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Bitter Sweet

What can a princess do when Prince Charming isn't?

Vevina started out like any fairy tale princess, with a christening and a magical gift and betrothed to a handsome prince from a neighboring country. The only thing she had to worry about was the typical witch or evil enchanter appearing when she turned eighteen.

Then Fallon, her Prince Charming, revealed he was anything but charming. His plots stole nearly everything and everyone Vevina loved, and he tried to make the rest of the world think it was her fault. There was only one thing to do, and that was to beat Fallon at his own game and reveal his lies to the whole world. With the aid of a friendly spirit and the magical healer, Ambrose, Vevina disguised herself and headed into Fallon's country.

But as her teacher warned her, using the enemy's tactics led to complications that even magic might not be able to cure.

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Michelle L. Levigne

Michelle Levigne has lived most of her life in Ohio, on the North Coast. She started writing her own stories in junior high, when she couldn't find the books she wanted to read in the library and didn't have enough money to buy out the bookstore. Her first professional sale was in conjunction with the Writers of the Future contest.

Her first place winning story, "Relay," appears in Writers of the Future Volume VII. Between that publication and the release of her first novel, Heir of Faxinor, she wrote and published more than forty short stories and poems in fan fiction, ranging between "Star Trek," "Beauty & the Beast," "The Phoenix," "Highlander," "Starman," "V" and "Stingray." This included a brief foray into fan publishing with the 4-issue fanzine "Starwheel."

She has a BA in theater/English from Northwestern College and an MA in communications/film from Regent University. Published titles explore mythology, epic fantasy, and futuristic adventures.

Reviews

A heartwarming, magical journey.

bestselling author Erin McCarthy

A truly magical story, of a courageous and very human heroine, honorable heroes, despicable villains, the power of love and the triumph of good over evil. Not to be missed.

bestselling author Rosemary Laurey
Excerpt

King Fallon of Stonemount did not want to come to Princess Vevina's wedding. He grumbled to everyone who listened -- most of them in fear -- that it was indecent of her to marry so quickly after their betrothal was broken. No one thought to remind him that he had ridden to North Ambron before his courier had even left for Westerland to seek Princess Fiona's hand in marriage, and brought her home with him as his bride less than two weeks later.

Those who remembered that little fact and kept silent were either his loyal supporters or terrified of him. Or, like Fiona, too enamored of the king and the romance of the entire story to complain.

He tried to start a few rumors that Vevina had been unfaithful to him and was likely already pregnant with Aralt's child, but for some reason the stories never spread far beyond his own circle of cronies. Most of those who tried to spread the rumors twisted the story so that Vevina had secretly eloped with Aralt to avoid marriage to Fallon, and that she had broken the betrothal first and he had swept Fiona off her feet in reaction to it.

Fallon couldn't allow stories like that to continue. He contented himself with the adoration in Fiona's pale eyes and dreamed up ideas for petty revenge against Westerland in general, Vevina and Aralt and Conroy in particular. Conroy, Fallon knew, had to be the instigator in the whole affair. Aralt, Captain of the Guards and Lord General of the armies of Westerland, was the crown prince's best friend. Vevina, Fallon also knew, didn't have the awareness or wit to think of falling in love with anyone but her betrothed.

King Fallon grumbled quietly and tried his hardest to be pleasant when his sweet bride got swept up in the wedding festivities. He almost looked forward to the trip simply because Fiona was so excited. She was a sweet thing and adored him and he did enjoy pleasing her. He contented himself with knowing that his bride was the most beautiful woman in the surrounding ten kingdoms.

Until Vevina emerged from the palace gates into the garden where the wedding took place.

She glowed. She shimmered. Light flooded from her face and green-gold magic radiated from her so brightly her elegantly simple white gown and her bouquet and crown of white roses almost vanished. Every man attending the wedding sat up a little straighter or stood a little taller. Every heart gave a thump of wistful wondering that no one had ever looked at him or at her the way Vevina looked at Aralt, standing with the priest and Conroy and King Ailfrid and Queen Ailisa.

