Dawn arrives on the backs of dust motes swirling through the cold blue light. Gentle puffs of wind steal around the edges of the stable door, prodding the floating specks into joining and parting like dancers at a masquerade. The brisk air is a reminder that winter’s talons still grip these forested hills, if only for a few weeks longer.
It’s warm enough here in the stable, though, amid the honey-scented straw and the gentle nickering of the horses as they stir in the rising light. Daschen’s hair is almost indistinguishable from the straw in color, but it’s far finer, flowing against the coarse stalks beneath us like a cornsilk sea.
He’s always so far from me when we wake, sprawled away on his own so that our bodies barely touch. At what point during the night this happens, I never know; as has become our habit during the last few weeks, we’ve been sleeping here for a few hours, the danger of discovery notwithstanding.
The metal disc on the strap around my wrist buzzes, and I press the tiny nub on the side that stills the sensation. I’ve never been written up by head butler Mr. Cade for oversleeping, not since my first days of service, and I don’t intend to start now. Not today, the last day before this part of my life becomes faded, toothless memories.
I have to finish out strong so the others don’t resent me later.
Mr. Cade and most of the others in service despise Mr. Soames’ newfangled alarums, but mine has been our saving grace. I can’t explain how I can read the gadget’s twitching, skeletal metal innards, but I’ve been able to re-rig my device to sound earlier than the others, giving us enough time to get back to our respective places without drawing suspicion. It’s possible one of the grooms may’ve seen something, but we’ve been careful, and I’d have heard it from Marthe if any of the other servants were whispering about me.
The alarum’s a reminder that Father’s still with me, watching over me even now.
The canvas blanket is coarse against my skin, but I scoot close to Daschen and kiss him until he wakes. He moans a little in protest — not against me, but against the hour. I don’t know why anyone hasn’t missed him yet during our stolen nights, but whatever he may’ve told his valets surely stays between him and them. No one would dare betray a prince of Vana.
We shuffle back into our clothes and dust off the bits of straw that try to stick. This has become a silent, solemn ritual; we have to be vigilant. I can’t even imagine the consequences if we were discovered like this — not death, perhaps, but the situation would be dire enough. For me, at least.
Once we’re sure that we’re not bearing or leaving any sign of the past few hours, Daschen gives me that charming smile, the one that makes my heart ache, and his brilliant blue eyes sparkle in the first amber rays of dawn. “You’re really good at that, you know.”
My cheeks seethe with a fiery blush. This probably isn’t what Father had in mind the day I nearly eviscerated Daschen in the training yard, but I think he’d be proud of me nonetheless.
The clouds billowing on the eastern horizon are the demanding red of peonies and a blinding violet: we’ll have warm weather by afternoon, but for now it’s still bitter cold as I slip into the shadowy courtyard beside the stables.
“I love you,” I whisper back through the cracked door.
“You too,” comes his faceless reply.
Our hands linger a moment, and then I’m gone, striding away across the courtyard. He’ll leave when he’s sure it’s safe … and after tonight we won’t have to do this anymore. We’ll be together in the light.
I can’t stop myself from stealing a glance up at his tower, as its shadow falls over me. It’s the second-highest pinnacle in the entire castle complex, but he swears that hopping down the corrugated metal roofs that extend from various parts of the stone column like fins is as easy as hopping between lilypads.
The idea of staring down at such a dizzying drop makes me nauseous, even here on the ground. One slip of the foot and he’d plummet almost the entire height of the Empress’s statue that guards the gate; it’s why I can never bear to watch him come or go.
Daschen loves me as much as I love him. He must, to risk so much.
My heartbeat quickens, everything inside me fighting to contain the joy filling my chest as I trudge forward as though simply going about my chores, which, as of this moment, I am. There’s raw milk to be collected — not that the countess and her daughters will actually drink it and risk losing their figures, gods forbid, but the latest fashion is to wash with the stuff. I can’t imagine how Father would’ve howled at the foolishness — and the cost — of that.
It’s a lucky thing for me and Daschen, though. Their frippery is a better alibi than any lie I could’ve concocted, so I’m only too happy to lug the sloshing pitcher from the cowshed to the camouflaged servants’ entrance at the foot of the countess’s family tower.
The palace’s skirt of honeycombing, octagonal plazas are riddled with statuary alcoves. Visitors often find themselves far off course amid the labyrinthine figures, but this stone landscape has been etched into my mind for years. My eyes are so accustomed to the effigy of St. Idony cupping the ripe apple in her outstretched hands that I barely notice her, only seeing the rosebud adornment on the right side of the alcove behind her lithe form.
A faint click echoes through the octogon as I twist the hidden knob, and then a jagged, familiar crack splits the curved stone wall.
