteen, I'll give him the mill, and I'll be at peace," he said serenely.

"I thought you said that you were done for," Emerald reminded him. "Was that just an expression?"

His smile faded. "No. I'm afraid our dear Duke of Richmond has his heart set on tearing this place up to use for an estate. Too near Uptown, see?" He sighed.

She nearly choked. "The Duke?" Her father?

"Yeah. Everyone knows he's probably gonna be King someday, since his brother's not long for the world and still without an heir. Don't tell anyone I said that," he said hastily. Imagining the death of a monarch was treason, and punishable by death. "If, by some miracle, the Queen manages to give birth to one, I have to say, I can't imagine the baby living very long. Accident or no accident." He wrinkled his nose.

"That's a serious accusation," Emerald said quietly.

He smiled wanly. "Forgive a bitter old man for his words. But you already know how much this mill means to me—and he does too. But he still wants to destroy it. This is just an old mill, mind you; I'd just hate to see what he'd do with the entire kingdom in his hands. Are you all right, Miss? I haven't upset you?" He shook his head. "You look a little pale. That's the last thing I want to do, upsetting my little helper. It's all right now, though. My mill is saved; and I have the pleasure of saying so to His Grace himself, when he comes over."

Emerald made the little choking sound again. "He's coming? Here?"

"Aye," he said happily. "I can tell him to kiss this place good-bye now, thanks to you. Won't be long now—you can stay and watch, if you like."

She jumped up. "I'm sorry, Mr. Woodson, but I realize I've missed a previous engagement and-"

"Slow down, lass. What is it?"

She sighed. "I have to leave."

"Leave? But why?"

Before she could answer, a trumpet sounded, announcing her father's arrival. She squeaked. "I'm so sorry, but I have to get out of here. I can't let him see me."

He threw her an odd look. "You've a story to tell me, lass, but I see there's no time. All right. There's a cloak near the stove over there. You can put that on and sneak off; the Duke probably won't be much bothered about you."

"Thank you," she said, relieved, grabbing the cloak. She bent the hood way over her head. She crept out the doorway just as the Ruki opened the door. In spite of herself, she couldn't help but pause behind a tree to watch.

"Ah, Master Woodson," boomed her father's voice. As always, he was surrounded by a posse of servants, as well as a crowd of common people fawning over their Duke and wanting to see what happened to the man that defied him. "According to yesterday's report, you've failed to repay your debt." He gave him a thin smile. "I'm afraid it's time we have to repossess your house, and the mill."

"Not so fast," the Ruki said quietly. He took a leather pouch out of his pocket and handed it to the Duke. "There. That's all the money—every single penny of it, you'll see. Enough to repay all my debts."

Emerald watched on as her father counted the coins, his face turning redder by the neopoint. She couldn't help but think of him as a child—a rude, spoiled child who was about to throw a tantrum because he couldn't get what he wanted. "This is impossible!" he cried. "This report was taken yesterday. How in Neopia could you have gotten enough money to-?"

"I had help," said the old man. He glanced at Emerald's direction, but quickly looked away. "Now, if that's all, I-"

"Wait," the Duke snapped. "I forgot to mention: my bankers have miscalculated the cost of some of the acres of your land. I'm afraid you owe around three thousand more neopoints."

The old man stared at him. "You just made that up."

"That," the Duke said, "Is a serious accusation. Me, a duke, lying?" He laughed, and his servants laughed with him. Some of the peasants gave the man a sympathetic glimpse, but most were just shaking his head at his foolishness for trying to challenge a power so high. "We'll add a few more neopoints to that, shall we? You now owe four thousand neopoints."

"Your Grace," he pleaded. "Have mercy."

"I am being merciful," he pointed out. "When you leave this place, I assure you that it will be used to benefit the people."

"Benefit the rich people, you mean," he snarled.

The Duke eyed him. "Do you want to pay a visit to the prison, Master Woodson?" Numbly, the old man shook his head. "Then I suggest you keep your mouth shut." He turned around to the crowd. "Does anyone vouch for him?" he jeered. "Anyone want to offer him some money?" There was silence. Perhaps they all truly didn't have enough to spare; perhaps they were too scared of the wrath of the man who might one day be their future King. Emerald didn't know.

All she knew was that suddenly, she couldn't bear it. She raised her hand and stepped in front of the old Ruki. "I will." She fumbled around for a piece of jewellery – any piece – that she was wearing, and found a beautiful diamond necklace; one of the few keepsakes that she had of her mother. She knew it would easily pay for the debt, and then some. She felt a pang, parting with it, but she knew that her mother would understand. The mill was the man's home. She handed it to her father, taking care to cover her face. The Ruki gaped at her.

The Duke frowned at the diamond and handed it to a Chomby beside him. The Chomby nodded, probably confirming it was real. The Duke snatched it back. "This…this appears to have covered your debt," he said reluctantly. The old man's face broke in to a smile, but it wasn't over yet. The Duke was still examining the necklace. Suddenly, his face changed. "Arrest him and that girl!"

"What?" a guard asked, confused.

"This belongs to my daughter," he seethed. "I gave it to her own mother when we were courting, and I know she passed it on to her. They stole it. Arrest them."

The man tried to make a run for it, but the guards pinned him against the wall. Mr. Woodson groaned. His arm gave a sickening crack. "No!" Emerald cried, rushing towards them. "Let go of him!"

"I do not listen to thieves," the Duke said coldly.

"I am no thief, father," she said, taking off her cloak.

He stared. "Emerald? What are you doing?"

She ignored his questions. "That is my own jewel—one I give up, willingly, for the benefit of the old man and the mill. Please, father. Honour your bargain."

The Duke's face contorted with rage; she flinched, but kept her stare steady. He wouldn't really hurt her. She was his daughter, and he loved her, didn't he? Besides, the people were watching. He really did care of their good opinion—the majority, anyways. The odd ones like old men who wanted to save their homes did not matter to him much. But if it was shown that his own daughter wished for the mill to be spared…he sighed. "All right, Emerald." He gave a benevolent wave. "You're cleared," he told the old man.

For a moment, there was only tension as Duke handed the scroll – the fancy receipt, really – to the old man.

Then, a cheer broke out.

The people clapped and roared and waved at his kindness, and the Duke smiled. But Emerald noticed that his eyes were flashing, and she was going to have to face hell once she got home. She felt awful for disappointing him. It had been worth it, though. Her father began riding back to the palace, and she knew without him telling that he wanted her to follow him. She sighed and began to walk in the direction; then a gnarled old hand took her smooth one. "You're going to be in for it when you get home, ya know?" Mr. Woodson said, his tone filled with concern. Apparently, she wasn't the only one who saw the concealed anger. "You really the duchess Marcasite? I saw you once before, but I could've sworn you looked older. And blonde."

"No," she said, looking down. "I'm the Duchess Emerald. The other daughter."

"Really? Oh, my." He shook his head with wonder. "The mysterious girl. There are rumours about you, you know."

"Rumours?" He looked embarrassed, as if he wished he hadn't said anything. She gripped his hand. "What rumours? Please tell me."

"Well, lass, I never believed them. But some people think it suspicious, you never showing your face in public. People thought you might have an affliction, or was simple, some reason why he wanted to keep you away."

"Oh," she said in a small voice.

"But you're a lovely girl," he told her. "I'll not let anyone think otherwise from now on. You have my word on that." She conjured up a weak smile. "I'm forever grateful to you, Your Grace," he went on. "If you ever need me, my mill and I will always be welcome to you. Perhaps you'd like to come again some time—I truly would like a full account on exactly what happened. Mercy, I almost can't believe it."

She smiled at him, genuinely this time. "I'm afraid I can't, Mr Woodson. I…ah, I think he has a punishment for me lined up. It will probably involve sending me away. Again."

"He shouldn't do that," the old man said firmly. "The people would love you if they knew you, I'm sure of it—if only for your mam. She's sorely missed, you know." He bowed his head respectfully. "I'm much obliged to you, Your Grace. My mill and I are open to you any time." Then suddenly, he looked past her and frowned. "A tad too late, don't you think?" He shook his head. "This is the young fella who helps me at times."

"Sorry," said a yellow Lupe around his late twenties. He was handsome, with dark hair and an easy smile on his face. He wore a guard emblem on his shirt, and an odd array of weapons and tools on his belt. And he was blind. "I was going to stand up, you know—but this little lady here seemed to have it under control." He winked at her direction. She turned red.

"She certainly did," the old man agreed. "Well, I s'pse it's time to hit the hay. Not good to stay up too long with my old bones, see? So long, Your Grace."