Fallon ground his teeth and felt his stomach try to turn inside out as he realized that Vevina would have looked at him that way if he hadn't turned away. He looked at white-blonde Fiona and for a moment his sparkling, pale wife was a washed-out little thing compared to golden, glowing Vevina with her red-gold hair hanging in curls nearly to her ankles and her green-blue eyes shining and huge and bright with dreams.

Her lips were soft pink and pursed in a smile she couldn't repress even in the most solemn moments of the ceremony. Fallon knew with stomach-turning certainty those lips would have been sweet and eager on the wedding day he had cancelled, and only a short time ago those lips had been reserved for his pleasure alone. Fiona had giggled and twitched away nervously the first few times he took her into his arms. Bridal nerves had been charming, but not for long, and he grew weary of being tender and patient long before he had any satisfaction. Vevina, Fallon suddenly knew, would have been eager from the first kiss. No ridiculous coaxing. No swallowing of angry scolding. No tears to endure. Laughter and eagerness and passion.

And now Aralt would have it all. Fallon could kill him for that alone.

Vevina was Aralt's. Fallon hated the man now as much as he hated Conroy since they were boys, wrestling in these very gardens. He tried to tell himself that the man was only picking up his throwaways, that Vevina had been too flawed to make a proper queen. He tried to tell himself that Aralt didn't have the wit to realize he wasn't marrying a proper princess.

Aralt had stolen her love away from Fallon. Aralt had tricked that filthy, simpleton princess into betraying her betrothal. It was the only possible way Fallon could think of for her to be so happy right this moment with her simple wedding and commoner-born bridegroom. She was a silly child and would have adored him, done everything he asked, used her plantwise gift solely for his service -- and he had thrown it away.

For two agonizing seconds, Fallon considered the idea that he might have been a fool. No, he decided instantly. He was not the fool. Fools were those who thought the adoration would last, who looked at their brides with such glowing, bedazzled eyes, vowing themselves to slavery through their hearts. Fiona looked at him the same way, he knew, but that was different. Wives were supposed to worship their husbands. Besides, he had made her a queen. And someday, if he was lucky, their sons would sit on many thrones. Firstborn would of course inherit Stonemount. Second- and third-born would have to choose between North Ambron and Westerland.

Fallon looked at Fiona sitting beside him under the canopied pavilion for the nobly-born guests, and smiled. She was finally eager for their nightly games, and it was high time he put aside pleasure and started working on getting her pregnant. He wanted to know what his sons were like before he decided which country each would someday rule.

With such thoughts in his head, Fallon was able to smile and cheer with everyone else when Vevina and Aralt sealed their vows with a kiss that grew so long many in the crowd roared approval and waited for them to collapse from suffocation.

* * *

The enclosed pavilion for the royal family and their special guests was mercifully empty when Aralt escorted Vevina to it, late on the afternoon of their wedding. She protested that she was fine when he insisted she rest. In truth, her feet did hurt a little; she wasn't used to so many hours straight in shoes. Vevina kicked off her crystal-beaded wedding slippers the moment they stepped through the flap of cloth that made the door. Her new husband only laughed at her. He kissed her as he guided her to the couch, lingering for many delightful seconds longer than necessary, quite stealing her breath away. She gasped a little when he started to draw away and Aralt laughed again.

"Don't -- " Vevina caught her breath as he pressed her hand to his lips and a thrill shot through her body at the simple touch. His eyes spoke promises to her, mixed with his laughter and his concern for her. She couldn't speak for a moment, and in that moment he took his leave. She sank back against the thick cushions of the couch, one of many set up in the pavilion for the guests to rest and refresh themselves, and chuckled a little.

Several times as she prepared for their wedding, Vevina had wondered about Fallon's reaction when he came to the ceremony -- if he came at all. Thoughts of him had put a bitter note in her joy, and she had pushed his image resolutely away. Still, he kept sneaking back and she wondered what his face would show when he realized she was in love with Aralt.

To be honest, she wanted him to be jealous, to be furious, to be stricken with the realization of what he had lost. She wanted him to stammer when he congratulated her and Aralt. She wanted him to arrive the night before the wedding on a charger and proclaim everything was a lie, that he loved her and hadn't married Fiona -- and she would laugh at him and repeat back to him the bitter, mocking words she heard that night in the rain after she gave him her precious apple tree.