I slip through the hidden door and nudge it shut with my hip, satisfied to hear it click shut again. Every step of the spiral staircase is an agonizing reminder of how little sleep I’ve actually been getting lately, and I’m exhausted before I’m even halfway to the top, the milk jug threatening to tear my arms from their sockets.
Marthe must be off on an errand already, because Talini’s bustling around the kitchen in the chicken-without-a-head panic that overtakes her when she’s unattended. A corkscrew twist of blonde hair bounces loose against her cheek. She’s hardly filled out from the scrawny twenty-year-old Mr. Cade assigned us two winters ago, and she still hasn’t figured out how to properly pin her cap, silly thing.
I set the milk on the counter and catch Talini long enough to fix the askew cap myself. If I try to get her to fix it herself, she’s bound to have to start over entirely, and we don’t have time for one of her meltdowns.
“Honestly, girl,” I grumble at her as I shove the stray curl back beneath the white linen hat band.
Marthe’s going to have her hands full with Talini once I’m … once Daschen and I—
I bite the inside of my cheek to stifle the sudden grin. I’m not known for smiling, and Talini’s got a nose for trouble, even if unintentionally. I’ve had difficulty enough keeping her out of my business as it is. I can’t let my mask of an expression crack like porcelain.
Talini sways to and fro like a little like an impatient child, of now help whatsoever as I move on to straightening the pleats of her blouse. I don’t have to look at her emerald green eyes to know they’re fixed on the three bells hanging on the wall beside the clock. “They’ll be ringing soon.”
“That’ll make for a nice change,” I respond dryly.
Sleeping in, awakening only once the sun’s fully risen … what must that be like? I can’t wait for mornings that aren’t filled with the bells’ clamor, the backbreaking labor — and for a moment I feel guilty thinking of Talini and Marthe, still stuck here while my life changes so completely.
Even if I can take them with me to my new chambers, they’ll still be in the underhalls while I move upstairs, and being associated with me so closely might draw ire from their companions. As Daschen is fond of pointing out, even the busybody courtiers can only handle so much scandal.
With Talini’s uniform sorted, I let her return to her frenetic dithering. She hasn’t noticed the wrinkles in my own clothes yet, but the countess will, given even half a glance — and I slip away up the attic stairs to change while the bells are still blessedly silent.
I strip and wash with methodical precision in the bathroom that’s attached to the bedroom Marthe, Talini, and I share. This is another part of my ritual, the last such time I’ll ever do this here — apart from once more tonight. I don’t know how everything is going to unfold, but it’ll necessarily have to begin after the three women upstairs are already off to the ball. I’m still irked that Daschen won’t tell me how everything’s meant to happen, but he’s told me not to worry.
“Don’t you trust me to have this all planned out?” he’d demanded when I tried to press him for more details. He still hasn’t outgrown that quick temper of his, so for fear of pushing him away, I fell silent and didn’t ask again.
He could have anyone, but he picked me. The least I owe him is my gratitude and faith.
The scars on the backs of my calves seize at the water’s touch, rebuking me for last night’s calistenics with Daschen and the long climb this morning. They match my hands, rough and calloused from years of taking care of the Myre women, and calloused from swords before that.
A disfigured princess… The courtiers will whip themselves into a proper tizzy over that.
The tepid water washes over me like absolution, and I gaze out the window at the palace’s intricate maze of stone partitions, the boundary wall and then the frost-tipped pines beyond. A few trails cut off into the dull, blue-green vista past the empress’s statue, but they’re quickly swallowed up by the forest.
Out there, hidden in nearly a hundred glens and hollows dwell the people of Vana. Daschen’s people.
My people, too, after tonight.
The thought of it is almost too overwhelming, and my empty belly lurches. I never wanted all of that, and I’m still not sure I do. It shocks me how years after that day in the old training pit Daschen still remembered me, even after Father died and I’d been forced into one of these anonymous uniforms. We were in the stables when our eyes locked, and in a few stolen moments, everything changed.
Kindness. Being touched. I’d forgotten what that was like.
Until Daschen kissed me I hadn’t dreamed of anything more than merely surviving each day — and it’s still almost incomprehensible that now we’re on the brink of something that’ll alter not just our lives, but all of Vana. All of Char, even.
I can’t fathom that, I can’t focus on it. I just know we love each other, and that when he chooses his bride at his birthday ball tonight, it’ll be my name that leaves his lips.
Only a few minutes have passed by the time I reemerge downstairs, and both my fresh uniform and I are immaculate. The bells begin to clang just as I set foot in the kitchen, and to my relief the breakfast trays are almost ready, plates resting atop the chipped marble countertop as Talini runs a cloth around their edges. She’s so flighty with nerves that she’s bound to ruin them at this point, so I steer her away, gently squeezing her shoulders to let her know she’s done well.