The Lupe turned to her. "Did I hear right? Are you the duchess?"

She nodded; then, realizing that he couldn't see her, said, "Yes. I'm Emerald."

"Emerald," he repeated. "Lovely name. Do you know who I am, Your Grace?"

"No," she said slowly. She turned around and saw the company going away. Better make this quick.

"Would it help if I say the name 'Reynie'?"

"I've heard of it," she said sincerely. A flash of Tessa excitedly showing her a copy of the Neopian Times crossed her mind, but it was gone before she could get a grip of the memory. "But I can't remember."

He grinned. "It's probably best if you don't. What if I say I'm famous for being the only one who managed to catch a particular thief?"

"Sorry. Not ringing any bells." She turned around. "I really should be going-"

"No worries." He took a small hourglass from his pocket and flipped it. Emerald's eyes widened in amazement as people around her slowed down—and then simply stopped. "Useful little thing, isn't it?" Reynie said admiringly. "It gives you a full five minutes start, but no more than that; and it can only be used a few times. Ah, well. It's always bad to rely on magic too much, anyway."

"I'm sorry," she said, backing away. "I don't need you to catch any criminals for me."

He chuckled. "Oh, that's not my only job. I'm also a tutor."

"A tutor," she repeated.

"Mentor, teacher, guardian, whatever you prefer," he said carelessly. "But quite a different kind as the normally used meaning, as you can probably guess."

"How?"

"I teach special skills," he informed her. "Things that I think your case might need, however unusual. Also, if I'm really interested or you're in a really dangerous situation, I do some part-time spying on your foes."

"Thanks, but I don't have any."

"Really?" he said, looking at her with his eyes that couldn't look. "You don't have anyone who might wish you harm?" His gaze made her squirm; she thought of Marcy, the whispering ladies, neighbouring kingdoms, and even her father. "Thought so. And again, as you may guess, I only handle special cases. Important people—not necessarily rich," he added. "But, you know, I can't help all the kids in need in the world. So I only choose the ones whom I know can make a difference."

"You've got the wrong girl," she said tonelessly. "I'm mostly ignored—this is the first time I've ever gone out to public. Ask Marcasite or Ekanite. Besides, I don't have much social skills."

"But you have skills," he mused. "You might not realize it yet—but you're thirteen , right? I sense something in you, Emerald Navarette, and it's dying to come out. Probably this year." He smiled. "And anyway, would the two people you named stop to work all day for an old man and then put out their own neck to save his? I didn't think so. That's another thing which I constantly look for in my students, Emerald: Bravery."

She blinked.

"Anyway, I'll list you as one of my own. That okay with you?"

"I can't pay you anything."

"Of course not, Emerald. You pay me by trying to help others. I don't need money—That's why I do my other jobs." He bowed. "I'll check on you in a while, Your Grace. I think we'll have very interesting time together." With that, he disappeared in to a nearby wood. Time began turning again. She ran to catch up with it.


"Emerald, what were you doing?" Tessa said, scandalized. She turned her around. "What are you wearing?"

"Sorry, Tess," Emerald mumbled.

"Sorry?" her father scoffed. "Sorry doesn't cover it, girl. You've gone too far."

"Now, dearest-" Tessa began.

"Don't throw that crap at me!" he thundered. Tessa took a step back. It'd been a long time since he had yelled at her, ever since she'd presented him with a son. "She's an ungrateful little wretch who went out of the palace to—to what? Incite rebellion?"

"No!" Emerald squeaked. "I…I just wanted to see Richmond."

"You live here."

"And I have never seen a bit of it until today!" she replied, her fear turning to anger. Why did he have to keep her from the people? Why couldn't she ever go out, like Marcy and Ekanite could? Why was she always hidden away like a dark secret? "As long as I've lived here, father, I've never truly seen this place until today. The places I've been sent I know better than my own home. Why?"

He glared at her. "If you think pulling off this…this stunt would make me let you see more of the kingdom, you are sadly mistaken, Emerald. Until you learn your lesson, you're not to come back here."

"What? But-"

"Dear," Tessa pleaded, "She hadn't misbehaved in a long time. Perhaps this is going too overboard."

Her father refused to be moved. "It's final."


"You okay, Em?" Sapphire said, sliding in a seat opposite to her. They were in her cousin's library. In recent years, they've become much closer. Although Saph didn't know that much about her – much less than her old friends did – that didn't stop them for being friends and even writing each other at times. Sapphire knew how lonely she was, and the constant pressure she had to remain in her father's good side. Emerald knew how frantic her cousin was becoming at her nearing betrothal, and her desperate wish that it would be Lancelot. "Normally, you'd be off like a rocket to see your little group."

"I don't really feel like seeing Ivy or Harley or Azure right now," she said wearily. "Nor do I want to play with the little kids. And I think Hawk's busy." Harry, as always, was in the guard—she was hoping she'd manage to catch him on a visit at some point, but he wasn't there now.

"How about that other Adonai boy?" Sapphire asked casually. "Ebony, his name was, I think."

Emerald blinked. "I haven't seen him in five years."

"No wonder," Sapphire chuckled. "His father's given him every tutor for every lesson imaginable for a rich kid. Fencing, mapping, dressing, manipulating…you name it. Plus, he also goes on to a lot of hunting trips. Poor guyhad to struggle quite a bit to keep up with everything—but, you know, he asked for you quite a bit. His look of frustration when I told him that he missed you by an hour was priceless one time."

"Used to?"

"Um, yeah. He kind of gave up around two years ago." She looked at her sideways. "But he's gotten very good at skills now. Rumour has it that his tutors can't keep up with him. So yeah, he probably has more than enough time to spare."

Emerald opened her mouth, and then closed it. Five years.

That was longer than she'd ever been separated from her friends before. Would she even know how he looked like? He'd be fourteen now, passing his birthday just in December. The last time she saw him, he was nine. And what would she say? What would they do? They never had this issue before, back when they were kids. They simply did and talked about whatever they felt like; and it wasn't hard. But it'd been so long. She might not even know him anymore—and suddenly, the thought of that was too heavy to bear. She didn't want to know, at least not right away.

"Maybe later," she said quickly. "I think I will visit Charlie, after all."

Sapphire shrugged. "Suit yourself." Emerald gave her a thin smile as she stood up. She grabbed a cloak – green, naturally – and went out striding through the snow. Unlike before, it didn't give her a sense of freedom she used to have. She loved Brightvale, honestly. How could she not? She'd practically grown up here; she had friends who liked her not because that she was a duchess, but simply because she was Emerald. But she didn't belong there. Her trip to the mill had shown her that clearly enough. The place didn't need her, as Richmond did.

She walked to the place where she knew Charlie's mansion was – a cold, magnificent thing that she knew was his mother's choice – and knocked on the door politely. She held her cloak closer to herself, her breath turning to fog. It was snowing lightly again. Just as she was about to decide that Charlie wasn't here, the door flew open. "Can I help you?" said a kind, matronly voice.

Emerald turned around gratefully—and had to stifle a scream.

The old woman was a corpse. Oh, she wasn't a skeletal figure that was rotting from inside out, but she was a corpse all the same. She didn't know how she could tell. On the outside, the lady had kind blue eyes and a sweet smile. She had a plump figure and donned a matronly apron. Other people would think she was the kindly housekeeper; heck, she probably was a kindly housekeeper. But she was an dead kindly housekeeper—or at least one that should have been dead a long time ago. Emerald tried to control her voice. "I-I'm looking for Charlie…"

"He's off in the playground," she replied. "Why, child, you look so pale. Do you need to step inside to warm up a bit?"

"No!" she answered immediately, backing away. She nearly fell on the steps. "I-I just h-have to ghost…go! I have to go! Sorry!" With that, she hurtled away full speed.

The housekeeper blinked at the scene. "Not every day I meet someone who can see me by my true form," she mused. "She's going to be trouble, that one." She smiled faintly as she closed the door.

Emerald ran, not knowing where she was going, as long as it put as much distance between her and the old lady as possible. So of course, it was perfectly logical for her to bump straight in to a guy, toppling them both over in the snow and breathing hard. Of course, she was utterly mortified. Of course, she should get off him straight away, apologize immediately, and go home and put her face in a pillow for the sheer embarrassment of it all. But…she couldn't. She found herself staring in to two dark, intense eyes.

For a moment, the world stopped.

"Ebony?" she managed to squeak out.

