ALREADY A BESTSELLER:
My mother slipped the corset over my head and tightened the straps. She cinched and pulled until it laid, pressing my ribs together, snug enough to satisfy her. I finally let out a breath. Even though I grew up wearing these lousy pieces of fashion, it always felt as though I had to relearn how to breathe.
“I'll do what I can,” she finally said.
I sat down on the chair whose back I’d been gripping for the past ten minutes. I wanted to hunch, but I couldn’t. It was like my bones had been replaced with steel rods. I bit back a swear as my mother gathered up my hair and pinned it in a neat, tight knot on the crown of my head. She patted down the flyways, flashes of her bright red nails in my periphery. As blood red as her gown.
She stood back to admire her handiwork. “There. I suppose that will be enough not to put the royal family in a state of embarrassment.”
“You do know that I am able to dress myself,” I said to her, fighting the urge to shake my head like a wet dog and tease apart the hair that began to hurt my scalp.
“As queen, you will never have to do anything on your own,” my mother replied, giving a soft smile to my reflection. As the current queen, it was her business to ensure that I was the picture of what the kingdom sees in their future. Granted, I fought tooth and nail throughout my seventeen-and-a-half years as princess of Stormwall.
“Only as queen, though, right?” I said with a smirk.
“Only as queen, but right now you must heed me and stop wearing that hideous makeup. Set on a proper color lip stain. The elders want to be pleased and amazed at your presence. Not terrified, reaching for their hearts. You are there to consecrate a temple, after all.”
I forced back a smart retort. “Yes, ma'am,” I murmured instead.
“Isabelle,” she warned.
She twirled away and plucked my dress from my bed. I tried to look as bored as possible as I stood up and took it from her outstretched hands. This one, pale green chiffon layered with satin, had a bust that curved around each of my breasts and faded to a darker green at the very end of the skirt. The train, the color of an oak tree, attached to my shoulders. The pattern was so narrow that I not only had to determine how to breathe, but also how to walk.
“My favorite,” my mother announced, clapping her hands. She rested her hands along the apron of her layered skirt and watched as I groaned my way into the dress. She smiled, which was an oddity for my mother because normally she took in the world with severe tolerance. Always the picture-perfect queen, lips pressed in a hard line, ready to rule even in her sleep. A woman may be forgotten. But a queen lives on forever. That is what she tried to teach me from birth. I listened and I nodded like any good princess would.
Just because I listened did not mean I had to obey.
“Your first public, ceremonial outing,” she said. “Are you nervous?”
“No,” I lied. I wasn’t doing much, just standing there while someone else unlocked a door and opened it to the public for the first time. But for my mother, it held much more importance. It would show me standing on my own, as I one day I would stand as queen. She saw this ceremony as the first step to becoming queen. I saw it as more of a chance to escape.
When she had taken me in for long enough, she gestured toward the pair of black leather button shoes and turned to leave, the ripples of her skirt's train trailing behind.
“Be good,” she said, her tone hard. The weakness had passed, and her dark eyes hardened.
As good as I can be in this torture device, I thought. How she’d been doing it for forty years was beyond me.
“The elders look forward to seeing you.”
They are going to be sorely disappointed. I curbed a snort.
I watched her close the door to my chambers and then turned back to my reflection. My mother had always said green was my color and I didn’t disagree. Even my hair looked better than it had in a long time. That was when I noticed the small gold barrette she had placed at the base of the knot. Tilting my head, I saw the shape of a dragonfly. Pretty, I thought, admiring my entire look. And then I gave a tongue-in-cheek smirk. It was a pity it would be coming off the second I left this room.
I set off for the servant entrance, which was the quickest route away from the castle. I could navigate the hall with my eyes closed, and I knew all the shortcuts which wouldn’t draw attention. In record time, I was through the walkway and stables, where I’d quickly changed my clothing into something much more comfortable: a loose gray tunic, fitted black trousers and my worn boots. I saddled my horse, drew my bow and quiver from their hiding place amongst the hay, and cut a path through the gates into the woods beyond.
I rode my horse down King’s Road, hooves digging into the earth, the cool, wild air against my skin, down a hill where the cloudless blue sky turned from a small sliver centered in the trees. The cusp of winter brought on earlier sunsets and chilly nights with the promise of snow, making its way slowly from across the mountains. With autumn came the end of my seventeenth year—in five weeks to be exact—and soon enough, talk of marriage proposals would be more than just an afterthought in the plan for my future.