It’s risky to think of Talini handling both the three-generation-old Myre family porcelain and the smooth steps to the uppers simultaneously, particularly given the way she’s got that cloth trapped in her fingers like a struggling sparrow — but starting tomorrow it’ll be her responsibility anyway.
I’m obliged to ask: “Do you want to come up with me?”
To my halfhearted relief, she shakes her head and shrinks away. She’s lucky she was so old when she entered service; being the ash girl for as long as I was would’ve worn her down. I can’t say it didn’t take its toll on me, too, but at least now my cage door is opening, and my foot’s about to cross the threshold.
I'll look after her and Marthe no matter what happens. Who will if not me?
Talini helps me balance the trays, and I head up the narrow stairs out of the kitchen. My slippers make barely a whisper on the lacquered wooden floor, and I slink around the eight-foot-tall tapestry that guards the entrance to the tower’s upper apartments, graceful from all my years of practice.
The main hall is noticeably less grand than I remember from my first years here, but Marthe insists House Myre was on the decline long before my time. Marrying a swordmaster hadn’t been the wisest move for someone like the countess, whose family was once among the most powerful in the Vanan court. Father always said it was love, but I — uncharitably — suspected it had more to do with stability, the one thing he could have provided all of us if he’d lived.
At least for the past eight years I’ve provided another servant for my stepfamily's grandeur, and who knows what treasures they might reap if this all goes off well. Better apartments, certainly, a larger salary, support staff for Marthe and Talini. And space from me — that most of all..
I scuff to a quiet stop at the table outside the first bedroom, the one that for a few years was mine, and unload two of the trays. Helia sleeps here now, and I don’t begrudge her it — she’s always been kind to me. Gennefra may be right about Helia being a bit simple, but she’s sweeter by comparison, and I’ll take that over Gennefra’s sour tongue any day.
Helia’s still asleep, of course, and I silently tie back the heavy curtains after stoking the fire and preparing her water and milk basins. Yesterday’s soiled clothes are piled on the dresser, and I carry them out to the hamper waiting in the hall. Only once the water’s warmed and poured do I bring the tray to Helia’s bedside and wake her.
She stretches and comes awake with a smile, and I smile back — one of the few times in a day I ever do. Despite her voluptuous frame, her voice is as tremulous as a bird’s. “Did I oversleep?”
“No, Contessa,” I say with a polite shake of my head. I haven’t called Gennefra and Helia by their proper names in years, even though I still think of them as such. Without a male heir, the girls are still floundering along under this weak title, waiting until some lesser lord or other settles on them.
Helia props herself upright and pulls the tray onto her lap. She’ll eat first and then turn her attention to her beauty regimen, by which point the countess will be flitting between the girls’ rooms like a circling hawk.
The dresses should arrive from the seamstress sometime during the next few hours, and the beauticians will be along whenever they’re available. Fortunately House Myre hasn't yet sunk so far in debt that we’re relegated to the end of their rounds, stuck wondering if they’ll even get to us in time. Until they come, though, it’ll be a matter of waiting — which means lots of mindless pre-primping.
Helia attended to, I move on to Gennefra’s room. Here I open the curtains before I stoke the fire. Though I know better than to directly provoke her, I want Gennefra to have one last reminder of how she used to tease me, calling me Ashes after I was sent downstairs. She’s the prettiest of the three of us by far, so I’ve never understood her animosity toward me, but I’m giving her one last go at me for old times’ sake.
Gennefra wakes quickly, but she hardly notices my presence, just absentmindedly points to the garments littering the room like discarded skins of velvet and silk.
“Yes, Contessa,” I say, the response as equally ingrained as her gesture.
Gennefra drifts to the window and gazes out over the palace and the forest. It’s easy to guess what she’s thinking as she runs the comb through her smooth black hair. She cornered Daschen in an empty hallway two weeks ago, and ever since then she’s been convinced he’s making eyes at her. Daschen’s shown no particular interest in any girl of the court, so the slightest nod of his head or cordial syllable and the rumors fly.
I pretend to cough as I stoke the fire, hiding my nervous giggles. The expression on Gennefra’s face when she learns who Daschen really loves is bound to be one I’ll want to take to my deathbed.
“I’ll take you with me, you know. If he picks me,” Gennefra suddenly says as her eyes fall on me, hunched and hacking amid the soot. Her tone is confident; she must think her chances very good.
The very idea of Princess Gennefra is too much to take, and I cast my gaze down again. It’s vital that I not let her see the mirth I’m struggling to hold back; she’s almost as clever as her mother. Almost.
“You are too generous, Contessa.”
