Author’s Note: This story is set between The Queen of Ielfaria and The Queen of Rhodia. 
Rating: G
Content Warnings: None

The Gift

IT WAS NEARLY midwinter, and Adale and Esofi still were not married yet.

Under ordinary circumstances, Adale would be upset by this. But the last eight months had been filled with so much activity that she had barely noticed the time fly past until one morning she woke to the sight of servants fastening sweet-smelling pine boughs to all the doorways.

Esofi spent much of her time at the Temple of Talcia, helping the newly-blessed Ieflarian mages learn to control their gifts. Construction on what would someday be the University was underway, though the builders had halted at the season’s first heavy snow.

Adale had not been idle these last few months, either. She was spending more time shadowing her parents, watching them handle Ieflaria’s most pressing issues. At first, Adale had been terrified that she would be unable to grasp what was happening. But she was pleasantly surprised to find that she was a much better learner in practical situations than she was in a school-room. And while memorizing laws and facts were important, understanding people was equally crucial to a regent’s duties.

Though the matter of their betrothal was settled, and a wedding date had been set for the spring, Adale and Esofi still lived apart. Adale was fairly certain nobody would object if they moved into their new rooms together a bit early, but Esofi was insistent that nothing happen until after the wedding. Apparently this was a Rhodian tradition.

Esofi also had custody of Carinth, the baby dragon she had been given to raise last spring. He was now about the size of a very large cat. He did not breathe fire yet, or fly, or speak, but he had a very distinct little personality nevertheless. He was curious and outgoing, and known to follow around the kitchen staff as they transported trays of food, or climb on the shoulders of nobles to sniff at their jewelry, or even steal silverware directly off the table. Despite Esofi’s best efforts, it seemed impossible to prevent him from his instinctive hoarding behavior.

And he liked Adale, too. Adale was not certain if he saw her as his mother as he so clearly did Esofi, but she’d commissioned a special saddle with a little bucket on one side so he could go riding with her. She had not taken him on a hunt yet—Esofi insisted that he was too young—but he liked it very much when they galloped through the sunny forests at full speed, his odd leathery wings unfurling to catch the wind, eyes nearly closed.

Adale did not exactly feel like his mother. Or rather, she had no idea what a mother was meant to feel like. All Adale could say was she still felt like herself. Yes, she had more responsibilities and less free time, but she did not think she had lost or gained any core personality traits—or so she hoped.

She had not yet worked up the courage to ask anyone if she was doing it correctly. Privately, she was afraid to hear the answer.

BUT FAR MORE important than the approach of midwinter was Esofi’s birthday. It was only a week or so away when Adale found herself going over gift ideas with Daphene and Lethea. While they were good friends, their skills as waiting-ladies left something to be desired. They lounged in front of the fireplace, crumbs in their hair and wine spilled down their necks, while Adale tried desperately to squeeze some suggestions out of them.

“Just get her a dress or something. You know she likes those,” said Lethea.

“She has enough dresses. She has enough things. And anything she doesn’t have, she can just go out and get herself. I want to give her something special.”

“It’ll be special because it’s from you,” said Daphene, though she sounded a bit uncertain. “Right?”

“Maybe,” Adale said. Still, she did not want to give Esofi a predictable gift for her first birthday in Ieflaria. She wanted it to be remarkable, just as Esofi was.

“This is ridiculous. Just ask her what she wants!” said Lethea.

“No! There’s nothing romantic about that.”

“That’s right. I forgot you’re in love!” crowed Lethea, and both waiting-ladies doubled over with laughter. Adale picked up the nearest pillow and began to beat her with it, which only made them laugh harder.

She ought to have known she’d have a better chance of getting a good answer out of one of the gods than Daphene or Lethea. But really, she did not blame them for not understanding. They still lived in a world of parties and hunts and freedom. And while Adale still liked all of those things, she sometimes had the odd impression that she had aged significantly in the last few months while her friends had not.

ADALE AND ESOFI spent time together nearly every day. Best of all were the days when neither of them had any major obligations and they could walk through the frosty gardens arm in arm and then, once they were too cold to remain outdoors any longer, sit curled before the fire with enormous mugs of spiced mead.

(Carinth was always happy to sit by the fire, but he hated the snow and cold winter air more than anything he had ever encountered in his life. If he detected that someone was attempting to bring him outside, he would scamper off and sulk in one of his favorite hiding spots for hours.)

But sometimes they could only find one another at the very end of the day and were too tired to do anything but sit quietly in one another’s presence, both lost in their own thoughts but content in one another’s nearness.

That particular evening, the servants had brought out some chocolate desserts for the princesses, tiny cakes decorated with thick, heavy frosting. Chocolate was a bit of a luxury, coming all the way from southern Hedoqua on merchant ships, so when Esofi only took a few unenthusiastic bites and then pushed the plate aside, Adale was surprised.

“It’s not good?” she asked.

“Oh no, I’m sure it’s fine,” said Esofi. “It’s just…I’m afraid I’m not in the mood for it tonight. I hope they’re not insulted.”