They could dream. I heard my mother’s voice telling me to focus on my future, and saw the heated look on my father's face when I would come home covered in the blood of a pig or drenched from getting stuck out in the rain without my cloak. With a father like mine, it was normal to use fear to force me to comply with his wishes, and for him to make me feel wrong about the person I was. He’d taught me how easy it was to love someone and hate them at the same time.
Days existed in their cramped way behind the walls of Stormwall. It wasn’t until my thirteenth year that my mother allowed me past the castle gates and down into the towns which expanded the world of concrete, stone, and forest. I knew there was much more in Mirosa, the New Kingdom, but these places were as names on a map. Stormwall is Mirosa, my father would say. All power, forest, and armies nestled against the mountains in the north. Nothing and nobody else mattered.
But I knew different. Lots of things mattered to me.
I gently drew backward on the reins of my horse. Somewhere in the distance came the snort of an animal—the sound of a promising day. “This may be a good day yet.”
I jumped down, lifted the blanket from my saddle, and revealed my bow and arrow. I let out a long breath. I’d forgotten what life outside the palace was like, and how my body relaxed instead of being taut as a bowstring.
I felt free.
I raised my eyebrows and threw the quiver onto my back, adjusting the strap across my chest. I stalked deeper into the trees, bow in hand. I didn’t have to hunt for my own food as others do. I didn’t have to skin it or cook it. I didn’t even have to ask for it. It's just always been there. My brother had taught me the way others do it. He’d taught me that every piece of a kill needed to be used.
I touched the emerald necklace my brother, Henry, had given me before leaving for war, smoothing my fingertip over it. My strength always seemed to rise when I touched it, drawing my brother’s bravery from his last gift to me.
I moved further, wiping a stray hair from my face. Out here, I could feel him better than behind the castle walls. Almost as if he were right beside me, ordering me to hold my arrow steady, to breathe, to count to three. Do or die, he'd say.
“Do or die,” I whispered. I went down onto my belly and pushed myself through some thorny underbrush. I wore a mossy green calf-length tunic and brown fitted pants. With Henry’s old worn leather boots, I sported the perfect hunting attire. I trained my ears, held my breath, and peered over a small hill to a family of boar less than fifty feet off. A single large one and three babies. The large one's tusks gleamed in what sunlight the canopy of trees allowed. I pulled back my arrow, taking a deep breath, and counted to three just as Henry once instructed.
The boar moved slightly, its belly fat and exposed.
Another deep breath. A lick of my lips and a steady hand.
I let my arrow fly and waited for that tell-tale wail—an animal scream and a scurrying of little boar hooves. I skipped to my feet, but before I could take a step, my ears pricked to the deep exhale of something large, silhouetted in a space between two large redwoods. A deer. And a buck at that, with more points than I could even begin to count. I drew another arrow and pulled back, my heart racing against my chest.
The snapping of branches and leaves announced a visitor of the two-legged kind. I cringed as I watched the buck dart away, disappearing into the forest. My heart landed in my stomach like a brick. “You'd be a terrible hunter,” I said.
An old man in a linen robe leaned against a tree, observing me with a quiet interest. Underneath all those white whiskers, I could see a faint smile painted on his lips.
Did you get it, he signed, his fingers moving deftly at chest-level.
I almost laughed. “Did I get it,” I said under my breath and made my way to the dead boar. The babies had scattered, probably to the group's other adults.
My boar lay with my arrow in its midsection. Not young by any means, its tusks as long as my arms. Too astounded by their size, I almost failed to notice the slow rise and fall of the boar’s chest. Shaking my head, I plucked at the branch of my pants and unsheathed Henry's hunting knife. I stood at equal height with the old man and held out my hand, where the knife laid exposed in my palm. “Render it a go, Milke’?”
Milke’ cocked his head quizzically. He smelled like tobacco and looked as though he’d weathered the worst this world could give him. I winked at him and closed my hand over the grip of the knife.
“Their hearts sit low,” I said, more to myself than to my guest. I prepared my entry, holding the handle tight. I brought it down and out quickly, bringing with it a squishing, fleshy sound, like biting into a peach. Except peach juice isn’t red and tastes a little sweeter.