Her pale hand flickers in my peripheral vision like a flame as she waves for me to leave. Gennefra might seem dainty in many regards, but when it comes to her beauty regimen she knows just how she likes things, and trusts no one else to do it for her. I can nearly respect her for that.
I hurry back into the main corridor. The familiar hook of reluctance in my gut notwithstanding, it’s time to deliver the countess’s tray. She’ll already be awake — she’s a canny woman, and doesn’t like anyone to see her when she’s vulnerable — and I dread the moment when her steely grey eyes flick to meet mine.
I am the daily reminder of the disappointment that was her short-lived remarriage. I’ve proven myself too valuable as a servant to be dispensed with, and I’ve nowhere else to go, so for years we’ve grudgingly depended on each other for survival in this stone fishbowl. It’s all I can do to mentally force myself back into the yoke for one last round of these loathsome tasks before I rid myself of her influence forever.
Countess Myre is already awake and fussing at her vanity when I enter, and for a moment her flinty gaze catches mine in the polished mirror.
There it is: the revulsion.
Then her guard is back up and she’s ensconced behind the polite, practiced mask of a courtier once again.
“Thank you, Khthonia,” she says as I set the tray down on a table and lay out the various bowls and pitchers for washing and breakfast.
“Yes, Countess,” I mumble, and hurry to the hearth. Some mornings we’ll exchange brief pleasantries, but I’m sure she’s got a lot on her mind today — and the sooner I’m out of the lioness's den, the better.
Glass bottles clink behind me as I stoke the coals; the countess is readying her arsenal. I try to study her of the corner of my eye as she washes her face and applies her makeup. It’s been years since I’ve touched cosmetics save for dusting them, and I can hardly remember the order of applying what to where. The dingy mirror in the attic will help me little.
It's grimly amusing. Of all the elite education I received as the countess's stepdaughter, I never imagined it would be makeup that would ultimately matter most.
The countess catches me watching her, and I snap my head back down so fast that the muscles in my neck burn. My heartbeat thuds in my ears, but I can hear the splashing of the milk in her wash basin as she returns to her work.
She’s still a beautiful woman, and her cleverness serves her well. Fully made up she’ll look ten years her junior, perhaps even younger than that from a distance. She might yet land herself a third husband, if she’s lucky — though certainly her hopes are strictly for Gennefra and Daschen tonight.
A few painful minutes later my work is done, and I force myself to take measured steps toward the door instead of rushing out as I’d like to. If only those damn dresses would hurry up and get here, I could be assured the three Myre women would all be kept busy for the next few hours with no chance of discovering what I’m up to.
“Khthonia, about the ball—”
The countess’s voice freezes my blood in my veins. It’s as though invisible claws are gripping my limbs, puppeting me to turn and face her again.
The anxiety suffocating me releases as our gazes meet, and I’m in free fall. The expression on my former stepmother’s face isn’t the anger I was expecting, but compassion. Can it be she’s heard something — that Daschen’s told his father ahead of time, or told her directly, and she wants me to attend the ball along with the family?
A strangled gratitude bubbles through my veins like tonic. After all this time, how am I supposed to feel?
“—please make sure Marthe looks over the mending on the spine seam of my gown before you bring it to me,” the countess finishes. “I just can’t bear the humiliation if anyone knew it had ripped.”
Oh. Of course.
Relief eases my jangling nerves, and I nod. At least now I can go on hating her the way I always have. For a moment I worry I’ve given myself away, because the countess’s sympathetic countenance is tinged with something akin to regret.
“I’m sorry,” she adds, and I know she’s talking about the ball now, but more than that, too. My circumstances, as the courtiers would say.
I’ve been angry so often over the years, seething beneath the surface like water coursing beneath a frozen river, but I can’t entirely blame her. A third dowry isn’t an insignificant consideration given the state of things, and she’d have been well within her rights to turn me out when Father died. Keeping me on as a servant was as much kindness as she could afford.
It takes a moment to remember everything that’s ahead of me, but as soon as I do, I nod at the countess, acquitting her. I think she’s only too happy to let me go because I hear the tinkling of those makeup bottles behind me again, and I know her mind is back in the present moment as I hurry on my way.
My own dress arrives hidden in with the linens. It’s a beautiful pale blue thing, nothing too ostentatious for the Vanan court but certainly far finer than anything I’ve worn in a decade.
Only after the gong reverberates through the chill stone castle and our three noblewomen depart in a lavish cloud do Marthe and I tell Talini what’s happening — she couldn’t have been trusted to keep her wits about her before. She barely manages to keep herself from shrieking even now, and has run off to the kitchen to immerse herself in some chore to hide her worry.
I’m unprepared for the corset’s sharp bite as Marthe cinches me in, and I force myself to calm down and take shallower breaths. The sensation of being choked is worse in my mind than reality, so I channel my terror through to my fingertips as I grip the tattered wooden bureau.
