They were talking about her.
Oressa, curled beneath her father’s throne, her arms wrapped around her knees and her knees tucked up tight to her chest, was precariously hidden behind generous falls of the saffron-dyed silk draped over the seat and back of the throne. This sort of thing had been easier when she was twelve. Or even sixteen. Now that she was a woman grown, she had to work much harder to stay out of sight.
At least she was still small. She was lucky Gulien was the one who’d gotten all their father’s height. She breathed soundlessly through her mouth, tensed and relaxed all her muscles in turn to ease the painful cramps in her legs and back, and listened intently.
Oressa had known her father would spend the morning talking about important things. Her father never sent all his servants and attendants away unless he wanted to talk privately to his favored ministers. Sometimes the things they talked about turned out to be boring, as when her father and Magister Baramis had spent a whole afternoon arguing about whether to compel the dyer’s guild to sell dyes and fixatives at a low flat rate to a favored merchant house that had just brought in a load of Markandan silk. Oressa had been stuck for far, far too long, listening to every possible ramification of the prices of dyes.
She had guessed that this morning’s topic would be more interesting, though, because everyone knew the Tamaristan king had recently suffered a brain storm or seizure or something of the kind and was probably on his deathbed. The Tamaristan succession was often exciting, but especially this time because the Tamaristan king had collapsed without declaring which of his sons was going to be his heir and having the rest killed, which, cruel and horrible as it was, was usually how the Tamaristans handled their succession. So Oressa had expected that her father and his advisers would discuss the five living Tamaristan princes and which among them was most likely to defeat the rest and which one those Tamaristan ships out there in the harbor might belong to. Those ships looked suspiciously like narrow, fast warships rather than deep-bellied cargo transports. Or so people were saying. Oressa hadn’t seen them herself.
She’d been right about the general subject of discussion. But she hadn’t guessed her own name would appear in the ensuing argument. It happened after Lord Meric said, “Mark my words, sire. What we have out there is one of the younger princes who’s decided that if he can’t win his father’s throne, he might as well get out of his brothers’ way and try for foreign conquest. Naturally he looks our way. That gods-cursed white-crystal plague left us vulnerable—unless, ah, that is, of course, if the Kieba protects us, sire—”
“I think we should not depend on the Kieba’s protection,” said Oressa’s father. His flat voice did not invite Meric to continue. Oressa could imagine her father’s chilly eyes, the thin set of his mouth. Plagues weren’t exactly rare, but her father had been furious about this one, almost as though the white-crystal rain had been a personal insult aimed directly at him. It had been pretty bad, and the Kieba had let the plague run its course instead of sending a cure, which was very unusual. Meric was right; that plague had left Carastind vulnerable. And Meric was right again: Of course Carastind really should be able to depend on the Kieba for protection. But everyone knew there was a problem between Oressa’s father and the Kieba.
At least, Oressa knew it, and she could tell that Meric guessed. She knew, as Meric might not, that twice this spring the Kieba had sent one of her falcons to her father, summoning him to her mountain, and both times her father had declined to go. So far as Oressa was aware, he hadn’t told anybody about that, but she knew. She watched her father very carefully.
After a brief, uncomfortable pause, Lord Meric said, his tone cautious, “Yes, sire, but then we must have a way to protect ourselves against this Tamaristan prince. There may even be one or two others on their way behind this one; the old man certainly left enough sons, and they say the eldest is ruthless. Ruthless even among the Garamanaji, I mean.”
The eldest Tamaristan prince, Oressa knew, was Maranajdis Garamanaj, and he was indeed supposed to be ferocious. In Carastind, people said he’d murdered his youngest brother when their father had begun showing the boy too much favor, and there were doubts about the sudden illness of the king, too. If those tales were true, no wonder the younger princes might consider fleeing Tamarist rather than facing Maranajdis.
Oressa imagined a whole series of Tamaristan princes sailing in one after another to attack Caras. If she remembered correctly, there were two princesses between Maranajdis and the next eldest prince, Ajei, who was about thirty. Then there was another princess, and after her, Gajdosik, who was close to Gulien’s age; and then, a year or two younger, Bherijda, and last—since the youngest prince had been murdered—Emarast, who was no older than Oressa was herself. And then the youngest princess, Alia, who was just fifteen or sixteen. Not that Alia or any of the other princesses actually mattered, since their lives were almost as circumscribed as those of their mothers.