He looked confused, for a second. She couldn't really blame him for that—after all, he'd just fallen headfirst in a pile of snow, and she could understand if he was a bit disoriented. Then he focused; his eyes seemed to take in hers, and he smiled. "The one and only. Did you finally come back after so long, Emmy?"

"Yes."

"Good." And for an absurd moment, they just stayed like that, grinning at each other. Then he squirmed. "I know you'd miss me, Em, and I did expect that you'd hug me in our next meeting; but I have to say, pushing me in to the snow takes it up too far, don't you think?"

"Oh, yes," she said, blushing. She stood up and brushed herself off, and he did the same. While he did, she took the opportunity to scrutinize him. He had changed, she saw. He'd grown taller, and it seemed that hours of sword practice and hunting had paid off—although he'd never be like Harry, his physique was pretty impressive. But she also saw glimpses of her best friend in those looks. His dark hair and eyes remained ever the same, as did that little, self-satisfied smirk on his lips.

"Now," he said when he was done. "Might I ask what you were running away from?"

"I wasn't running away," she protested feebly. He looked at her, and for a moment she had to wonder why people found her stare so intimidating. "Okay, fine. Charlie's housekeeper."

"Mrs. Daley?" He seemed surprised. "She doesn't seem the type to scare people."

"Are you kidding? Can't you tell that she's-?"

"She's what?"

She tilted her head. How could he not see it? Either he was pretending (which she knew instinctively that he wouldn't do), she was going mad (possible, she supposed), or….didn't that Lupe, Reynie, say she'd discover some special talents this year? She closed her eyes. Oh, Fyora. If her special talent was seeing dead people, she'd rather not have it. "Nothing, I suppose. I just don't want to be around her."

He threw her an odd look, but he didn't press. "How're your family doing?" he asked. "I was glad that Tessa gave birth to a boy, and I guess you not spending so much time here meant that you were in your father's good side."

She bit her lip. She didn't want to remember her father's scathing glare as she made her way out of the palace. "Can we not talk about that, please? How's your family? I met your sisters once when you were away. Hazel is…" She struggled for a word "Sweet. And Violet is as fiery as you are, I wager. Maybe we could play with them?" His smile vanished. "Um, just a thought. If you just want it to be the two of us…"

"It's not that, Em. Violet's gone."

"Gone?" She stopped in her traps.

"Yep." A dark look crossed his face, making him appear a lot like his father. "Joined the Guard."

She stared. Did she hear right? "Join the Guard?"

"Uh-huh. Check the rule books; apparently, there's nothing there that said a girl couldn't join, and the regular Guard accepted her without a second thought."

Her eyes dawned with understanding. "That means she's with Harry."

"I know," he said heavily. "Brilliant. First girl in the family to break the Tradition, and I'm stuck here." He kicked a stone.

"You still have Hazel."

He barked a laugh. "Em, please. Do not mention Hazel."

"Okay." She floundered for something else. "How about your mum?"

"Mother," he corrected stiffly. "And no, Emerald, I do not want to talk about her either." He saw her expression. "Sorry. I'm just a little bitter about it. I mean, everyone has something to do or a place to go or whatever, and I'm…well, I'm bored." He gave an exaggerated shudder. She laughed, and he smirked again. "But now you're here."

"Which makes everything all right."

"Which makes everything all right," he agreed, flashing her another smile.


But things had changed, she knew. Not between them. He was still her best friend through it all, the person she trusted most in the world, the boy who loved chess games. But his other relationships were much more strained. A posse of boys fawned over him and, while she knew he liked being fawned over, she also couldn't see what he saw in these guys. His sisters, he refused to talk about point-blank. The worst, she observed, was his mother. He had gone from all but worshipping her to scorning her every move, glowering at the ground whenever she came near. He never helped at all with the housework any more.

"What happened?" she asked him, but he refused to say. "Come on, Eb. I'm your friend, aren't I?"

"So?"

"In my opinion, love's when two people utterly trust and are honest with one another."

"Love?" he said, snickering. "Ooh, so you love me, Emerald?"

"'Course I do. Not that way," she added, kicking him. He just laughed again. "Come on, Eb. Tell me."

"It's not a tale you'd like."

"Try me."

He told her. He was right—the story was bitter, sad, but by the end of it, she had a perfect understanding on what he was going through now. Although she disapproved quite a bit of it, she knew that she couldn't truly judge him; that's definitely not what he asked for. Besides, she isn't sure she wouldn't have felt exactly the same thing if she was in his position. All she could do was squeeze his hand. "Well, I'm here. So…" She said, lifting up a chess piece. "Now that you don't have an opponent, would you mind teaching me?"


Unfortunately, their time was cut short.

Ekanite got sick, and he begged her father for her to come back 'cause she always made him feel better.

While she adored her little brother, she almost could have strangled him for making her leave Ebony alone again. "I'll come back soon," she promised him.


She was back a year later; a weary, long year later that had been spent taking care of her little brother, making her father happy, and receiving secret visits from the mysterious Master Reynie. Besides her father's secretary occasionally making an effort to cheer her up, the last one was probably the only thing that kept her sane. Her father refused point blank to ever allow her out of the palace; and so, the odd and interesting lessons the Lupe had given her had proved her only solace.

Every few weeks, he returned, tutoring her in acting (depending on whether she had to act aloof or angry, she was both good and bad at that), throwing poisoned darts (he wouldn't tell her why she might need that, but she seemed to have a natural talent for it), sneaking around, mapping, forging, the works. At times she felt like a criminal, learning these things, but he just laughed. "Kid, I know criminals. Trust me. You're not like any of them." The only thing she refused to have him help her with was chess.

"I already have a teacher for that," she told him, and he didn't argue.

But now she was back in Brightvale, and she didn't waste any time to find Ebony. In fact, he found her first, both of them bumping each in to each other again and laughing. Two of the Adonai cousins were there, too—Ivy rolling her eyes, Harley grinning. She wasted no time on telling them her predicament, and the impossible task she needed to do by the end of the year.

"A coming-of-age ball?" Ivy scoffed.

"It's only for royalty," Emerald said wearily. "Be glad you don't have to have it. Anyway, my father's throwing one in my fifteenth birthday for a celebration that I am now officially in the marriage market. Not that it means anything," she said thoughtfully. "I'd always be a pawn in the royal games."

"Not if you learn how to play," Ebony reminded her. "I'm still teaching you chess."

She smiled. "Anyway, I got sent here along with a dancing tutor so Saph can show me how to behave. I need to watch a proper lady, apparently."

"Well, you can only be glad it's not Ivy," Harley piped up. His sibling punched him in the gut. "Ow! That hurt."

"Good." Ivy eyed her up in down. "Don't know why you need some schmancy-fancy ball anyway. You're already more mature than the rest of us—well, maybe not Azure, but at least you're fun."

She shrugged. "Well, I have no choice on the matter. Even if you're right with the manners, I still need to learn how to dance." The entire group shuddered.

"It sucks that Harry isn't here," Ivy remarked. "I mean, seriously—he's the only one of us who can dance 'cause of all those stupid reunions his family makes him go to, and he's out there, up with the Guard! Maybe he'll visit soon."

"Harry can dance?" Emerald said, surprised.

"Sure. He looks marvellous in a tutu," Ebony said with a straight face. Emerald burst out laughing at that mental picture. "Okay, yeah, he can dance. But that's nothing we can't help you with, right?"

"You will never be short of dancing partners," Harley promised.

"And you get to visit a lot more, right?" All of the Brightvale kids stood still, looking at her hopefully.

She grinned. "Yes."

And so the year passed with a flurry of visits—for she did visit, every single month. During that time, the rich kids had an interesting revelation: The one thing that Emerald Navarette and Ebony Adonai both were mutually horrible at was dancing. Again, and again, and again, they trod on toes ("I will never dance with you again," Ivy swore to Ebony), tripped ("That hurt more than Ivy kicking me," Harley remarked to Emerald), and stumbled over the simplest steps ("Let's take a break," Azure moaned, rubbing her temple). But if there's one trait they shared, it was sheer determination. They both refused to allow dancing to defeat them, and they practiced every day they could. Harry came and went, trying to help them, but he was never the most patient teacher and usually gave up and just called out usually unhelpful tips as they practiced ("Try pointing your toes inwards – I heard that! No, I am NOT a ballerina!").

The younger kids – Charlie, Cerise, Hazel – generally stayed away from this oddness, but that was all right. The only member of their original group not present from their little sessions was Hawk: and all of the Brightvale kids save Ivy were dead set in not letting him get close, much to Emerald's sadness. She didn't want to exempt Hawk from Rule Number One; but it appeared she had to.