In the time it took me to remove the tusks and tie the beast to my horse, the number of spectators began to grow as we moved through the forest toward their village. Though they were older, something radiated from them. In their silence, there was power. It was something I never understood.
They were called the Voiceless, a people inflicted with a disease that attacked their vocal chords and rendered them mute. They say it was brought upon by infected birds or tainted water—something of that tragic manner. All I knew with certainty was that the Voiceless came from the Old Kingdom on the other side of the mountains and warred against my father. Once the disease had struck, they gave up their arms and a new age emerged—one of the old and the new coming together as one.
A new world.
Several hundred of the Voiceless came into my father’s land to live, having fled their war-torn country and settled under his rule. I felt sorry for them, these people who had their lives destroyed. But my father said the Old Kingdom was full of old magic and evil and that he’d saved them from such an existence. That he’d liberated them.
The truth was a fragile thing.
The Voiceless lived in severely rundown camps, like the one where I’d brought the boar. Most were elderly, plagued by brittle bones and shriveled lungs, and were unable to hunt for themselves. Some were younger, having been babes when the disease had struck. But the youth had mostly gone off and spread themselves across the great continent, taking jobs and living as citizens. Or they went back to the Old Kingdom. But nobody talked about those ones. Nobody talked about the Voiceless much at all. With no written history, I only knew what others had told me. Nothing more.
“There’s talk of white mountain cat sightings.” I wiped the blood from the hunting knife on the saddle blanket and replaced it in its sheath. The men took the boar and lifted it onto a wooden table in the center of the small village.
White cats are rare, Milke’ signed.
“If you were younger, you’d accompany me, I’m sure,” I told him. “Maybe I’d even let you woo me.”
If I were younger, I’d be out there fighting.
I frowned at this. It was no secret that some of the Voiceless had formed their own small armies, wreaking havoc wherever they could. There were none here at Stormwall, but the stories made their way across the continent, from the smaller kingdoms and beyond.
“I fear what would happen if enough of you got together,” I said in jest as the butchers hacked up the boar. They’d given me the tusks and I slipped them into my saddlebag, then returned to watching them cut the meat. Blood spilled down the side of the table and through the cracks. I watched the drip, drip, drip until something caught my eye.
“Whatever could that be?”
Milke’ tugged my arm as I began to move toward the large trunk of a tree. I turned to look at him.
Don’t worry about that.
Whenever people said that, it made me worry even more.
I didn’t answer. I moved to the tree trunk and I swear the birds in the forest stopped chirping. I heard my own gasp as if it were thunder.
They started higher than my head and stretched down to my knees. Deep grooves, five of them, carved deep enough into the wood to splinter it. I rounded the tree and cupped a hand to my mouth.
“Why did you tell me not to worry?” I’d turned to face Milke’ but also came face to face with the dozens of the Voiceless. “What did this?”
Mountain cat, a woman signed.
I let out a shaky laugh. “Bear maybe, but…” I ran my fingers through the grooves. A bear would have the height, perhaps, but not the claws.
From somewhere close, a man was shouting. Then another. Through the trees, I caught sight of black and yellow. Palace guards.
I looked up at the sky to see where the sun was sitting and cursed under my breath. If the guards were here, that meant my mother had sent them, which meant…
I nodded to Milke’ and signed that I’d be back before the boar ran out, then hugged him. I wanted to stay and investigate those claw marks, but I knew being caught would mean facing my mother’s wrath. I vowed to return soon.
Then I fled on horseback, giving the palace guards a chase as I made for my castle in the wind.
I made two stops before going home. First, at the stables, to drop off my horse. Second, through the back gardens to the cemetery, my sack of tusks on one shoulder. There, I said hello to Henry.
The cemetery was open and covered in daisies, with a few scattered trees. The wind moaned through the gravestones, rustling the leaves of the trees that stood in this place. Days, weeks, years, decades went by outside of those gates, yet, behind them, nothing changed except the leaves on the trees. I’d spent long days here, unaware of my mortality—but that was before. Back when I was so sure that I would live forever.
I took in the cool air and stepped carefully around the graves until I found it. A limestone marker engraved with his full name:
Henry Yuel Rowan.
Henry was lost in a battle far away from Stormwall. I was only seven years old then. Ten years later, I still remembered his smell. A mixture of tobacco and firewood.