Their very lack of power probably meant that the Tamaristan princesses were fairly safe from their brothers, but the way the Tamaristan succession was handled, the princes must have been at odds since childhood and surely could not be friends. But she imagined they might be allies, especially if they were all afraid enough of Maranajdis. It would not be good if they all joined forces to attack Carastind. Cannons guarded the harbor, true. But just how many ships could those cannons destroy if many came at once? Or what would Caras do if ships came in farther up or down the coast and Tamaristan soldiers marched overland toward the city? She found she had no idea. She wished suddenly that Gulien had explained military history to her, not just the ancient history of the dead gods.
Magister Baramis answered Meric. “If we have a clutter of Tamaristan princes looking for conquest, well, then, we had better look for options that depend on cleverness rather than forceful defense. Take this prince we presume is out in the Narrow Sea. Whichever one it is, right now he must still be considering his strategy. We’d better do something about him while he’s still thinking and before any more of that lot decide to stir the pot. A dispossessed prince need not look at Caras itself, you know. A man so poor-spirited as to give up his birthright to Maranajdis without a fight might well be content to gain a little hayfield-sized kingdom of his own. Why not grant him one? We can give him those rocky hills up by the northern border. In a generation, his people will serve as a true bulwark between Carastind and Estenda. That would be useful.”
Lord Meric snorted. “Useful! It would certainly give him a beachhead! One he’d use against us, not Estenda, and not in a generation, but now!”
“Not if we offer him the proper inducement.” Oressa could hear the satisfaction in Baramis’s tone and could imagine just what he looked like: smug, satisfied with his own cleverness, sure he’d hit on a perfect plan. He went on. “Oressa’s twenty. That’s well past marriageable age, and what better use could be made of her? Offer the princess to this Tamaristan prince!”
At that point Oressa twitched before she could stop herself. She froze, biting her lip hard, sure somebody must have heard her involuntary movement.
“We’ll make the Tamaristan prince our ally against his brothers and distract Estenda all at once,” Baramis declared. “It’s perfect! And it means we needn’t depend on the Kieba for anything.”
The heavy throne that comprised Oressa’s hiding place was solid, but it creaked as her father shifted position. The hilt of his sword rubbed against the side of the chair, and the concealing silk draperies trembled. Her father had heard her. He would catch her listening—
There was a loud slapping sound as someone else brought his hand down against the arm of a chair. Gulien spoke sharply. “Magister Baramis, that is a Tamaristan prince!”
Oressa had not even known till then that Gulien was in the room. He rarely spoke during such meetings, for though Gulien was a man grown, nearly twenty-five, their father expected him to listen and learn and be silent. But now, though Baramis and Meric both tried to speak at once, Gulien raised his voice. “You would offer my sister to a prince of Tamarist? To live the rest of her life in a cage? To watch her sons, my father’s grandsons, raised by foreign nurses and finally murdered by her husband?” No one shouted in their father’s presence, but Gulien was coming close.
“My son, enough,” the king said flatly.
Oressa tucked her head against her knees and fought not to laugh, though it wasn’t funny. It wasn’t funny at all. Princesses seldom chose whom they would marry; she knew that; everyone knew that. But she couldn’t imagine any woman voluntarily marrying a Tamaristan prince. Everything Gulien had said was true—everyone knew about the gilded cage in the Tamaristan king’s city—Baija—the cage to which only the king had a key and within which his queen spent her whole life. It was a big cage, granted; tales claimed it was three hundred paces long and two hundred paces wide and held many graceful pavilions for the queen and her women servants and gardens filled with rare birds and flowers. But it was a cage, and the queen never left it.
Her brother seldom lost his temper. But at this suggestion he had, very rightly so in Oressa’s opinion, and fortuitously distracted everyone, even their father, from the careless motion that might have betrayed her.
“We could certainly write more civilized terms into the wedding contract, Your Highness,” said Baramis in a much more conciliatory tone. “The match would be advantageous enough that surely the prince would agree Oressa need not be pent as close as a Tamaristan queen. We could require exile for the extra princes, not death. But it’s an offer that potentially wins us a great deal and costs us, in practical terms, very little. You know there’s no obvious match for Oressa in Carastind, or she’d have been married years ago.” His tone changed as he turned to the king. “I’m sure you agree, sire, that there’s little benefit to bestowing your daughter on any rich merchant from Estenda or gilded lordling from Markand. And there’s no unwed Illian prince except that boy in the northernmost province, but he’s too young anyway. No, sire. Think on it: Such an alliance might offer quite enough advantages to justify offering Oressa to a Tamaristan prince under these circumstances. As Lord Meric reminded us, we remain vulnerable, especially if the Kieba—well, that is, of course Carastind will recover from its weakness, sire, but just at the moment—”
“Indeed,” said Oressa’s father, his voice dry.