Vevina hadn't even seen Fallon and Fiona when she stepped up to the altar to make her vows, and she was too happily nervous to even remember to look for them. Aralt filled her vision, her heart, her world. Their love and her determination to make him always happy was all that mattered.

A few leaves sprouted in the roses twined in her hair and there was a faint popping noise as a new bud appeared among the thornless stems. Vevina sputtered laughter and wondered if anyone would notice. If she kept this up, her rose crown would be three times bigger at the end of the day than when it had started. It was a good thing she had put aside her bouquet at the end of the ceremony. It had started trailing roots and some of the white roses were turning pink and red. Accurate reflections of her feelings for Aralt, she admitted with a bright blush and a sigh that tended toward a giggle of giddy anticipation. Still, red and pink weren't appropriate for a bride. She had even heard some silly notion that brides weren't supposed to even like kissing, let alone all the sweetness that followed after.

There were bottles of wine sitting on the sideboard, among bowls of fruit and sweets and pastries for the enjoyment of guests who didn't fancy weaving through the crowds in the gardens. As King Ailfrid had done for his daughter's christening, the palace gardens had been opened for the common people to come and celebrate with their leaders. Vevina supposed there were three storerooms' worth of little gifts already piled up at the gates of the gardens where departing guests had left them before going to the many celebrations scattered throughout Port'ham.

She felt caught between laughter and tears when she considered the gifts she had seen; dainty lace shawls mixed with thick socks, jars of preserved fruits, braids of onions and dried spices, sweets and baby clothes. Dozens and dozens of little blankets and caps and shirts in all sizes and colors. She lost her breath just seeing all the nappies and little rattles and decorations for the crib. She wouldn't have to make or even ask for a thing when she and Aralt had their first child. Or their fourth or fifth.

She wanted children. Lots of children. Vevina shivered and wrapped her arms tight around herself to still the quivering sensation that came every time she considered that making love with Aralt would eventually put a baby in her belly. Besides, every time she did that --

Four pops answered her unfinished thought and she burst out in more harp-like laughter as her crown felt noticeably heavier.

"Oh!" a delicate, breathy voice exclaimed, effectively announcing Queen Fiona's entrance into the royal pavilion. "I thought I was imagining things ... "

"Have they changed color yet?" Vevina asked, smothering her laughter, and turned to face the newcomer.

Fiona was a confection -- as always -- in pale blue, trimmed in lace and silver and diamonds, all fluff and feathers and sweetness. It was hard to be angry with her, even knowing Conroy still nursed a wounded heart. Vevina looked at the good-hearted but flighty girl who was three years older than her but seemed so much younger, and knew Conroy was better off without her. He would not have resented protecting and guiding Fiona for the rest of his life, but it would drain him.

Conroy never ordered, never demanded, never assumed that people didn't understand and needed things spelled out in words of one syllable -- like Fallon, from all she had heard from King Ailfrid's new courier, Rilling. Conroy would have felt guilty over spending more time on his wife than the kingdom, and then felt guilty for feeling guilty, and hated himself for any resentment he would have felt for Fiona. Fallon was such a charmer that even when he bullied and demanded, he could make people grateful to wear themselves out for his sake. Vevina hadn't seen this side of him and had still felt horribly foolish and wounded until Aralt pointed it out to her.

"Well, the tiniest ones are rather pink." Fiona giggled her crystalline laugh and rustled loudly as she crossed the canvas flooring and settled down on the couch opposite Vevina. "Why do you do that?"

"I don't do it on purpose, believe me."

She found herself wishing she could be friends with Fiona, but knew Fallon would never allow it. Vevina had heard enough rumors already, accurate reports of the stories he told about her and about Westerland, she could guess what Fallon would do with any overtures of friendship to his wife. He would likely say Vevina was jealous and angling to destroy his marriage, at the very least.