“Did something happen today?” Adale frowned. “With the mages, or…one of your waiting-ladies?” If it was one of Esofi’s ladies, Adale could guess precisely which one had caused the trouble. In Adale’s opinion, Lexandrie had a personal vendetta against seeing Esofi happy. If they’d quarreled, Adale would suggest that Esofi send her home.

But Esofi shook her head. “No, nothing like that. It’s…don’t laugh, but—”

“I never would!”

“—back home, we had these…I’m not sure what you’d call them, but they were a kind of soft merengue biscuit, and they came in all different flavors. I tried to describe them to the kitchen staff, but I’m afraid they’d never heard of it. I’ve been craving them so terribly lately, I can hardly enjoy anything else.”

Carinth clearly had no such qualms, and Esofi had to pick the plate up and hold it out of his reach to keep him from swallowing the entire cake in one bite. He could eat chocolate with no ill effects, but he spent a significant percentage of his day trying to get free food out of everyone he encountered. Esofi was worried that he’d manage to become too round to fly.

“I wonder if anyone sells them in Birsgen?” asked Adale.

“If they do, I can’t find them. Maybe I should post a reward. Or write to our ambassador and ask him to bring me some.”

“Won’t they be stale by the time they get here?”

“I expect so, but I would still eat them.” Esofi sighed. “Of all the silly things to be homesick for!”

“I don’t think it’s silly at all,” Adale said seriously. “I can’t imagine leaving Ieflaria forever, to live in a nation of foreigners. Maybe I’d just run away instead.”

Esofi laughed. “You make it sound so bleak! I love it here. I wouldn’t want to go home, even if I could. I promise. If the only thing I have to complain about is an absence of pastries, I can consider myself more fortunate than most people in this world.”

“Even so, I’d like to find some for you.”

“Well, I would be impressed if you managed it, but it is not critical. Nobody ever died from lack of pastries.”

Carinth made a plaintive noise.

“Not even dragons,” said Esofi, touching a fingertip to the end of his nose. In response, Carinth licked her hand. Adale smiled and said no more about it for the rest of the night. But privately, she was beginning to concoct a plan.

THE MORNING OF Esofi’s birthday dawned bright and clear. Adale had been hoping to sleep in so that she would be fully rested for the celebration that her parents were hosting in the evening, but her ambitions were quashed when Queen Saski stormed into Adale’s room only a few hours after dawn and threw back the curtains.

“Where have you been?” demanded Saski as Adale moaned and tried to cover her face with her pillow. “You’ve been missing for days! I’ve had soldiers out searching for you! You might have at least told us you returned last night! We thought—”

“What? That I’d run off?” Adale sat up slowly and rubbed at her eyes. “I told you I’d be back in time.”

“Show me what you’re planning to wear tonight. And I got you something to give Esofi.”

Adale lifted her head, still squinting a little. “What?”

“A present, for her birthday,” said Saski. “I knew you wouldn’t remember, so I—”

“I didn’t forget!” Adale said hotly. “And I’m offended you think I did!”

Saski paused. She seemed to be taking a terribly long time to comprehend what she’d been told. “You got Esofi a gift?”

“Yes! And it’s better than whatever you bought her!”

“Well, what is it, then?”

“You’ll see it when I give it to her.”

“Adale, you must tell me. I don’t want you to give her something inappropriate.”

“It’s not, Mother!”

Saski inhaled sharply. “You are lucky I don’t have the time to argue with you this morning. But if you offend her, I’m selling that stallion of yours to the first merchant to cross my path.”

Adale rolled her eyes. “It will be fine.”

“It had better be. Now come along, I had a new dress commissioned for you.”

“Why did you ask me what I was planning to wear if you—” Adale realized that attempting to inject some sense into the proceedings was probably a waste of time. She sighed heavily and pulled herself out of bed. There would be no sleeping late today.

ESOFI HAD NOT requested a party, but of course Dietrich and Saski would not allow her to do without one. Especially not after everything that had happened last spring.

When Adale entered the ballroom, she saw that Esofi was seated at the center of it, dressed in one of her famous Rhodian gowns. This one was a surprisingly dark shade of pink silk and decorated with greenish-blue bows and cream-colored lace. Surrounding her was a veritable mountain of presents. Every time someone brought her something new, a footman noted it down on a long roll of parchment.

Her waiting-ladies were on either side of her, Lexandrie looking around at everything critically and Mirielle smiling her usual bright smile. There was no sign of Lisette, but Adale was quickly coming to understand that this did not mean she was not present.

Adale paused to appreciate the quantity of presents. She was certain she had never received so many gifts in her life, not even when she came of age. But then, Adale had never killed a dragon. So perhaps she had not earned it.

The dress Adale’s her mother had commissioned was fine, though she still thought one of her older dresses would have been perfectly acceptable. It was emerald green trimmed in gold, and sewn from a warm, thick fabric. Adale had been afraid she’d hate it, but it was very close in style to the other dresses she frequently wore, and extremely comfortable. She’d even allowed her mother to talk her into a strand of pearls and a matching hairpiece.

Adale moved purposefully through the crowd. When Esofi spotted her, her face lit in a smile.