But all of them enjoyed it, spending time together in this mutual activity, when they had spent so long apart. At long last they were all together, and even they stumbled and tripped, they were still laughing, exchanging stories and tales. It almost seemed like old times again.

And eventually, their hard work began to pay off. Emerald began twirling properly. Ebony finally gotten the hang of the butterfly dance (although he still insisted it had a stupid name). Harley, Ivy, Harry, and Azure, who had been practicing with them, had better skills, too. By the end of the year, they were all efficient in moving in with the music, and mastered all of the dances.

Except one.

No matter how hard they tried, the Rosen Dance simply wouldn't be learned. It mocked them as they watched countless videos on how to do it; on the television, it seemed so easy, but the truth was far, far, harsher. It required precise timing and the most rigid movements—unlike the waltz, which allowed either of the party to daydream, or the volte, which at least let them have some freedom. It also required a crucial lift, with the boy holding the girl high, the girl's only support with her hands resting on the guy's shoulders, holding that position for a few seconds, and then slowly going back down.

Still, they practiced, and eventually – eventually – they got most of the steps right. But the lift was still impossible for Ebony and Emerald to do. Each time they tried, Emerald toppled sideways, or Ebony accidentally bent forwards, and they would "crash and burn," as Ivy phrased it. They always laughed it off, but as Emerald's birthday came closer and closer, the pressure turned on and they were much more frantic.

In their last practice, Emerald entered the Adonai mansion with a cold feeling at the pit of her stomach. Later today, she would start traveling to Richmond. Tomorrow night, her fifteenth birthday, it would all be over. The other kids had already said their good-byes—they were all busy today, so it would just be her and Ebony. She opened the door the sitting room; and found her friend frowning over the chessboard, completely absorbed in the game.

She was always fascinated when she saw him do that; the way he was so utterly focused on what was in front of him, his dark, intense eyes brimming with concentration. She wondered, sometimes, how the chess pieces felt being the object of his gaze. She hated having to pull him out of his reverie. Quietly, she tapped him on the shoulder, and he started. He gave her a brief smile. "Shall we begin?"

They began with the Rosen Dance straight away, them already being pretty much perfect with all the other dances already. At first, it appeared to be going well. Ebony bowed, and Emerald curtsied. She twirled inwards, and he swept her out. They moved across the floor gracefully, both fixated on the steps, both so engrossed with what they were doing that they didn't hear a girl come in. Just as they were about to do the lift, a voice said in a sly tone, "If you wanted a dance partner, Ebony, you should've asked me."

At once, Ebony's step faltered, sending both of them tumbling to a heap. Emerald looked up to see a Cybunny with long, golden hair and pink, full lips standing against the wall. Ebony stood up immediately, a grin on his face. "Nimue! I-uh…We were just practicing."

"For what?" she asked suspiciously.

"Emerald's coming-of-age ball," he replied. "She's an acquaintance of mine." Emerald was taken aback by her best friend's cold introduction. "Emerald, this is, uh, Nimue. My girlfriend." He gave the girl a huge smile, his eyes on hers.

"Oh" was all she could say. Of course he had a girlfriend. How could he not? He was good-looking….and charming…and clever….more than a few times, she'd seen other girls flock to him and cooed over her amazing he was before he slammed the door on their faces. But she never actually thought that one would win him over. Now, she felt stupid for not thinking of the possibility. What was she expecting, him to stay alone until the Tradition forced to marry? He wasn't the type of guy to wait like that, and she knew it. So why did she feel so hollow?

Before she knew what she was doing, she stepped back. "I don't feel like practicing now. You two can go on ahead."

He whirled around. "What? But, Emerald-"

"It's okay. I think I've learned enough to be all right. Thanks a lot." She turned around and began walking towards the hallway. What was wrong with her? Of course it wasn't all right. She almost wished she wasn't so hasty—but when she turned around and saw the girl grabbing Ebony by the collar and bringing him to another, darkened room, her intent clear, she didn't regret her choice and quickly made her way back to her aunt's mansion. Sapphire raised her eyebrows in surprise about her being back so soon – in fact, if anything, she expected Emerald to be late – but she gave no comment.

Emerald was soon picked up by Carlos the driver, and she was whisked back to Richmond Castle without an apology or good-bye.


The next night, Emerald found herself donning a beautiful silken dress made out of a deep green with jewels adorning it. Tessa smiled when she twirled her around; but the smile quickly turned in to a frown when she saw the mood her stepdaughter was in. "What is it, my dear? Did they give you blue shoes again?" Her attempt at a joke fell flat when she Emerald's sad expression. "Is something wrong?"

She hesitated—but she needed to confide in someone. "A friend of mine," she confessed. "We, um, sort of had an argument. I don't know exactly what it was, but...I walked away. I didn't have a chance to tell him good-bye or anything." She honestly did not know what had happened, why she had done such a foolish move on the day she wanted her best friend's encouragement and support more than ever. Maybe the nervousness had gone to her and she had a brief attack of the crazies. She didn't know. All she knew was that it was her fault, and the guilt was eating her alive. "Never mind. You probably think it's stupid."

"Not at all," Tessa told her. "It's always hard to quarrel with your friends. Come here. I think I have something to make you feel better." She took Emerald's hand and led her to her room. There, Tessa took a small little box from a cabinet. She opened it. Inside was the most beautiful tiara Emerald had ever seen, studded with pearls and jewels as luminous and lovely as green tears. She touched it with awe. "For you."

"Oh, Tessa, I can't-"

"It doesn't belong to me, Emerald. It belonged to your mother." She smiled. "She left it in her old room, hidden. It was accompanied by a note—here."

Stranger,

I know not who you are, only that you are most likely a foreign princess or other nobility that my husband has wed after my death. Well. I wish you have better luck than I did. I do not shudder at my inevitable, coming demise, though make no mistake that I do not celebrate it. It is a means to peace at last, I suppose. I do, however, regret on leaving my daughter, the most precious jewel I had ever had. Please, give this note and this crown to her on her fifteenth birthday. The age when she becomes a woman—when she finally understands.

Emerald, if you're reading this, then please know that I never wanted to leave you. But know also that I never could have stayed. There are so many things I want to say; but then, I suppose I can only truly express it in three words: I love you.

I hope that, no matter what happens to me, you will never hesitate to say those words.

Good luck.

Emerald felt a lump in her throat. She closed her eyes, trying not to cry. Tessa simply patted her hand. "Let's put this on, shall we?" she said, placing the tiara on Emerald's hair. "There. You look lovely." She glanced at the clock and squeezed her stepdaughter's hand. "It's time."


"Welcome, honoured guests. It's with delight and happiness I greet you tonight in my honoured duchess and daughter's fifteenth birthday, and I am grateful you took the trouble to be here this evening. I know some of you celebrated the first year of her life with me. I am blessed to have seen her grow up from but a baby in a cradle to this beautiful, striking young woman-"

On and on and on. Emerald twisted her gloves, forcing herself to beam at the guests happily as her father rambled on with a speech he'd been practicing for around two weeks.

She closed her eyes briefly, trying to shut off the rising panic building in her chest. She'd been in hundreds of parties before, of course. She knew the art of smiling just so, knew how to greet courtiers of different stations, knew how to keep up a mood of gaiety when she was almost falling over exhaustion of having to pretend. But this…this was different. Now, she was the main event, the thing that everyone came for. Worst of all, she had to do something, and something that, until a few months ago, she was completely awful at—dancing. She wasn't ready. She couldn't go. She just couldn't-

"But now, I'm afraid I've talked far too long. Let the dancing begin!"

She was lucky that the applause hid her whimper of terror. She took a deep breath, closing her hand over a familiar little ruby ring. No. She was going to live through this, she was going to make a good expression, she will see Ebony again, and she will apologize for her horrible behaviour. Despite Tessa's advice to keep eye contact with her partner, she could help but keep her gaze down at the floor as the first person – probably a courtier – went straight up to her to ask her to dance.

So, of course, she was shocked when a familiar voice said, "May I have the honour of being your first partner for the night, Miss?"

Her head whipped up. "Harley?" she almost shrieked.

He smiled and made a shushing gesture, and then took her hand as he led her to the dance floor. Fortunately, she wouldn't be the only one dancing, though the spotlight would still be on her. "Rule Number One, remember?" he said quietly. "We're not about to let you face this alone. Me and Ivy – well, mostly Ivy – nagged at our friends' and our own relatives yesterday until we were allowed to go. We're all here!"

