"Happy birthday, daughter mine."

Elodie turned the large package over, but the gentle rustling from inside gave no indication of its contents. She smiled dutifully at her father and undid the ribbon.

"A dress. How . . . beautiful, Father."

"Not as beautiful as you are, my dear." His eyes were bright with pride. "I thought you might like something new and pretty to wear, rather than that black . . . trousers . . . outfit . . . thing . . . you insist on parading about in. I'm worried people might get the wrong idea."

Elodie suppressed a sigh. "What idea would that be, Father? That I'm intelligent? That I value learning things? That I know how to pay attention to the world around me?"

"That you're deucedly unladylike, that's what!" The king suddenly seemed to realize he was standing. He sank back into his chair, pressing his thumb and forefinger to the bridge of his nose. "Elodie dearest, I know life has been difficult since you returned home from school. And I . . . appreciate that you have a hunger for learning. Even if your favored educational topics are, shall we say, a bit unusual for a young lady. But life isn't all about sneaking around the castle, pretending to spy on our guests, and imagining intrigue around every corner. Your role is to be a delicate flower, a centerpiece in court life, not the wild ivy creeping up the castle walls."

The ivy is a lot more interesting, Elodie thought. What good was a flower, anyway? If it couldn't be crushed into a poison or harvested for dye, it was just one more object cluttering up the hallways until it turned brown and shriveled. And she was damned if she was going to shrivel before she absolutely had to.

But beyond that, her father was wrong. Elodie had figured that out the first time she noticed the Ixionite delegation wasn't at the castle for a mere friendly visit. She started paying more attention, then, and learned how rarely courtiers actually suited their intentions to their promises. Almost never, actually - politics was never a game for the slow-witted.

But people like her father would never see that. Elodie fingered the pale silk sleeve of the boxed dress and inwardly sighed. He would never admit she was capable of anything more than ornamentation, purely because she was female, no matter how much intrigue she learned.

The secondary ramification hit her as well - he would never admit any lady could be more than decorative. Which meant he was in constant danger from spies and assassins from all corners of the world, as long as they were female. Just as importantly, he refused to believe that female "visitors" to the court could be there for any except purely personal reasons - if they negotiated deals right under his nose, he'd never notice.

Elodie glanced back up at her father, who was watching her caress his present. She grudgingly forced her face into the semblance of a smile and tried to lower her shoulders so she looked contrite. "I'm sorry, Father," she lied. "This is a gorgeous dress, and of course I will be proud to wear it. I didn't realize my studies were causing such a problem."

He harumphed. "Far be it from me to make you unhappy, daughter dearest. I just . . . want you to start thinking about your future."

Oh, but I am. I have to. "Of course. Thank you for the beautiful gift."