“Tighter,” I tell Marthe as she adjusts the lower laces.
“Yes, Your Ladyship,” she grimly replies, and yanks so hard that a little breath is forced out of my lungs.
In many ways Marthe’s been the mother I probably needed, and though she won’t interfere, I know she wants me to see the error of my ways while there’s still time to call this off. Her stubborn silence and the extra tug she gives the corset laces is anything but approving.
I can just barely peer into the main courtyard from where I’m standing. The nobles are flooding out of their towers now like nightmoths, a few final dignitaries from afar arriving in shimmerwood carriages that gleam amid the falling night.
I focus on the magnificent migration to better ignore the tightness around my throat as Marthe secures the corset’s laces at the top, a thumb-width above the line of my shoulders. This is a newer fashion, one I probably wouldn’t have been used to even if I’d been permitted to stay in the upper halls as the countess’s stepdaughter.
“Am I meant to wear this, or simply let it choke me to death?” I ask.
Marthe only grunts.
I’ve traded around among the other servants for scant bits of makeup, things their owners never used or discarded the moment they went out of fashion — and once the corset’s laced tight, I retrieve them from under a loose floorboard. I don’t do much, just enough blending and highlighting so I won’t stick out as a bumpkin.
Though I’m no painted stunner, in the end my face doesn’t look half-bad. Now the challenge is to remember to not touch myself or run the risk of smudging.
Marthe helps me into the pale blue dress, and it’s a nearly perfect fit — so long as I’m standing still and leaning on something. Walking or standing unsupported turn out to be disastrous; I’ve been on flat feet so long that the sparkling heels and dragging train render my legs useless, and I have to stagger to and fro across the attic a few times before I’ve got the hang of it again.
Beads of perspiration gather on my skin like raindrops, and we throw the window open to admit the zephyrs gusting out of the mountains.I can see the closest mountain gatehouse from here, set in the dappled granite peaks southwest of the castle like the head of a pin. I squint against the chill air, finding the spot, even further beyond that, where the grey, jagged line is lost to the clouds.
The great heroes of old who passed beyond its veil were never seen again — and for that, the place still holds a sort of abhorrence to most Vanans. I’ve only ever felt affection for the rough mountainside and unhewn forests; today the distance is a reminder of how far I’ve come. Thank the gods it’s all been for a purpose.
My stomach twangs with nervousness, and I drop my gaze to the thinning procession that’s still inching towards the castle’s main ballroom. “It’s almost time.”
“And if he goes back on his word?” Marthe asks gruffly, as though trying to conjure up my cruellest nightmares.
I shake my head, feeling her eyes on me without even having to turn. “He won’t. He’s a prince. Princes keep their word.”
“Bugger that, you could lose more than your position for this madness, Khthonia,” she says, lowering her voice to a hiss. “We all could.”
“I know,” I plead with Marthe, desperately hoping that she isn’t changing her mind — not now, not when I’m so nearly gone. “You’ll see, though. By the time you and I meet again, it’ll all be properly settled. Daschen loves me.”
“His Royal Highness Prince Daschen Sylvan Desburgh Jonesell,” she corrects, as though reminding me of his full name is somehow going to change my mind. Even knowing where this dress came from, she’s still reluctant to believe in him as I do.
My spirits buoy in the face of her well-intentioned opposition, and abruptly I’m ready to face up to tonight.
My destiny. Finally it’s here.
I kiss Marthe goodbye and accept a bashful peck on the cheek from Talini, who immediately starts fretting that she’s mussed the makeup. She hasn’t, and I wrangle the dress into the narrow servants’ passage to begin the treacherous journey downstairs. I’d felt so charitable about lugging that milk this morning, but now my body is screaming at me for it, particularly given these agonizing shoes. Godsdamn, it’s like wearing bear traps for slippers!
I collect myself at the bottom of the stairs, keeping a lookout through the peephole. Its purpose is to prevent those of us who work in the underhalls from running into our masters and mistresses, but right now it’s equally useful to avoid running into fellow servants. Most have probably been relaxing in kitchens for a half-hour or so already, exhausted in the wake of their masters’ departures, but I take the precaution all the same. Being seen emerging from a servant’s door will raise all the wrong questions.
Even though I can’t see the statue of Empress Aerona from here, I close my eyes and offer a silent prayer as my fingers close on the stone mechanism to open the door.
The way forward is mercifully clear, so I sneak outside. Keeping my balance on the cobblestoned plazas is like walking a tightrope, but once I’m through a few octagons I’ve got the rhythm of it, and slip into the main courtyard behind a large foreign contingent.