Oressa bit her finger to keep from making a sound, but she knew Baramis was right about Carastind being vulnerable. Everyone must know, even in Tamarist, that the people of Carastind and especially those of Caras itself, had been weakened by the white-crystal rain.
There were always plagues: diseases brought by rains of cinders or blood or sharp slivers of iron or, worse, by creeping red or purple or black mists that even doors and shutters couldn’t stop. Just a few days ago rumors of a lavender mist had run through the city. The resulting panic had sent palace servants and staff fleeing to relatives in the countryside. But those rumors had turned out to be all wrong; some fool must just have seen sunset light reflecting off sea mist and panicked.
The plague this past spring hadn’t been anybody’s imagination. It had been carried by a sudden swift rain of tiny white crystals out of a clear hot sky, a rain that had lasted only hours, so it shouldn’t have been so bad. Only, like salt, the white crystals of the plague rain dissolved in water and afterward you couldn’t tell the water was bad. Quite a lot of people caught the plague from the bad water before they realized what was happening.
Anybody who drank contaminated water got fever and then chills. Then people seemed to get better. But after that, the fever come back again, only much worse. That higher fever brought on a terrible thirst, and there was so little clean water to give people, especially after many of city’s cisterns turned out to be contaminated. Worse, the high fever brought hallucinations: People saw scattered images of long-dead cities from the deep past, from the time of the gods, and sometimes they forgot who they were and called out in languages no one today knew. Which would have even been interesting, and Oressa had almost wished to get the plague herself, but it was just as well she hadn’t, because it turned out that a little while after the hallucinations, a lot of the fever victims went into convulsions, and then they died. And for some reason young men had been a lot more likely to die than women or old people or children.
Then the illness had passed. But by that time a lot of people had died already. Most of them were men, which besides weakening the militia was terribly hard for all the widowed wives. Oressa had pointed out to Gulien that someone might suggest to their father that taxes might be forgiven for the widows, at least for a year or two, but though he said he’d passed that idea around where it might do some good, nothing had happened. She knew there would be a lot of hardship in Caras because of that.
That was when a lot of people had started muttering that Oressa’s father must have offended the Kieba. Oressa knew it was true, but she was pretty sure the rumors wouldn’t have spread if her father had been nicer about the taxes. She now guessed that those rumors had spread even to Tamarist and that the Tamaristan princes believed them. And that meant they believed that the Kieba wouldn’t protect Carastind against any enemies who suddenly decided to attack. And, most frightening of all, they might even be right. In that case, no matter what Baramis thought, a Tamaristan prince needn’t be poor-spirited to think of trying to conquer Carastind rather than defeat the infamous Maranajdis. That would actually just be sensible.
So Baramis’s suggestion actually made perfect sense. But Oressa didn’t have to like it. She glared at the silk draperies, since she couldn’t crawl out from under the chair and glare at Magister Baramis or her father.
Oressa’s father said nothing. She imagined he had nodded or waved for Baramis to go on or looked at Meric—ah, the latter, because Meric said, “Well, sire, I have to admit, making one Tamaristan prince into an ally against the rest of them . . . I hadn’t thought of that, but it’s better than trying to fight them all. If we can get this first prince to ally with us, then very likely we can get any others that follow to turn aside from Carastind, to perhaps harass Estenda instead. Even if not, a strong settlement in the north would give Estenda pause.” From his tone, he actually agreed, if reluctantly, with Baramis. He never agreed with Baramis about anything. Oressa thought this was a very unfortunate time for him to start.
Gulien started to say something, his tone sharp, but then he stopped. For a long moment no one spoke at all. Oressa thought probably her father had put up a hand for silence.
“Lord Meric, we will think over all you have said,” the king said. “Magister Baramis, we will consider your suggestion.” His tone remained flat, but it carried a finality that prevented anybody from trying to continue the argument. “Gulien—”
There was the sharp little click of the door opening. Oressa twitched, though this time at least she didn’t bump the chair or make a sound. That had to be something important, because no one ever broke in on her father’s council deliberations.
“Sire,” said a deep, smooth voice, instantly recognizable. This was Erren, junior captain of the king’s guard. Oressa didn’t like Erren. He was handsome, yes, but he was a bully, especially with servant girls. Erren was thickset and muscular, and he had a mustache, which he wore long and waxed into points as though he were a Markand lordling. Oressa thought he’d probably been impressed by a mustache like that when he’d been young and had never gotten over it. She thought it was silly and affected, though she had to admit that lots of girls seemed to admire it. Not the servant girls, who knew better, but well-born girls, the kind who didn’t have any sense.
Erren must have walked forward and bent to speak quietly into her father’s ear, because though his voice was very low, Oressa nevertheless heard him say “Tamarist” and “soldiers” and something that sounded like “the sea-eagle” and, most alarming of all, “Paree.”