Part of me still hoped that he was out there, somewhere, but the other part knew, if he were, he’d come home.
“I know you’re going to haunt me forever for not visiting for so long,” I told the great limestone. I blew a laugh through my nose. “But listen, you wouldn’t believe the buck I saw today. You’d kill me for mucking it up. Though I must tell you, it wasn’t my fault. Don’t say it was. Trust me. It wasn’t.”
The leaves crunched beneath me as I sat at my brother’s grave. Flanked by two massive willow trees, it wasn’t far from the rock wall that surrounded the entire castle. He had no mausoleum. No concrete casket atop the earth. Just a bright, smooth headstone and behind it, thrust into the ground like its own marker, his sword.
I guess when you’re dead and there is no real body to bury, there is no point in building a house around you. There’s nothing to protect. I scraped away some bird-shit and brushed away the leaves. I vowed that when I was made queen, I’d build a mausoleum just for him.
I pushed to my feet and blew a kiss to the wind. “I’ll be back,” I said. “Don’t go anywhere, all right?”
I used the servant entrance to get back into the castle. Most of the guards knew me well enough to let me pass without a second look. Today, there was one I had never seen before. At my presence, he hovered a hand over the sword at his hip before the other guard nodded to let me pass.
I rushed up the first set of stairs, and turned the corner to another set. With a heaving breath, I gripped the wall and bounded two steps at a time. I stopped short, almost running smack dab into two people walking ahead. They wore neat, gray uniforms—a common wardrobe for the kitchen staff. I recognized one by voice as the head of the kitchen staff, Maurie Bets, an old man with hunched shoulders. The other wasn’t recognizable from the back, but from what I could tell, he was younger. What I did know was that they were in my way.
“Princess Isabelle,” said Maurie Bets. He watched from the landing. His face was a dried-up raisin with wrinkles so deep you could stick a coin in them. He lowered his head to me. The other person, a boy about my age, merely looked at the floor until Maurie gave him a swift smack to the chest. He straightened after a low bow and looked to me. Despite my haste, I blinked at the sight of him.
And blinked and blinked until my eyes adjusted.
He cast a look through tired, pale blue eyes and tawny brown hair that looked as though someone had taken a knife to it blindly. Such a pretty boy. Man. Boy. Whatever he was. He was…
Gods is he handsome. So handsome, in fact, that I tripped up the second stair and would have fallen into him had I not caught myself on the edge of the landing. I cursed aloud, causing Maurice to clear his throat in an exaggerated fashion. The boy bent down to hand me the sack of tusks that I had dropped at his feet, arching an eyebrow curiously. He smelled like sweet root. I cursed again, suddenly aware of how I must have looked. And smelled.
I took the sack of tusks and nearly dropped them again.
I turned, not trusting myself to speak, and ran up the last set of stairs to a large steel door.
The echoes of my name reverberated against the walls and down to my very bones as I strode through the castle, the sack of boar tusks in hand. My mother could be so dramatic.
Curious eyes met me at every turn. Princess or not, hidden glances from guards and servants alike weren’t uncommon. They were the type of looks you give when you’ve accidentally seen someone naked—shameful, but oddly curious about the strange birthmark or saggy body parts. For me, the strange birthmark was a streak of blood on my cheek that I only noticed when I passed one of the many oval mirrors on my way to my mother’s chambers. I wiped it clean, dropped off the sack in my room, and turned down a second hallway where my personal guard, Crimson Stanwood, waited.
I sighed deeply at the sight of him. “I know, Crim. She must be losing her stones.”
He nodded, exasperated, glad to have finally found me, running his hand across his head as if there was even a wisp of hair left there. Crim was a mountain in his own right. Standing over six feet tall and big enough to fit me inside of him four times over. He’d been known all over Stormwall and the new and old country as “The Woodchopper,” a name earned after he toppled a perfectly standing tree and carried it ten miles on his back. This impressed my father, the unimpressible king, and earned him a place in Stormwall.
A place, yes, but Crim was a Voiceless. For people like him, his place was merely a placard.
At first, I’d learned how to sign to better communicate with Crim, and then with the other Voiceless in Stormwall. He had been there since the day I was born. The least I could do was have a proper conversation occasionally.
You’re getting better at giving me the slip, he signed. He wasn’t mad, per se, but he folded his big arms across the chest of his gray and yellow uniform. His hands were the size of dinner platters. Unlike the other guards, Crim didn’t carry a weapon. It was easy to see that a mere sword was very much beneath him.