Perfect. The royal guards dotting the courtyard are essentially ceremonial, but nothing would be more dangerous than looking like I’m on my own; even the lowliest noblewomen have chaperones or companions, a lady’s maid at the very least. The muskets the sentinels have carried for most of my life are rumored to be faulty, but I don’t want to be the first person I’ve ever heard of to get shot.
Still, my years of servitude have taught me nothing if not how to blend in, and I stay near enough the unfamiliar retinue just ahead of me to look like I’m their final straggler.
Only one of their number seems to notice me, a tall man with brown hair and an angular face that’s half-hidden beneath a neat beard. His dark eyes are stormy over sharp cheekbones, but his gaze doesn’t linger on me long — and soon he and I and the hundreds around us are packed into a strange bottleneck of foot traffic before the castle entrance, just anonymous faces above elaborate clothing.
Goosebumps of terror thrill along my skin at the delay. Something’s wrong. There shouldn’t be any reason for such a holdup, not unless they’re searching for someone. Already the beleaguered nobles are beginning to send up shrill complaints, as though muttering at the darkling sky can somehow help them get inside faster.
The chill breeze whips among us, lashing us with the perfumes of decaying leaves, and the nobles stir like spooking animals. I feel like I’m choking, drowning.
Am I the cause of this?
I’m completely hemmed in, though; trying to escape would draw too much attention. If the guards really are looking for me, there’s no use trying to hide, so I crane my neck for a better view of the commotion instead.
The massive crystal chandelier has been hanging in the grand foyer for centuries, and at its best it only ever turned out wan light — yet now it’s practically as incandescent as the sun. People are stopping and trying to stare, though of course they have to look away after only a few moments, blinking furiously and dabbing at their watering eyes.
I have to resist the urge to stop and gawk at the spectacle along with the rest when I reach the grand foyer. The clock tower’s been out of sight for too long for comfort, and I got off to a late enough start tonight as it was. The crowd is densest at the antechamber’s periphery, and I prise my way between silks and satins with a pointed elbow outstretched to navigate through the jam.
Best intentions notwithstanding, I’m almost struck as dumb as the others when I emerge into the ballroom, which has somehow been rigged with this same blinding light. The orchestra’s lively tune barely covers a persistent, cricketlike buzzing that tickles my ears.
Still, the annoying sound is a small price to pay for what looks like a full summer’s midday, the brilliance captured and harnessed in crystal lanterns suspended from the vaulted ceiling.
I shake my head to clear it of the dazzling beauty, and quickly scan the room to get my bearings. Tables cluster at the edges of the dance floor, and the tops of the musicians’ heads peek out of a pit sunken beneath the wide royal dais at the front of the hall.
King Johannes is speaking to some lords off to the side of the dais, Prince Dagfinn beside him … and my heart slams as I see Daschen sitting in a chair beside his father’s throne, one knee twitching with impatience. He’s evidently been watching the door because he lurches forward in his seat as our eyes meet.
Evidently Daschen hasn’t made much of a move all night, because an audible ripple rises from the wall-to-wall crowd as he stands and makes his way down the wide steps. He doesn’t move straight for me, but meanders through the courtiers at the perimeter of the dancers, making the appropriate small talk with the appropriate people. I’d do the same, too, if I actually knew anyone here — or wasn’t so terrified they might remember me from years ago and spoil everything.
I remember to look for the countess just in time. She and her daughters are seated at a table off to my left, and if I don’t keep enough people between us, they might see me — a likely possibility given that Gennefra has bolted to her feet, doubtless preparing to fling herself into Daschen’s arms if he comes close enough. She draws nearer to me as he does, but at the last moment I’m able to cut between them, leaving Gennefra staring at the back of my head.
Daschen extends his arm with a grin, and we sweep off into the crowd, embedding ourselves amid couples packed as tight as sunflower seeds. I don’t know how to move, but Daschen pulls me along, and we’re safely anonymous for a few moments.
“When?” I whisper to him, my heart pounding with sickening alertness.
“I said I’d let you know when it was time, Khthonia.” Daschen’s breath buzzes uncomfortably in my ear; he sounds cross. “Father’s waiting for some foreign delegation to arrive, then there’ll be the banquet, and then the announcement. Just be patient.”
The announcement. His bride, Vana’s next princess.
It’s almost too long to wait — I haven’t thought of how I’m going to make it through dinner. The kitchen staff always grouse about gatherings this large because extra guests always pop out of the woodwork at the last minute, so I know I’ll be able to find a place somewhere, but trying to deflect courtiers’ attention in these close quarters could prove difficult.
We dance on for another few minutes, but suddenly the music vanishes, leaving only that maddening buzzing, and then the crowd still packed by the door parts of its own accord.