“Adale!” she cried. “Where have you been? You’ve been missing nearly a week! You didn’t say you’d be gone so long!”

“I’m sorry,” said Adale, stepping forward to press a kiss to Esofi’s hand. “I thought I’d be back sooner. Where’s Carinth?”

“Oh, probably eating everything in sight…” Esofi peered around the room, then appeared to give up. “He missed you too, you know. He kept going down to the stables to look for you. I promised him you’d be back soon, but I’m not sure he understood.”

“I’ll go find him and apologize.”

“But where have you been? Not even your parents seemed to know. I was starting to wonder if I should send Lisette after you.”

“No, no, I wasn’t in any danger,” Adale smiled. “But there is someone I’d like you to meet.”

She stepped aside, allowing Esofi a clear view of the woman she’d brought with her. Her hair was carefully braided and she was dressed in the nicest gown Adale could get her on such short notice, but it was clear from the wonder in her face that she was not accustomed to attending birthday parties for princesses. Over one arm, she held a woven basket covered by a white cloth.

“Esofi, this is Mistress Emilienne Fournier,” said Adale. “Formerly of Rho Dianae, now of Lirsbek.”

“Oh,” said Esofi, as the woman curtsied deeply. “It is very nice to meet you, Mistress.”

“Emilienne left Rhodia five years ago, and has been working at an inn in Lirsbek ever since. But she has agreed that she will come to Birsgen after the new year, to serve in the palace,” explained Adale.

There was still a fair bit of confusion in Esofi’s face, so Adale added, “And as proof of her skills, she has been up since dawn preparing some traditional Rhodian foods…”

As she said these words, Emilienne pulled back the fabric covering her basket, to reveal an assortment of soft-colored pastries.

Esofi screamed, hands flying to her mouth—but it was a scream of pure happiness. Triumph flowed through Adale’s veins, glorious and golden, and could not keep down a grin. A moment later, Esofi was out of her seat and hugging Adale so tightly that she was afraid her spine might snap.

“Are you crying?” Adale teased.

Esofi swiped at her eyes. “No!” She giggled. “Give me just a moment to finish receiving everyone. I won’t be more than five minutes, so don’t you dare leave!”

“I’ll find Carinth,” Adale said, stepping back. She turned to the Rhodian woman she had found. “Mistress, did you want to stay, or…?”

Emilienne glanced around the room, then shook her head. “It’s too much,” she whispered. “I’m going to faint.”

“Let’s get you out of here, then,” Adale laughed, and began steering her towards the door. “Do you remember the way to your room?”

“I think so.”

“If you don’t, have someone show you.” Adale lowered her voice. “And thank you again for coming here on such short notice. This means so much to both of us.”

“Oh, it’s an honor,” said Emilienne. “And…I know what it’s like to feel homesick. I’m glad I can help.”

Adale supposed the amount of money she’d offered Emilienne had also made the decision a bit easier, but she did not ruin the mood by mentioning it.

Once Emilienne was gone, Adale looked around the room again, searching for a little bundle of blue scales. She decided she’d check near the food first. No doubt he was taking advantage of his lack of supervision.

But before Adale was halfway there, someone took her by the arm. Adale turned and looked into her mother’s face.

“I don’t understand.” Saski shook her head incredulously. “How did you do it? How did you ever find her?”

“The census reports.” Adale rubbed her eyes. “It wasn’t my first choice. I tried the battlemages before that. The ones Esofi brought with her from Rhodia. But not one of them knew the first thing about cooking. Said they’d spent their entire lives in the University, or the Temple, and always had servants to prepare their meals.”

“So you went to the census?” marveled Saski.

“There is a Rhodian man living here in Birsgen, but he works as a smith and says he can’t boil water without burning it, let alone bake specialty foods. And a woman in Valenleht, but she was so old that I don’t even think she understood what I was asking. And then I found Emilienne.”

“All the way in Lirsbek? I am surprised you made it back in time.”

“I was afraid we might not. I haven’t slept properly in nearly a week,” Adale added pointedly, hoping her mother would get the message.

“Well, I am impressed,” said Saski. “And I apologize for doubting you.”

Adale shrugged. “I don’t blame you. Not really.”

“No, that’s not fair,” said Saski. “I should not be treating you like an irresponsible child. Since Esofi’s arrival here, you’ve proved yourself capable of growth and change. I should strive to remember that more frequently.”

Adale was not sure what to say to that, so she just looked down at the floor and shrugged again.

“Adale!” That was Esofi, free of her gifts and smiling radiantly. “There you are! Come dance with me!”

“All right, all right!” Adale laughed. “I haven’t found Carinth yet, though.”

“He’ll turn up once he realizes you’re back,” predicted Esofi, pulling Adale close. “I’ve asked the musicians to play something spirited, so I hope you’re not too tired.”

“I think I can manage,” said Adale, and it was true. Esofi’s happiness was invigorating.

“I hope you don’t think I’m ungrateful,” said Esofi. “But you’ve set a very high standard for yourself, and now I can’t help wonder what you’re planning on giving me at midwinter.”

“Whatever I’ve got in my pockets at the time,” said Adale.