“The slip, yes,” I said with a quick curtsey. I held my hand out to Crim with a bow. “But have you seen me dance?”
The wailing of “Isabelle!” interrupted my sad excuse for a slow dance with my guard. In a moment’s time, the queen would float down this hallway in a frenzy of ruffled skirts, perfume, and flailing arms. I didn’t want Crim to bear the brunt of my mother’s temper, so I sent him away and slipped into her chambers.
I stood against a polished wardrobe, cleaning my nails with my dagger when my mother arrived. She gave one look and, with no thought at all, snatched the weapon from my hand and slammed it down onto the massively ornate desk to her right. She walked into the other room, her bedchambers, just as the door opened behind me.
My cousin Lulu slipped in, smiling through clenched teeth as she took position beside me. She was my own spitting image, down to the part in her hair. She argued that she was at least a quarter of an inch taller than me, but I swore she’d rise on her heels every time.
“It was your mother who caught me.” Lulu’s voice was barely a whisper. Her mouth turned upward in one corner. Nervous amusement.
I snorted. My mother. Of course, it was.
“There’s a new boy,” I said.
“Really?” Lulu replied. Her lips quirked up higher. “Is he cute?”
I thought back to those blue eyes and bit my inner cheek. “Painstakingly so.”
A thin smile spread across her face. “Sounds fun.”
I laughed. “Sometimes I admire your candor.” She still wore my green dress and the dragonfly pin in her hair.
“You’ll admire my dalliance when I have the servant boy between my sheets.”
“You little tart.” I went to punch Lulu but my mother strode back into the room. We both diverted our eyes to the floor. From this angle, all I could see were my mother’s apple red heeled boots as she walked toward us across the carpeted floor.
“I don’t quite comprehend why you insist on disappointing me, Isabelle.” One heel pivoted as she waited for a reply.
“Did the elders even notice?” I asked brazenly. “Gods. In the dozens of times I’ve stood before them, they’ve never once looked me in the eyes. I could have the head of a lizard and rule the land with a matchstick, and they wouldn’t bat an eye.”
“Your insults toward the elders do not help your cause.”
I bit my tongue, doing my best not to give her the satisfaction of a debate that I would clearly lose. I finally lifted my chin and met her gaze. Despite the scarcity of any sort of apology in my eyes, my mother did not look as close to a warpath as I’d imagined. I might get out of this with a stern speech about respect and maybe, if she was particularly keen on ruining my day, she’d bring up Henry—not by name, of course—and my obligation to Stormwall. It was then that I realized Lulu was my buffer, and when she was ordered to leave, the air around me changed into something thick.
“Smile when they think they’ve got you, Izzy,” Lulu whispered before leaving. “They can’t know that they’ve won.”
I tried smiling, but it melted away at my mother’s gaze. I touched my emerald necklace, as if trying to cipher strength from the gemstone.
“I am ordering all dyes, paints, and makeup I find unsavory to be removed from both of your rooms and anywhere you have access,” said my mother, her look now cold and hard. She started pacing, her skirt moving like a bell in the breeze. “I don’t want you near even a child’s finger paints.” She stopped, moving aside a wisp of dark hair from her ear. “Using your cousin as a stand-in. Honestly, Isabelle. What would your father say?”
I tried not to laugh. “He’d say a lot, I expect. He’s been gone long enough.”
My mother studied my face to see if I were joking. I wasn’t. I knew any sort of backtalk about what my father, the king of Stormwall, did outside of the city walls was a sore subject. Not only because of the danger he faced beyond the Archway in the Old Kingdom, but also because of the reason he was there. I couldn’t tell if my mother approved of the conquering of kingdoms to expand the empire, or if she’d rather give it all up to have him home.
“He is ensuring your future,” she said after the longest of pauses. “So you don’t have to worry about war or death or anything of the sort.” I tried to interrupt her, but she kept on. It sounded like a speech that she had practiced. “Soon, all of the Six Realms will be united. Not just one half, but a whole. A whole Mirosa.”
“Still, the Archway, Mother,” I said. “Father tells us that there is nothing left to conquer, yet still he goes and takes his armies with him.” I thought back to all the stories of the Old Kingdom—stories of magical beasts and spirits. I even read that there was a gateway to the Uncanny’s underworld out there. It didn’t sound like a place where we’d want to expand our empire.