“All rise for Their Royal Highnesses King Morten, Queen Mette, and Princess Embla of Khet, scions of House Quensaari,” a herald shouts from the door, and an organized troop of uniformly dressed servants make way for a trio of gilded visitors.
Daschen seems strangely struck by this group, and with a quick press of my hand he’s gone, striding off through the crowd to greet the noble guests.
The Kheti ruling couple are browned from the sun; their golden clothes and hair are a perfect match for these brilliant surroundings. They possess the same air of command as King Johannes. Watching the three senior leaders greeting each other makes me feel privileged to be present, even though I don’t understand the ceremonial gestures or phrases.
The Kheti rulers are Aethorians, so there’s some waving of smoking bundles of herbs from their side, followed by prayers to the lords and ladies they worship, along with the exquisite offering sung to the Untouched Empress, who united us all.
Daschen and the Kheti princess are introduced after that — and it rankles me to see the same awkward smile mirrored on their faces. It’s like they feel exactly the same way about this orchestrated introduction before so many pairs of eyes: embarrassed, yet exultant to be the center of such complete attention. Maybe it’s just the new lights, but they’re practically glowing.
Prince Dagfinn meets Princess Embla next, but she and Daschen seem to drift back together again a few moments later. It’s puzzling.
Then I catch the glance King Johannes exchanges with Queen Mette. It’s widely known he nearly won her hand all those years ago, but took the loss of her to then-Prince Morten very well. What else but their joint meddling could explain their evident approval as their children smile, laugh together even in front of all these prying gazes?
The moment I realize what’s happening, it’s as though there’s a thunderstorm growing inside of me, spinning into a ravaging tempest. I have to get out of here before I’m seen, unmasked.
Daschen may never have meant to deceive me — but then, in all our whispered planning, we’d forgotten one crucial thing. He’s a prince. His heart wasn’t his to give.
Now I have to run before I crumble to pieces.
Everyone probably knows what they’re bearing witness to here between Daschen and Princess Embla — everyone but Daschen, probably, blind as he is to these things — and they’re all frozen in awe, making it easy to slip between the jigsaw cracks of their still bodies. I can’t head back out through the courtyard, though, not without drawing attention to myself, so I hurry toward another corridor entrance, a mere half-moon of darkness huddled against the chandelier’s splendor.
The only two guards posted in this area mind the ballroom door with that same wooden detachment as their compatriots in the courtyard. They hardly stir at my passage; a noblewoman on the verge of tears isn’t the kind of situation that demands their attention.
A few quick turns later and the locked door to the indoor training room stands before me. Others might need keys to get in here, but I still know the secret carving to press that makes the door pop open. The alarums and newfangled things are well and good, but it’s a relief that the old ways still hold some power.
No one’s bound to be using this section of halls until morning at the earliest, so I don’t even bother to shut the door behind me. I can’t go back to the countess’s tower like this; I won’t be able to make my way there unseen through the tangled tempest of emotions and tears.
My head is afire, veins in my temples throbbing agonizingly.
Is this my life? Is this me?
I want to break. I want to burn. I want to ravage and tear with my teeth. And yet everything is so placid on the surface, years of learning to contain myself now imprisoning me, drowning me in lead.
Godsdammit, I have to breathe!
I tear at the dress and the corset’s laced neck with my ragged fingernails. I can’t focus, so I kick off the ridiculous, ungainly shoes and fall to my knees on the hardwood floor, blinded by the effort of seeing with my hands. Marthe’s knots are cunning, but I manage to rip them open and claw at the interwoven ribbon fastenings.
Air starts coming easier almost immediately, and some semblance of sense returns as I kneel there, half-unlaced and panting hysterically.
Loosening the corset somehow makes the ache in my heart deepen. It’s as though I’ve been flayed open, parts of me still limping along and desperately trying to be useful while other bits have been ripped away completely.
I can’t stop seeing Daschen’s bluer-than-blue eyes, how they shone when he looked at her, how the smile he gave her was so open and free — the way I thought he only was with me. The way I was with him.
Sweet, guileless Daschen still probably doesn’t even realize what’s ahead for him, even though it’s plain to Embla, to the courtiers, even to someone like me. An outsider. A servant.
I’m cold. Angry. Alone.
The wall of swords catches my eye and I run to one of the lowest racks, seeking a weapon that’s probably stood untouched for the past decade. I flick the puzzle lock open with a few deft twists, and then the curved blade is free in my hand, its strange golden metal chilling me to the bone, even through the wrapped leather handle.
Father said he bought it off a trader from Khet when I was a youngling, but I don’t think anyone’s used it before or since. It’s too small for the men, who regard it as little more than a bent toothpick, but even after so many years I can still twirl the shamshir fast enough to make the engraved metal sing.