Truthfully, she was amazed Fiona had worn blue to the wedding. Her usual color was white or pale silvery gray. It must have cost Fiona a good amount of silver to have that gown made, Vevina thought, then scolded herself for being catty. Of course Fiona would insist on wearing a different color from her usual, despite what it might do to her pale complexion. It was improper to wear white to a wedding; that was the bride's color alone. Although, according to some of the rumors reported by Rilling and his friends, Fallon was adamant that Vevina was pregnant and had no right to wear white. Smothering a giggle now at the memory, she smoothed her hands over her slim dress that proved to the entire world she could not possibly be pregnant.

It was just like Glynna had told her, Vevina knew. If they fought Fallon's poison, they would only muddy the waters and make things worse. If they left him alone, eventually his poison would turn around and bite him. If it took ten months for her to have a child, everyone who believed Fallon's nasty accusations would turn around and laugh at him. Vevina couldn't wait to hear his reaction to that particular humiliation.

"How are you?" she asked, shaking herself free of her thoughts. She had to attend to her guest, after all. "I am glad you could come to the wedding."

"Despite how Conroy feels?" Fiona surprised Vevina by a flash of guilt wrinkling her pretty little face for a moment.

"My brother never had a broken heart before. He'll recover." She bit her tongue to keep from adding: I did, and very quickly. "But how are you? Are you happy?"

"Delirious. And you? I mean, you look happy, but I was afraid you were putting a good face on the situation." Her hands fluttered like butterflies for a moment, displaying her many diamond and sapphire rings. How could she get anything done, Vevina wondered, with her hands so burdened?

"A good face? But I love Aralt. I didn't love Fallon. I was glad when he broke our betrothal, if that's what you were worried about." She hugged herself for control as another tremor of happiness threatened to create more roses and leaves.

"Actually ... " Fiona gave her a shy little smile that could have been called sheepish if it had been a little wider. "Oh, I almost forgot! I wanted to ask you about the apple tree." She paused a moment, but Vevina only gave her a blank look. "The apple tree you gave Fallon. I know he says some high and mighty wizards gave it to him, but that's just male pride. Uncle Ambrose told me the truth and -- "

"How is Ambrose? I haven't heard from him in months." Indeed, Vevina felt a flash of pain that the man hadn't come to the wedding -- more because Glynna had hoped to see her old friend once more, but also because she had treasured his friendship over the years and wanted very much to meet him face to face.

"He hasn't heard from you, either. But the tree -- I'm worried about the tree. It droops. The leaves are green when they first appear, then they turn brown in a few days."

"What has Fallon done to my tree?" she demanded, pushing aside Fiona's other comment for a moment. After all, she wrote faithfully to Ambrose, once a month, as she had done since her tenth birthday. "I thought something was wrong -- I can feel it even this far away -- but I've been so busy I couldn't be sure."

"He's done nothing. I want to know what I can do to help it."

"Magic turns deadly if one person hoards it. The tree was created to be shared. Don't eat the apples, Fiona. They'll be poison until Fallon shares them with the entire country, and tells the truth."

As if her words had been a summons, Glynna floated through the wall of the tent and hovered between the two young women. She nodded as Vevina echoed what she had been telling her student for years.

"But -- they're magical healing apples. How can they turn to poison?" Fiona bleated.

"I know they will. I can feel the sickness, here, in my heart. Don't eat the apples, I beg you."

"But you wouldn't hurt me, would you? I thought we were friends!"

"We are, but -- "

"You're turning the apples bad to spite Fallon!" Fiona squeaked. Where other women would turn red, she only went more pale. "You're jealous!"

"Jealous? On my wedding day? Don't be a greater fool than you already are, Fiona."

With another little squeak, Fiona jumped to her feet and fled the tent in tears.

"Well, at least you tried," Glynna said, and attempted yet again to pat Vevina's shoulder.

"That wasn't what I meant to say."

"Sometimes the truth isn't very pretty, or tactful."

Aralt burst through the door flap, his face a thundercloud. Vevina felt a flash of guilt; she didn't want to see that look on his face on her account.

"What happened?" he asked as he dropped to one knee by her couch.

"I tried to warn her ... "

She tried to smile but when that didn't soothe the frown from her husband's face, she leaned forward and slowly, leisurely, tormenting herself in the process, wrapped her arms around his neck and drew him closer. Aralt's eyes gleamed, just before they both closed their eyes for a kiss that was just as leisurely.