“So says the girl who cannot find her way to a temple in the very town she’s known for seventeen years.” She stopped pacing and hit where it hurts. “Do you hate us so much, Isabelle?”
I thought of Henry at that moment. I straightened, fighting the surge of emotion that followed such a loaded question. If Lulu had stayed, I would have grabbed hold of her hand and squeezed it until the anger faded. I bit my tongue. Again.
“I know you’re doing everything you can, given the circumstances,” said my mother. She pinched the bridge of her nose and squeezed her eyes shut as if she had a headache. “But I’d like you to try a little harder, Isabelle.”
I kept my mouth shut and nodded. I didn’t have to read between the lines to know what the words “given the circumstances” meant. So many retorts ran through my head. One included blaming my father for sending my brother to war and my mother for allowing it to happen. But in the end, the past was the past, and blaming someone for something long gone was like blaming the clouds for rain. Both were beyond my control.
So, I said nothing as my mother swept across the study and rifled through some papers on the desk. She found a letter and unfolded it in front of me. The royal seal was stamped in wax. A letter from my father.
“He sends his love, as always.” My mother scanned the letter further. “Oh, and he says they have found nothing worthy.”
My voice dropped an entire octave. “That means he’s coming home.”
I swore under my breath.
The queen didn’t hear. She folded up the letter in silence and held it at her side. “They are moving deeper.”
Deeper. That meant further from Stormwall. Further from the Archway, deep in a place beyond the mountains where it was cold and gray, where the land was barren due to long years of war. A place where nothing grew but the stories of great beasts and sorcery and the ghosts of the dead. Deeper in the old country, where the last shreds of magic threatened everything my father built. Everything my brother died for.
My father wanted to destroy everything.
This fact didn’t escape my mother, a queen ruling without her king beside her, fully capable of such a task. But it didn’t take a genius to know why she cried at night when she thought nobody could hear.
I gathered myself up and took a deep breath. “I wasn’t just parading around like you believe I was,” I told her. Something in her eyes flickered. “I was with—”
“All right, go now,” my mother interrupted. She’d said everything she needed to say and that was the end of it. “I have much to plan for tomorrow.”
Once outside my mother’s room, Crim fell into step beside me. I sensed my guard’s attention as we walked.
It could have been worse, I signed. There hadn’t been steam coming out of her ears this time.
When I finally arrived back at my room, I collapsed into my bed despite my grungy clothes. I shifted to my side and let the silk sheets kiss my cheek. I would have fallen asleep right then and there had it not been for the dull ache in my head. It was only when I looked up to the ceiling that my cousin’s face blinked into view.
“Please tell me that he kisses as well as he speaks.” She purred and grinned. “And moves and breathes.”
I sat up, sighing deeply. “My day was great. Thanks for asking.”
Lulu cocked her head.
“All right, I’ll bite,” I said. “Who are we talking about?”
“The new servant!”
Lulu practically fell over me. She plopped right beside me and leaned in, shoving her nose into my face. She always expected a full-length detailed description of everything the sons of Mirosa had said, the way they said it, and how their lips moved when they did. Never mind where they put their hands and if I let them. She always said it wasn’t fair how good-looking all the highborn were, and blamed me for leaving her with the sons of carpenters and even soldiers, who, to me, weren’t half-bad if you ignored their need to solve everything with violence.
I let her hang for a bit longer as I removed my boots and clothes, scrubbing my hands clean in the water room and slipping into a black satin dress with a gold band cinching the waist. It was nothing like the comfort of my hunting clothes, but I wouldn’t dare wear them within the castle walls. At least not where my mother could catch me in them.
My chambers consisted of three rooms—the bed, the dining, and the bath—and took up most of the west wing of the castle. Throughout, there were accents of golds and reds and the massive skin of black bear in the center. With its hollow eyes and tooth-filled maw, it was the subject of many arguments between my parents. Mostly my mother objected to such things, but as the prize of one of the king’s annual bear hunts, it stayed put.
I leaned against the doorframe of the water room and looked to Lulu. I had to smile at the level of anxiety this was causing my cousin. She practically teetered at the edge of the bed. I wanted to tell her that he tasted like berries and his hands touched places she’d never imagined could be touched. I wanted to make her jealous and swoon and fall over my words.
