"Haven't you heard?"

"Prince Edward's run off!"

Rumor engulfed Damcyan castle like a great wave on the sea.

"He was supposed to play at the Council of Meeting," the King said, furrowing his brow. He leaned out of the window, squinting into the bright light of the desert at high noon. The landscape around the castle was dotted with tents and wagons, although most of the people below were sensibly staying out of the sun.

"So we'll find someone else. I counted four minstrel troupes arriving over the past few days." The Queen of Damcyan, sitting in a high-backed chair, fanned herself gently. "Surely they have at least one passable musician between them."

"That is not the point," said the king, sighing. "The point, which you seem to be purposefully missing, is that our son has up and wandered off less than a week before he was supposed to hear the grievances of his subjects."

The Queen smiled and tapped her fan against her painted lips. "You know Edward is terrible at being impartial."

"Well, perhaps he should learn. He is the crown prince, despite his best efforts to the contrary."

Another caravan crested the dunes, trailing bright green flags. "The northern nomads have arrived," the Queen remarked. "Word has it that one of their oases has gone fallow. They'll be wanting the Crystal's blessing, I'll expect."

"Stop changing the subject!" the King snapped, rounding on his wife and tossing a piece of parchment onto her lap. "Look at this! It's a scandal!"

The Queen of Damcyan unrolled the piece of paper carefully. It was dented here and there by the angry imprint of the King's fingers, but it was clearly Edward's handwriting, neat and sharp as always. It was a brief letter - little more than a farewell and an assurance that he would be back with a wider knowledge of the world - but it had a stiff precision to it, as though Edward had written and re-written it to make sure every word was in order.

"Scandal?" the queen said, arching one thin eyebrow. "Possibly. But what do you think they'd be saying about Edward if he were here?" She opened her fan with a snap of elegant paper and ivory, gesturing broadly. "The same thing they always say: nothing. And now? I overheard two nobles from the borderlands talking about him on the stairs not a few hours ago. They called him the heir of Queen Farrah the Songbird."

"Queen Farrah the Songbird," the King said, "died of desert fever five years into her reign and left Damcyan with an empty treasury."

"That's not what the people remember. They remember that there was peace in the desert under a queen with a beautiful singing voice. And besides," the Queen said, her voice softening, "they've always said there was fire in the bloodline of Damcyan. Maybe he'll find a nice, sensible consort from one of hill tribes"

"Like you did?" the King asked quietly, and the Queen only smiled.

"Let me see the letter!" the kitchen maid said, peering over her friend's shoulder. The little maid, her black hair held back in a kerchief, held up the hastily copied parchment and took a deep breath.

"To Mother and Father: Greetings," she began, affecting a broad parody of a noble's measured speech.

"Shhh!" hissed the kitchen maid, between barely suppressed giggles. "We're not supposed to have a copy. The steward would have a fit if she knew!"

Prince Edward's sudden disappearance was supposed to be a secret, so naturally, everyone in the castle had heard. Edward's letter had been handed over to the head scribe to determine that it was not a forgery by kidnappers; almost immediately afterward, some enterprising young clerk in the archives with a sense of humor to match his quick penmanship had made multiple copies and dispersed them liberally throughout palace staff and visiting subjects alike.

"Greetings," the young maid continued, in a slightly lower tone. "No doubt by the time you read this, I will be well on my way. Please, I beg of you, spare no worried thoughts on my account - I am traveling incognito, with nothing upon my person but my harp. I will sing for my room and board and so come to know the people whom I am to rule by wandering like a common nomad..." The girl trailed off, and sighed. "Don't you think that sounds romantic?"

The kitchen maid, who was a few years older than her friend and had seen her share of young men who ran off without warning, only shrugged. "He is rather handsome, I suppose," she admitted. "And they say he's a fine harper, but I've never heard him play."

"Prince Edward? A fine lad! Won't hear a word against him!" The broad-faced, red-haired man said, leaning on his sword - a heavy, jagged thing that looked as though it could shatter the thin, quick blades of the palace guards into splinters. The footman shifted his grip on his pike...for all that the red-haired man wore the livery of the the Royal House of Damcyan, he had still once been Wildfire Jack, scourge of the dunes from here to the southern road. "He saved my life!" Jack said, grinning through his coarse beard. "Begged for me to be spared from the headsman's axe, pretty as you like." The footman said nothing, and Jack seemed to take this as a signal to continue. "A letter of marque is a good sight better than a hanging, eh?" Jack seemed to like reminding the guards of his official position. It had been a while since Damcyan had taken on privateers, after all, and though they weren't at war with anyone in particular, he played his part in keeping bandits off the trade routes - and, though you wouldn't know it to look at him, Jack was an expert in forgery and had a particular nose for false royal seals.

"I thought," said one of the other guards slowly, "that just yesterday you were calling the Crown Prince a sentimental idiot." His companion shifted awkwardly; it simply wasn't good to speak like that about the Prince.

"Aye, that too," said the privateer. "Damned sentimental, and a damned idiot, and that seems like the best sort of Crown Prince to have as far as my neck is concerned."

The circulation of the copy letters caused a minor stir in the official archives, and several of the younger scribes were threatened with tanned hides and arduous paperwork, but no culprit could be unearthed. The copyist had taken pains to hide any idiosyncrasies in his work, and the clerks all kept their secrets close. In the absence of an obviously guilty party, the head archivist angrily assigned every junior clerk a letter in the Royal Dictionary of Classical Damcyani and stormed off to the library for a strong cup of coffee and some quiet.

Three visiting scholars who had crossed all the way from Kaipo had already made their way into the library. Someone was supposed to have been shooing people out of the library, but scholars were particularly incorrigible people and, the head archivist reminded himself grimly, he had been busy berating all of his apprentices in the back room, so there was no one left to man the door.

The youngest of the three, who still looked to be well over thirty, sat with a book balanced on his knees - not one of the royal library's books, but a large and ancient thing bound in purple leather. One of the other two was stroking his beard, apparently deep in thought, and the last one - a bald-face old man with a face like a dried apricot - was running his stick-like fingers across the spines of the library's collection of epics.

"Well, it should hardly be surprising!" the head archivist heard the wrinkled old scholar exclaim as he passed by with little more than a polite nod. He was quite anxious to get some real privacy, and had settled on retiring to his office. "All the old poems are really just history dressed up in pretty words. And you know what the poems say about the royal line of Damcyan."

"Fire in the blood," the young scholar said, and the head archivist closed the heavy oaken door.