The line of silent, vaguely conical wooden contraptions against the wall holds no dread for me; the chest-high things are exactly what I need to focus my hatred. They’re what killed my father, the stupid thing he and Mr. Soames were working on when the plague hit — even though Father had been a nobleman for a couple of years already by then and was meant to have given up all his swordmaster’s duties.
I’ve only seen these later versions from a distance, but they must work on the same principles. They must.
I roll the nearest dummy into the center of the training ring and viciously twist the winding mechanism on its back — and a relieved gasp escapes me as the thing ratchets to life, ticking like an irate squirrel. Its stacked layers twists and interact like loosened tree rings, falling into some hidden configuration that will dictate the dummy’s movements and decide which of its whirling appendages next manifests from the spinning, buzzing trunk.
I’m so overjoyed by the very fact it works that I nearly miss the thing’s first strike, and have to stumble backward to avoid the horizontal swipe of the sawblade. They’re wooden weapons — and dulled, of course — but the impact is meant to be jarring, and my left arm smarts even from even the glancing blow I receive.
The dummy reacts to its contact with me and lurches in my direction, wheels grumbling against the wooden floor. Between the crackling of those numberless lights in the ballroom and the orchestra’s thumping, the noise I’m making should go unnoticed.
I lash out with the shamshir, forcing the next appendage back. It’s a solid hit, but I’ve forgotten about the counterbalance mechanism that uses my own force against me and brings another arm swinging around to punch me in the gut.
The metal boning in the corset shields me somewhat, and the breath doesn’t entirely go out of my lungs — what little I have left, anyway. I shake my head, wheezing and clearing my mind of distracting thoughts as the training dummy lumbers toward me again.
As with every fight, as with the locks that secure the swords in their berths, it’s a puzzle. I’m overeager at first, and each too-heavy hit I land rebounds on me, the dummy only gaining the advantage from my frenetic jabs and last-second blocks.
Then, suddenly, it’s there before me, veiling my view of the shadowed training room and the panes of moonlight that carve through the swirling dust. It’s the clarity like staring a storm dead in the eye, that deep understanding of the fight, like a map of all the possibilities ahead.
I can see each of my possible movements set out for me, I can understand how the dummy is going to react. The thing’s pathetic limitations are laid bare, and it’s the work of just a few measured movements to send it roiling into shutdown, its energy sapped by the correct pattern of strikes.
It’s over too soon, and my victory rings hollow for the fight’s abrupt end.
A flicker of movement draws my attention to the door, and for a moment I think I see someone standing there — a stray visitor, perhaps, or a guard — but it’s just the silhouette of the training machine still shuddering in my vision, as if its spirit is unwilling to concede defeat. As am I.
But I’m never going to be a princess now. I won’t be Daschen’s wife, I won’t see the happy life Father wanted for me unfurling like a flag in the morning breeze. Once I make my way back to the countess’s tower, everything — even the shattered remnants of my dreams — will be gone.
All I’ll ever have is more of this same drudgery. It’s all I’m meant for. All I’ve ever been meant for.
That’s when it really hits me, that everything is lost, lost, lost, and I fall to the floor beside the drained machine and let myself cry until I, too, am silent and empty.
After I’ve pulled myself together again, I replace the sword and the dummy and make my way back to House Myre’s apartments. Some foreigner’s maid — a redheaded girl with sharp hazel eyes and freckled porcelain skin — offers a curtsey and asks directions to the pantry, and I wearily point her in the right direction. I know from her accent she’s not from these parts, so even if we run into each other in the lowers, there’s no way she’ll ever equate me with this blue-dress-clad monstrosity. She didn’t even balk at my lack of a companion.
Blessedly, Marthe says nothing in the way of reproach, just helps me out of the fine clothes. We shove the dress back into the laundry bag beneath some dirty linens, and i scrub the ruined makeup and scab of tears from my face. She doesn’t need for me to speak to know what’s happened, and even Talini holds her tongue.
I’m not even curious where the dress and the shoes and all my would-be finery ends up, just so long as I never have to see it again. Even the memory of it makes me queasy.
The castle gong sounds at the hour of the prince’s birth, and as a distant cheer sounds from the ballroom, I know it’s been announced, it’s done, my fate sealed. Whatever there was between Daschen and me is now over — he’s got a princess now, a fitting bride with hair golden as sunshine and eyes blue as the sea. No one the courtiers could possibly whisper about, save in envy.
No one who’s damaged like me.
I could stand to cry again, but I don’t want to worry Marthe and Talini. They’re busy taking care of the evening chores for me, so the least I can do is not create a godsawful racket.
To stave off complete despair I force myself to mentally walk through my daily chores over and over again, lulling myself back into the hideous repetition my future holds until my mind grinds itself into a deadened slumber.
I don’t wake until the screaming begins.