"All?" She wanted to ask, but the music began and they were forced to stop talking. Luckily, it was a simple waltz, and she got it right perfectly. They were partners for three dances afterwards; then, in the short break that ensued, he bowed and let go of her. "Sorry, Em," he apologized. "If I danced with you all night, people would think you're favouring me." He winked. "Don't worry. There's another guy who'd be glad of an opportunity to dance with you." He turned her around.

"Hi, Em."

"Harry!" She couldn't help but grin, despite her disappointment that he wasn't whom she had hoped for. "I thought you were in the Guard."

"They let me have a night off," he explained as he took her hand. ""Sides, I'm rich. They'd do just about anything for a donation from my parents. To be honest, I'm really looking forward to going back."

"Why?"

"Haven't you heard? We've recently locked up this thief called Masila, though she's in some Faerieland prison right now. I took a few turns of guarding her; man, that lady is scary."

"Masila? The Mistress of Double-cross?" She shook her head in amazement. For a moment, she couldn't help but envy Harry on having an opportunity to meet her. Not that she wanted to get killed, but she had heard quite a few stories about the woman, and she would have loved to question her about them herself. "It could have been worse, dearest. It's not like she had a personal vendetta on you-" She noticed his reddening cheeks. "Did she?"

"Sort of." He looked embarrassed. "I…uh…I kind of upset her nephew."

"Her nephew," she repeated.

"Um, yeah. Look—it turns out that Masila has this sister called Marie, who's the mother of a guy called Sam in my group. Us two, we didn't really get along. Possibly jealous of my awesome skills."

"Possibly," she agreed with a smile.

"So, I guess the guy sic his auntie on me, 'cause the first time I entered the dungeons she told me that if I ever dared do anything to her nephew again she would…" He screwed up his face, thinking of the exact lines. "Oh, yeah, I got it. She would throw me in a cellar infested with carnivorous slorgs and let them eat away my very being. Then, she'd take my remains, burn them, and make my bones in to jewellery for the people of Tyrannia." He shrugged. "I didn't really mind her, though. I figured she had other things to worry about than some guard guy."

Emerald smiled slightly. Only Harry would wave such an ominous threat away as if it didn't matter—but she was anxious for him. If there's one thing she knew about Masila, it's that she never gave up until she got what she wanted: even if it was petty as severely punishing a teenager. "It doesn't seem fair," she remarked, resentment in her voice. "You upset some guy, and he's off hiding behind the skirts of some scary relative. And he's a guard." She shook her head. "Do you want me to talk to him?"

"What? Aw, Em, no!" he said quickly. "I…er, I can defend myself."

"Still, if he let his aunt issue a death threat on you for no good reason-"

They were interrupted with the sound of music starting, and once again, it was time to dance. This time, it was a fast song, filled with quick beats, and accompanied by very hard moves. It was a good thing that it was Harry who was dancing her, she supposed. It was unbelievably difficult for her to twist and twirl around like the routine commanded her to do as well as remember all the steps, but Harry managed to do half her work for her and whispered to her what she had to do while gently pulling her this way and that to gently remind her where she should go. After around four more songs to this torture, she was utterly grateful to him, but he waved it off with a smirk. "It's fine, Emmy. Now you just need to get through one more song and you're allowed to withdraw."

She didn't return his smile, her nervousness apparent again. "That's the Rosen Dance." The most difficult one, and the one she didn't practice properly for the most ridiculous reason….heck, she still didn't know what the reason was…She drew a breath and tried to grin again. "At least you'll help me out again, right?"

Instead of nodding and showing off, like always did, he shook his head regretfully. "Sorry, Em. You know that four-song limit on the favouring? We reached it, if you didn't notice. Besides," he continued, "Ebony would probably kill me if I didn't let him have this dance."

Her spirits rose, a tad bit. "Ebony?"

"The one and only," said a voice behind her, and she turned around. To her relief, he was smiling, albeit a slightly forced one. "May I have this dance, Your Grace?" He leaned in closer and whispered, "Please, Emmy! Ivy threatened to dance with me and trod on my toes if I didn't talk to you right now."

She giggled. "All right, my lord."

Harry sighed. "I guess that means I have to dance with Ivy again, don't I?"

"Pretty much."

"The things I do for my friends," he muttered as he stormed past them.

Emerald laughed again, but more nervously now that she and Ebony were alone. Well, not alone. They were in the middle of a ballroom, after all. Still, as their friend left the familiar comfort he gave quickly vanished like the wind. She coughed slightly, for once not knowing at all what to say to him. Inwardly, she quaked, thinking she was about to be confronted about her running off for no real reason. She was saved that, though, when he had a glimpse of her hand. "Is that the ruby ring I gave you?"

"Yes," she replied, turning slightly red. What was wrong with her? He was just asking a simple question, and she was giving an honest answer. "I…um, I wanted to have something that reminded me of my friends."

"Good thing we were all here tonight anyway, right? So you didn't need it."

"I did. I mean…" She turned even redder. It was as if his inquiring eyes were scorching her from inside out. "I thought you weren't going to come. I haven't seen you all night."

"That might have to do with me ducking out of sight whenever I thought you'd look my way," he said, chuckling slightly. "I guess I was a little confused with what happened yesterday." She wanted to turn away and bury her face in her hands, but he just held them tighter, and now she was positively burning. "But if you think I'm letting one little argument keep me from helping you with the dance we've worked and sweated for all year, then you've got the wrong guy, Emerald Navarette. Let's just forget about it for now, okay?" He gave her a winning smile.

"Okay," she said, smiling back.

With that weight off her shoulders, Emerald felt free again, though still a little nervous. This was the last new dance they would do—the rest of the night will be devoted to repeating the party's favourites. Because of the level of difficulty, the Rosen dance was usually skipped over; but tonight, she had to do it. At least, she supposed, she didn't have to do it alone. In the corner of her eye, she saw Azure and Harry stepping in the dance floor; with Ivy dragging two bewildered couples and a random, rather lost boy with her. In front of her was Ebony, her best friend. She had all she truly needed.

So she turned and she twirled and she spun, as the dance demanded, and what do you know, she was good at it. More than good at it. To her absolute surprise, for the first time since she had been practicing for this stupid ball, she was actually having fun dancing. The music and herself wove around each other; she couldn't help but laugh at how she thought she might make a fool of herself. She glanced upwards. Her father was watching her along with Tessa, proud smiles on their faces. Ekanite, who really was too young to stay up this late but didn't care, waved at her. As she twirled outwards, she waved back.

Then came the lift, and suddenly, her laughter died. All her fear slammed back in to her. She tried to keep her outward appearance calm, tried to smile and act nothing was wrong, tried to keep breathing normally. She twisted around and put her hands in Ebony's shoulders, and felt his tighten around her waist, just like she was supposed to. But she wasn't that good of an actor yet. "Emerald," she heard Ebony say to her. "Look at me."

She obeyed.

For a moment, she had to wonder if Master Reynie was back with his hourglass again, because once more, she felt time stop. Her breath caught in her throat. She stared in to those dark, intense eyes, a million emotions and thoughts running through her, and she felt her cheeks growing hot. He'd never looked at her like that before, as if she was the only thing in the world, as if no one and nothing else mattered. For the first time, it wasn't a chess game that was the complete and utter focus of his attention; it was her.

And she was absurdly happy about it.

She was shocked when she realized that the lift – the move that she had been fretting over since the beginning of this entire thing – was over. Just like that. And they had performed it perfectly.

Trying to regain her wits, she smiled pleasantly at the applauding crowd and curtsied. Inside, she had a sinking feeling in her chess.

Finally, she'd figured out exactly what she was feeling when Nimue had pulled Ebony away from her. She had been jealous.

And just why had she been so jealous? A taunting voice in her head asked her.

Why had she been so offensive when Nimue swept in to the room and practically said that Ebony was hers?

Why had she been so mad and hurt and betrayed that she had stormed off without a second thought, despite her needing help from him?

Why had the idea of him concentrating on her and her alone made her feel so exhilarated?

Simple.

She was entirely, absolutely, irrevocably, profusely, and ridiculously in love with Ebony Adonai. Fyora help her.

"Are you okay, Em?" he asked as they walked away from the dance floor. "You feel kind of warm." He pressed a hand on her forehead, giving her another fierce blush, which in turn made him frown. "Yep, definitely warm. Must be all the dancing. Come on, you need some air." He grabbed her arm like he always did and led her out in to the garden. She breathed out, letting the cool night air wash over her. She did feel a little better here. At least no one was watching them anymore. "That wasn't so bad, was it?" His voice betrayed a concerned tone, as if he thought it was his fault she was like this. Well, it was, but not in the way he probably guessed.