But I couldn’t. Because that servant had done none of those things.
“Lulu, we didn’t do anything. We barely spoke.”
Lulu spotted the sack of boar tusks by my door. “Where was it you went, then?”
“I brought some food to the Voiceless.”
She caught her breath and then jumped to her feet. “Izzy, you didn’t!”
“I will never understand why people fret over helping one another.”
My cousin put her face into her hands. “You love to instigate. Listen, you have better things to do than waste your time acting like a missionary.”
I said nothing and moved to my window. I threw open the curtains to the mountains silhouetted against the afternoon sky. Somewhere out there my father had led his army through two large columns extending hundreds of feet into the air and topped with a carved keystone. This stone structure, or Archway, was the opening to the split in the mountains and the quickest route to the old country. My bitterness toward his absence shifted to guilt. He ate, slept and fought in gloom and desolation. It was so hard to picture that there was such a place beyond those mountains when everything around where I stood looked so…safe.
The guards below my window looked rather bored,
So I pushed open the doors to the balcony and threw down a rolled ball of linen onto their heads. I promptly shut the doors again.
“I’m in need of a trip,” I told Lulu, twirling around the post of my bed.
“A trip may need to wait,” said Lulu, undoing her hair and brushing it out with her fingers. She handed me the dragonfly pin and stared at me without apology. “You do remember who is set to arrive tomorrow, don’t you?” My blank look prompted a sigh. “Prince Ashe Paratheon!”
I threw up my hands and collapsed into a large armchair by the window, wanting to sink down far enough to disappear. Ashe Paratheon. Why did the name sound so familiar? I tapped on my chin and dug through my memories only to come up short. Perhaps it had been mother who had brought him up. He was arriving in Stormwall, after all.
That had to be it.
“Oh yes. The Prince of the Peeks,” I purred. “How fun will he be, do you think?”
“With your track record, he might run from this castle and jump ship back to his islands in less than a day. Screaming like an infant, might I add.”
“That was one time! The spiders were not my fault.”
“But the beetles were.”
“It’s all relative.”
Lulu picked up my leather riding jacket from the floor and balled it up in her arms. “A relative is who you’ll marry if you don’t stop messing around with those boys.”
“Boys,” I said under my breath.
“Boys,” I repeated. “That is what they all are.”
“It’s a pity you weren’t born one.”
I laughed. It was a pity.
“What’s your basis for comparison, Izzy?”
“Someone who is brave without thinking twice,” I replied and bit my lower lip. “And can gut a pig with a kitchen knife. Where are you going with my clothes anyway?”
“I like the fit. I may use it to lure that new servant.” Lulu smirked. She moved toward my chamber door. “You can’t have it all, Izzy.”
She dismissed me with a flick of her wrist and disappeared through the door. I launched to my feet and stood in the open doorway. “Especially the kitchen knife thing!”
A sentry dared a look. I slammed the doors to block him out.
That night I obeyed my mother for once in my life and washed the red streak from my hair. When I exited my bath chambers, I found new makeup on my vanity. Gone were the plum lipsticks and black kohls, replaced with softer hues of coral and cream with crushed powder, rouge and azurite eyeshadow. I hated it all save for the eyeshadow. That, I could work with.
Anxiety filled my stomach as I neared my closet and pushed open the doors. I expected everything to be replaced, especially my riding clothes, but surprisingly nothing had been touched. Even Henry’s filthy riding boots. I smiled, but it faltered when I approached my bed to find a new dress laid out there.
The gown looked like something a child would wear. Shapeless. Cape-sleeved with a cream lace bodice and a cascading purple skirt that was layered beyond layered with tulle. I frowned. It was so…full. I could hide a small child underneath, and nobody would ever know.
Groaning, I pushed it over the edge of my bed like the dirty interloper it was. I contemplated hiding it from my maid when she came to dress me tomorrow morning, but my cascade of pillows looked suddenly inviting.
I’d almost forgotten about the claw marks until I closed my eyes. I thought back, considering every possible explanation, and still came up short. They wouldn’t have warranted this much attention if it weren’t for the way Milke’ and the others had reacted. I liked mysteries, and maybe having one like this would help me get through my mother’s incessant match-making.
I slept with the gut-twisting thought of having to entertain a prince.