"No, not at all!" she said hastily. "It was great. Really! I mean, I can't believe we finally got it right. Just in time, too. For a moment I was panicking over there – and then…" And then he looked at her, and she had the biggest revelation of her life. But he didn't need to know that. "Well…I could honestly say it was the best dance I had in the evening. Really."

He smiled, and then rubbed the back of his neck in an embarrassed way. "Hey, we never really got a chance to talk about what happened yesterday. I've gotta admit…I was kind of confused. I mean, it would've only taken me a few minutes to get rid of her, and we'd be all set again. Then I realized why you were so mad."

"You did?" she asked faintly. Oh, she was so screwed.

"Yep. You were angry because I was using her." He look to the other direction, which was convenient, because he completely missed Emerald's growing smile of ecstasy. "I'm really sorry I didn't explain it to you, but it's not like I have choice in the matter, you know? It's what my dad wants me to do—pretty much what he'd been training me for since I was little." His tone turned bored. "He points to a girl with high social standing, and I charm her and reap the benefits. I know, it isn't really fair, but Em, it isn't like they tried to do the same to me. Even if they weren't doing it for the money, then it'd only be because…"

"Because you're so darn handsome?"

"Exactly!" Then they realized what he just said and burst in to laughter. "What? Can't a guy appreciate his own good looks?"

"Ebony Adonai, I swear, you are the vainest person on Neopia!" Not that she disagreed with him.

"Anyway," he said, regaining his serious tone, "I don't want to do it. If you believe me, I don't like doing it, either. I can't promise I'll stop, though." He looked at her remorsefully. "My dad would start to think something's wrong, and…well, I don't want to lose his approval. I promise I'll try to keep away my girlfriends whenever you're in Brightvale, though."

"So you really don't like Nimue?"

He stared at her. "No! Where'd you get an idea like that?"

"Well, she's pretty…blonde and blue-eyed and all…."

He snorted. "Please. She might look good physically, but come on. I would've thought you'd have a little faith that if I did like someone, it wouldn't be one of those shallow girls."

"You're right. It wouldn't." She frowned, wondering something. "How'd you convince Nimue you liked her, anyway? She may be shallow, but I didn't think she was easily deceived."

"She's not," he said sincerely. "I had a rather tough time getting through her, but in the end, I did. My dad gave me lessons of every kind, remember? Including acting. Turns out I'm a natural at pretending that I'm in love or angry or something like that. Seriously. The guy my dad hired taught me to stutter over things and trip and blush the right way. But if it came to being all aloof and polite and cold, I have a teeny bit more trouble." She chuckled; she exactly the opposite problem—though she had a feeling that acting aloof and cold was going to come in handy for her in the near future. "So…you're not mad at me anymore, right?"

"Nope," she said, smiling from ear to ear.

"Great." He smiled back. Then suddenly, they heard music coming from the inside. "Oh. You probably want to get back to your room now—this must've been exhausting for you." He sighed, his mood quickly whiplashing. "One thing I'm going to miss about this ball; you probably aren't going to go to Brightvale for quite a while again, huh?"

"At least I'll always know I have friends there," she said, holding up her ring. "And I promise to come as soon as I can...and it won't be five years, even if I have to steal my father's bank key and force him to let me come back to do it." She stood up, tugging on his arm. "Besides, the party isn't over yet. Dancing has actually turned out to be kind of fun. And I haven't spent that much time with you at all this evening, so…"

"Do you want to dance again?" he asked, amused. Her grin was all the answer he needed.


Three hundred and sixty-one days later, Ebony Adonai was knocking, rather rudely, on the door to Emerald's room. "Em! Let me in!"

"No."

"Well, come out. We're all worried sick for you."

"I'm fine, Ebony."

"Did you really think I was going to buy that?"

"No, but I expect you to go away and respect my privacy!"

"I did! I've waited outside for days, and you still haven't come out."

"What?" For a moment, there was a pause in their argument. "Sapphire – um, Guinevere – actually let you stay that long?"

"Well…not really allow…." Ebony said furtively. The lady had threatened to have the Uptown guards drag him out; to get around this, he walked out the front door and quickly entered again by climbing up a tree and going through the upstairs window, effectively continuing his siege and running to hide somewhere if he heard Emerald's cousin coming. "That doesn't change that I – we – want you to come out, though."

"Or what? You'll burn my room?"

He winced. He knew that she still wasn't over him burning Charlie's mansion. "Em, come on. We're friends, remember? I thought we promised we'd be honest with each other." There was no answer. He sighed. "It's about your dad, isn't it?"

"Is it that obvious?"

"You got sent back here too soon. With any other topic, you wouldn't mind discussing with me."

"Don't be so sure," she stated flatly, opening the door. He stepped inside, smiling slightly at her old collection of books, board games, and a familiar ruby ring in the corner. Although she had covered it with scarves, he could easily see she had been examining it. All his amusement, however, drained out of him when he saw Emerald's face. Her eyes were puffy, her cheeks red, as if she had been crying. Immediately, he stepped forward and hugged her, fortunately not noticing that her cheeks had turned even redder. "Thanks."

"What happened this time, Emmy?" he asked, sitting on the floor.

She twirled a lock of hair. "He was upset."

"Why? Did you do anything?"

"Not really. Not this time, at least. I was in a carriage with him, going to some meeting or another, when a village boy ran up and said he was going to celebrate my birthday with his grandpa and sister." She looked down. "Then, well, another villager heard it, and said something about me looking just like my mother. Someone else said that they'd love to see me around some more, and a lot of people agreed." She smiled ruefully. "The whole street was practically singing me praises."

"That must've been fun," he remarked, grinning. No matter what she said, he knew she loved compliments, even though she always had to act to ridiculously modest about it. "Where's the bad part?"

"As soon as we got down, my father accused me of conspiring to get myself more favour than my siblings."

"What?"

"That's pretty much what I said." She shook her head in frustration. "I don't need more favour than them! I just want to see the people more often. I made a mistake of telling him so, and he said…" She hesitated. "Oh, never mind. You don't have to hear this."

"Emerald Navarette, spill it or I will personally tell Harry to throw you in the dungeon until you do."

"Harry wouldn't do that."

"Um, yes he would," he said, a knowing tone in his voice.

"Let me rephrase that. He wouldn't do that to me."

"You're probably right. You still have to tell me what happened, though."

"He cancelled the celebration for my sixteenth birthday." She hid her face, not wanting to let him see how hurt she was by this. It's stupid, really. It was just a party—she shouldn't be that upset about it. "Said it was too public for his liking."

"And so he sent you away once more," he said sympathetically.

She nodded. "Why, though?" She stood up and started pacing around the room. "Why? We never get to spend time together, and I just want to get to know the people in my kingdom." She knew that this was a point Ebony and her disagreed on – that she actually cared about her people's welfare – but she ploughed on without interruption. "Marcy and Ekanite are always out and about, and the people adore them. I don't need to have what they do, but that doesn't mean I should be cooped up inside all the time."

"No," he agreed slowly. "It doesn't. I think I have theory about that."

She immediately stopped pacing. "What is it?" she asked eagerly.

"Well…have you ever considered the possibility that he doesn't want the people to like you?"

She stared at him. "What?"

"Just think about it, for a moment. Ekanite is his main heir. On the slight possibility that he dies, Marcy will inherit…but you know that some people challenge that she is a worthy ruler. Some might think that maybe you might be the better alternative."

"That's silly," she denied. "I have no idea how to rule a kingdom."

"You're an excellent leader, though." He smiled. "Had all of us eating out of the palm of your hand when we were kids. And now."

"That's madness, Ebony. I could never rule anything."

"But-"

"Ebony!"

"Fine. But you're just putting yourself down," he muttered. "Either way, he might feel threatened that you might start a rebellion. And Em, I don't know how to say this, but he might be making sure that the people wouldn't miss you too much if you need to be…."

"Be what?"

"Disposed of."

She stared at him numbly as the full meaning of his words became clear. "No!"

"Em, I-"

"He wouldn't do that. He's my father, he wouldn't do that-"

"He's disposed of people he cared about before, you said so yourself-"

"No! This is different."

"He did it to your mother-"

"How did you know that?" she cried, spinning to meet him. He lowered his gaze. "How do you know that? Who've you been listening to? This is just idle gossip. My mother caught an illness in the Tower before the case could be resolved, and-"

"And even if that's the case, he could have sent healers to help her-"

"No! I refuse to believe that. He's my father. He loves me."

He opened his mouth and closed it. If it had been anyone but Emerald – anyone- he would've been glad to disillusion the person. If her father really loved her, why did he send her away? Why did he lock up her mother in the Tower in the first place? For years, he'd observed Em's only living parent, and he didn't like him one bit. He treated Em just like his father did to him; if he wasn't Black's only pride and joy, and if he was still under the notion that his father would care a fig about him if he didn't meet his very ideal of a son. But this was Em, who didn't have many people who really cared about her in Richmond. He couldn't tell her the truth. "Yeah. Sure he does, Emerald."

"Right." She didn't like the sceptical tone of voice. "It must be something else."

"Of course." An awkward silence descended them.

"I suppose you've got what you wanted already?" she asked after a while. "Information. Me opening up."

"Em, what I wanted was to cheer you up. I can see I'm not going to manage that today, though." He leaned close to her, and once again, she was appreciative he couldn't see how red she was becoming. Throughout the last year, she had hoped to catch his attention to something other than a childhood friend; being more forward with him, pulling him away from the group, walking with him alone….and it might have worked, except for two things. One was her ever-frustrating separation and distance between visits.

Second was that it appeared that he really couldn't think of anything other than a friend. He seemed to think of it as a joke; a fun game that she was teasing him with, and one that he willingly played along with. He pretended to mumble shyly. He made himself flush whenever she drew near. Like he said before, he was a marvellous actor. She couldn't – wouldn't – correct him outright, because doing that would put everything in line, including their friendship. Whatever else she might break or give up over the years, she couldn't lose that. Not for anything in the world.

"I'll be back," he whispered in her ear.


"Wakey-wakey, little Miss Sunshine!"

"Go away, Ivy." Emerald stayed in her bed, lying face-down in her pillow.

Ivy tutted. "Tsk, tsk. It's usually Ebony we need an army to wake up, and he rose bright and early for this occasion."

"What occasion?"

"Your sixteenth birthday, of course! And we are going to help you get ready for it," she heard the voice of Cerise say. "Or do we have to bathe you in uni poo?"

"Ugh!" With a moan, Emerald propped herself up on the bed. The Adonai sisters were looking at her with huge smiles. In their hands were various instruments of torture—combs, brushes, earrings... "Guys, you don't have to do this. It's not like I have anything special planned for today."

"But we do," Azure said, turning her around. She inspected her with an artist's eye and nodded. "Okay, let's get you in to shape. We need to brush your hair in to place – wish Violet were here, but Cerise will have to do – get you a suitable dress, but some lipstick on-"

"I refuse to wear makeup," Emerald grumbled, her arms crossed. "Or any jewellery, either."

"What about this?" Cerise said, holding up the ruby ring. "It's very pretty."

"Okay, that," she conceded. "But anything else, no."

Azure looked ready to argue, but Ivy held up her hand. "If that's what'll get the duchess to cooperate, I say we do it."

"Fine by me," Cerise voted. Their older sister groaned, defeated. "Besides, Em doesn't need makeup. Now, let's get you all fancy. You're going to love your birthday present."

What I would love for a birthday present, Emerald thought inwardly, is for someone to convince Hanso to be my ally. It was rather irritating, really, to have to do anything in her power to get a kid years younger than her to be her ally. Just before the last time she visited, Master Reynie popped up and said it'd be much to her advantage if she could get the thief on her side. He had never failed her before, so she took up the challenge; but she had to admit, getting him to trust her was harder than she thought.

She held still as Cerise carefully combed her hair, twining them in to soft ringlets. For a moment, her mind drifted to the memory in which her mother was the one who had done the brushing as they sat on her bed, but she quickly waved it away. Azure was sorting through her clothes, trying to find a nice outfit. She had packed hastily; she had been much too upset to actually choose what she would bring to Brightvale this time, and even if she wasn't, she doubted that she would bring a party gown anyway. Still, the elder Adonai girl managed to scavenge a dress of velvet crimson, which would match her ring perfectly. She also quickly picked out a pair of shoes.

"So what are you going to do?" Emerald asked Ivy, who had been leaning against the wall looking bored the entire time.

"My job," the Wocky girl replied, "Is to get you to smile."

"And how do you propose to do that?"

"Good question," Ivy said, giving Emerald a pair of glasses. "Put them on."

Emerald obeyed, and blinked. Nothing changed. "Ivy, what's it supposed to-Oh!" She took one look at Cerise and Azure, who had glimpsed upwards to see what was going on, and burst in to laughter. Their heads had grown two times their normal sides, making them grow in to bobble-heads.

"I knew it'd work," Ivy said triumphantly. "Mission accomplished. Consider that as my birthday present, 'kay, Emmy?" Emerald took her glasses off, still smiling.

Suddenly, Guinevere/Sapphire's head popped in the doorway. "It's ready."

Harley waved from the hall. "Your ball awaits, milady."

"Brilliant." Cerise grabbed Emerald's hand and began pulling her downstairs.

Emerald laughed, wanting to humour her; but the grin was wiped off her face – replaced by awe – when she saw the ballroom. It was as if someone had transformed the place in to Emerald City. Plants, their finest in the spring, were put inside. Someone replaced the crystal chandelier with an emerald one. Even the cake was shaped like her namesake. She couldn't help but giggle in the irony that, since she was wearing red, she was the most un-emerald thing in the room. "It's beautiful."

"Glad you like it," said a voice next to her.

She smiled at her best friend. "Did you seriously do all of this for me?"

He nodded. "With a little help from Ivy, but all she did pretty much was point to where everything was supposed to go and say 'figure it out for yourself.'"

"Hey, it worked, didn't it?" his cousin said huffily.

"But where did you find the time?" she questioned.

"It's amazing what you could do working through the night with multiple cups of coffee," he told her, stifling a yawn.

"You stayed up all night?" she said with widened eyes.

"Oh, no. I slept around four o'clock."

Emerald glanced at the time now. It was around nine. "What time did you get up today?"

"Six," he said sheepishly. "What? You can't drag me to bed now."

"No, but you can bet I will right after the party."

"Are you going to tuck me in?" he said in an innocent tone. She punched him playfully on the shoulder.

They were interrupted by a voice calling. "Emmy!"

"Harry!" she exclaimed, as he swept her in to a hug. "Dearest! I'm suffocating!" He put her down, but kept smiling. "Let me guess. They let you take the night off?"

"Naturally," he said, bowing to her. "Couldn't miss Emerald's birthday party, now, could I?" He whistled appreciatively as he looked around the room. "I've gotta admit, it's a pretty cool one. Nice job, Adonai." But despite his nice words, Emerald perceived something uneasy going on with her friend. It almost seemed that he was guilty, somehow. He gave her a warm smile and headed towards the food table.

Suddenly, a thought struck her. "Hey, wait a minute," she said to Ebony once Harry was out of earshot. "If Harry could get a night off, couldn't Violet get one too?"

He coughed. "Theoretically, yes. But Em, she doesn't want to be here."

"Oh."

"Not your party," he amended. "The entire neighbourhood. She loathes it here."

She arched an eyebrow. "Did you even ask her?"

"Well…no…."

"Ebony! You're her brother!"

"So?"

"You're impossible," she said, shaking her head.

"But in a brilliant, awesome way, right?" She sighed at him. "Besides, you haven't seen the last guests yet."

He turned her around.

She gasped.

"Father?"

"Happy birthday, Emerald," he said, giving her a small, approving smile.

"But…" Her voice couldn't function properly—she had a lump in her throat. She cleared it. "I thought you weren't going to see me for a long time…"

"I couldn't miss my little gem's birthday party, now, could I?" he said, tucking a strand of her hair on her ear and calling her by her old affectionate nickname. "Perhaps I did overreact. Don't worry, Emerald, you're to come back with me to Richmond later this evening. My, oh my. Sixteen. A young woman already—you'll have suitors come flocking from every kingdom just begging for a chance to win your hand."

"Yeah!" said the familiar voice of her little brother. He bounced up and down, holding on poor Charlie's hand. "You're going to be the most beautifulest lady in the world! With Marcy, 'course." He tugged on Charlie again. "Didja hear him speak yet, Emmy? He talks funny!"

"I certainly do not-" Charlie sighed. "Well, I suppose I do."

"Come and play with me!" the little duke ordered, as dragged Charlie along. Emerald laughed.

Then, music began playing. Emerald smiled as she recognized the tune of the butterfly dance. She felt two strong, large hands take her own. "Care to dance, daughter?" her father asked with a wink. They did—song after song after song. Emerald couldn't stop grinning. It was so sweet of her dad to surprise her like this; and to think that she had almost considered that Ebony had a point yesterday. This was proof, wasn't it, that her father loved her? That he was willing to drop everything and run to her side just for a party?

"May I have a turn, sir?" Harry asked politely.

"Of course," her father said, his face jovial. "Can't keep my Emerald all to myself, now, can I? We'll talk later." He let go of her hands.

"Hey, Harry," Emerald greeted him, trying not to show her irritation. It had been one of the few times that her father had actually chatted with her and listened.

"You having a good time?" he asked.

"Yeah. It was really nice of you guys to do it for me."

"It was mostly Ebony's idea, you know," he said. He was eying her carefully, for some reason. "Just about all of it. He arranged almost everything." He wasn't the most subtle at hinting, unfortunately.

Emerald frowned. "Harry, dearest, is there something you want to say to me?" Her friend might not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he had good instincts in what people needed to know; she had found a long time ago that underneath all that bravado and pushiness, he was a real sweetheart, at least to his friends. She'd trust him with her life—and if he thought something was important, then she knew it was serious.

Harry, for his part, was having an inner battle. "Em, if I tell you, will you promise not to tell Ebony that I did?"

Her eyes widened in surprise. "You know I rarely keep secrets from Ebony."

"I know. I'm not asking you to keep it a secret. Just…don't tell him, okay?"

"Why?"

"Oh, nothing." He kept his head lowered. Earlier that day, Ebony had pulled him aside and warned him in a solemn voice that if he did anything to mar Emerald's birthday he would personally slit his throat, mince his body, feed it to the Koi, fry the Koi, and throw them to the Mystery Island Volcano. Something about him (and the fact that he actually lived in Uptown, where Harry still resided in Christmas) had scared him even worse than Masila. Ebony truly cared about Emerald, like he did. Harry supposed he could have said that warning to everyone else, but he seriously doubted it—everyone else knew to keep their mouths shut.

But if there's one thing Harry knew, it's that no good came out of thinking that his parents adored him when they didn't. They took pride in his accomplishments. They lavished him with any gift they wanted…except their company. They considered him their trophy son. Although he was slow to pick up on things, observing Em for years showed that she didn't even have that. Her father had Ekanite, a boy, and Marcy, the elder half-sister. Emerald, whether she knew it or not, was mostly ignored. Sent away. Locked up like some dirty secret.

His parents had been more blatant than others in not wanting him around. When he was a kid, he was pretty hurt by it, but within hindsight, it'd come in useful. When he had to make a big decision, where it really mattered, he didn't bother to take their approval in to account. He didn't care.

Em, though…it'd been clear from the way how she looked at her father, how she ignored even Ebony as she waltzed with her parent, that she absolutely worshipped him. And in turn, Harry could see a man putting on a pleasant façade of actually caring what she had to say. If she needed to do something, truly and really needed to do something, and if it did anything to take away her father's favour or if he gave her a clear no, she would stop immediately, no matter what the cost to herself was. He couldn't let that happen.

That didn't mean he wasn't scared of the Adonai boy.

"Okay, Harry," she said, her curiosity getting the better of her. "I won't tell Ebony unless he asks. Fine?"

"Fine." He gulped nervously. "Your dad didn't come here of his own choice." Before he could chicken out, he blurted the whole thing in hushed whispers. "It was Ebony's idea, really. He got the address from Sapphire—um, Guinevere, but instead of sending it to a secretary or something, he sent it directly to your little brother. We already knew that your father did anything your brother wanted. By some miracle, it got there. Ebony promised the little guy a bag of candy if he managed to get your dad here by today. And, what do you know," he said, gesturing towards Ekanite, who was munching on some chocolates. "He did." He turned to her, worried. "Em? Are you all right?"

"I-I'm fine," she lied, stumbling back. It was then that the truth hit her like a ton of bricks. She should have known. She should've known from the very beginning. Her father never did anything like this without provocation, and even her closest friends knew that he had to get it from his pride and joy before he'd even consider it. She swallowed, trying to assess things rationally in her head, but it was no use. She closed her eyes and slumped against the wall.

Harry was glancing around nervously. If Adonai took one look at the two of them and saw that Emerald was upset, Harry had no doubt that he would put two and two together and make good on his promise. Right then, he would've given anything – anything! – to have a chance to take back his words. But damn it, he spoke without thinking again. He'd delivered one of the worst news possible to one of his best friends. In a party. On her sixteenth birthday. He wanted to bang his head against the wall and moan about what an idiot he was.

"I suppose I really should have known," she murmured softly. He turned to look at her. "He doesn't really love me at all, does he?"

Harry bit his lip, trying to come up with a good answer. In the end, he settled for squeezing her hand gently. "We do. Don't you forget it, Miss Duchess."

And she had to smile, because he was holding the hand that had the ruby ring in it. The one that symbolized exactly what he said. Then he coughed and let go, probably having enough mushiness for the day. She knew oh so well that it was hard for him to handle too many warm fuzzies. So instead, she just told him before going off by herself, "Thanks, Harry. And dearest, if Miss Woods doesn't go out with you, then I just have to say that it's her loss." She left him standing there, opening and closing his mouth like the Koi Ebony threatened to feed him to.

In truth, she was not all upset at this new revelation. She felt strangely relieved, all of a sudden, as if she was a bird and something that had been clipping her wings had just fallen off. Oh, she knew she still needed her father's favour. She promised her mother that she'd try to keep it, didn't she? Yet now she understood what her mom really meant; she would need the favour, but she didn't really have to care about it. Because, no matter what, her father was never going to love her as much as Marcy or Ekanite. He would never love her as much as her own mother did. And that was…fine.

She had her friends, the ones who'd always been there when she needed them, the ones who held her up and pointed the way when she felt so utterly lost. She did feel sad about the disillusionment – after all, her father's approval was a main driving force in her life in her previous sixteen years – but the desperate need for it was already ebbing away. Bittersweet, really, to find this out now.

It was time to focus on the people she really did matter to, without worrying about what her dad thought.

She smiled. This could be kind of fun.

"Hey, Em!" She turned around to see Ebony walking towards her. He still looked slightly sleepy; but it'd seem he had recently gotten an extra cup of coffee, because he was still standing. "You okay? You looked kind of funny when you were walking away from Harry." Suddenly, he stood up straight. "Did he say anything upsetting to you?"

"Not really," she replied. "Just a few observations he had about my family, is all."

"…Oh. That's okay then." He yawned.

"Ebony, go to sleep. I'll be fine."

"But it's your birthday. I should be here for you."

"You've always been there for me," she said, barely above a whisper. For a second, she thought he hadn't heard her.

Then he smiled. "What are friends for?"

There it was, that word again. Friends. She tried not to let that bother her (friends was good) and grabbed him by the shoulders, steering him. "Come on. We're going to sing happy birthday, we will eat cake, and then you're going to your room and take a good, long nap. I will personally escort you to you there, Mr Adonai."

"Oh?" A sly chuckle came from his throat. "And what are you planning to do in my room, Miss Navarette?"A rush of heat flushed in her cheeks, and she shoved him. He held up his hands in surrender. "Kidding! Kidding! Jeez, Emmy, I'm half-asleep. Take it easy on me."

"Sort of hard, with you being so annoying."

"Yeah, yeah." He grinned at her. "We've sure grown up a lot, huh? Seemed just like yesterday when I was dragging you to my house for cookies."

"It was brownies."

"You sure?"

"Yep."

"Gah. The lack of sleep's getting to my brain. Better go before I start raving like a lunatic." He took her arm, like he always did, and they ran off.

It was time for a new adventure to begin.


A/N: I hope you've enjoyed this super-long chapter, because I will now take a short break from writing HJ; so prepare yourself for a wait. The song above is "White Houses" by Vanessa Carlton. By the way, this is not a songfic. I just added that to put in the mood, and the lyrics on the first verse matched, not the other way around.

To be honest, it was kind of a last minute decision. I was going to put in "Happy Birthday, Sweet Sixteen" by Neil Sedaka (I mean, come on! It was created in what, 1992, and it had 'teenage dream' in it. Plus, I danced to it when I was little). But I decided it wouldn't fit 'cause it was so cheery. If you have time, though, you should give it a listen in Youtube.

This overlaps with Hanso's week 1, by the way.