Paree was a small town several days’ ride south from Caras. There wasn’t exactly a harbor there, but if the tides were right, even quite large ships could come and go from Paree. A cold feeling pricked across the back of Oressa’s neck.
“So it’s Prince Gajdosik, is it?” said Lord Meric. “The sea-eagle’s his personal banner, isn’t it? Well, we’ve never heard he’s stupid, that one. Overland as well as right into the harbor, is that his plan? That’s not the move of a half-committed man. He’ll take Paree as a bridgehead if we don’t stop him—and it’s probably too late to stop him. With supplies from Paree to support his people, he’ll come north at his leisure. He’ll want to use that land force of his to support an attack against our harbor here—”
“Explain this to me, do,” the king said testily, and got to his feet. The throne creaked, and the silk hangings swirled. Oressa tucked her chin tight to her chest and held very still. Cramps had started in both her calves, but she didn’t make a sound.
Her father said to Baramis, “We shall send to Prince Gajdosik. Find out whether he’s personally with that force in Paree or sitting out there in our harbor. Write a proposal along the lines you suggested. Something flowery, to flatter the man’s vanity.”
Over the magister’s murmur of satisfied acquiescence, Gulien said, “But—”
“Sentiment does not keep enemies at bay,” said the king, his tone flat and final, and walked out. Oressa could hear his unhurried steps and the heavier tread of Erren. There was plenty of movement suddenly, and she heard the door open, but she couldn’t tell whether everyone had gone or whether somebody might linger in the room even yet. She was almost sure she hadn’t heard the door close again. The cramps in her legs were worse, and there was an increasing ache in her back and shoulders and neck, and worse than the discomfort was the anger. She was outraged, and she couldn’t make a sound. The worst thing of all was that she already knew it would never occur to her father to ask her to sacrifice herself for him and for Carastind. He would have Baramis write out a flowery letter for that Tamaristan prince and probably not even bother to mention it to her at all.
Then the door did close, a decisive little click, but she heard someone shift his weight, still in the room. Oressa tried not to make a sound. There was a pause.
At last her brother said, his tone resigned, “All right, Oressa. Come out.”
Oressa rolled over to her stomach and crawled stiffly out from under the silk draping the king’s chair. She’d been too cramped for too long to stand up, but she stretched her legs out gingerly, pounding her calves and thighs to unknot the muscles, concentrating on that so she wouldn’t have to look at her brother. She asked, “How did you know I was there?”
“Heard you. You idiot.”
“You distracted everyone on purpose?” Oressa hadn’t realized that, though now it was obvious. “Thank you, Gulien. You’re the best brother!”
“You, on the other hand, are the most annoying sister! If he’d caught you—”
“He never has. Nobody ever catches me but you.” Oressa didn’t admit out loud that this time somebody might have if not for Gulien. She stretched her neck out to one side and then the other. Her neck hurt. Her shoulders hurt. She was stiff all over. She glared at Gulien. “Would you have told me? Or let Father take me by surprise? ‘Oh, Oressa, guess what! You get to marry a Tamaristan prince!’ Gods dead and forgotten!”
“Don’t swear, Oressa,” Gulien said automatically. “Of course I would have told you.” He came over to kneel behind her. “Here, let me—” He dug strong fingers into her shoulders.
“Ouch! Oh, that’s better. Thanks. Gulien—”
“It’s a stupid idea anyway. Marry you to Gajdosik? That’d be an act of war right there. He’d invade us again just to make us take you back.”
Oressa smiled reluctantly. But she said, “Well, it is a stupid idea.” It wasn’t actually; she could even see the sense of it, and she knew Gulien had to as well. But she said stubbornly, “Anyway, I won’t do it. Marry a Tamaristan prince? Ha! I’ll . . . I’ll . . .” There really weren’t any obvious choices for whom she might marry. It wasn’t as though she hadn’t thought about this before, off and on for the past five years or so. But now a new and brilliant idea occurred to her. She sat up straight. “I know! I’ll marry Kelian, quick before Father can stop me.”
Kelian was a young lieutenant in the palace guard. He’d come to Caras only this spring, shortly after the plague, but he’d joined the militia almost at once and the guard very soon after that, and he’d been promoted quickly because the plague had left the guard so short of men. Kelian was obviously well-born. He had his own sword and horse, not to mention a beautiful strong jaw and melting dark eyes and the most wonderful northern accent, all long vowels and soft consonants. All the palace girls had fallen in love with him, but so far he hadn’t shown special favor to any of them, though he never mentioned a sweetheart back home. He sent money back to his mother every week, but Oressa had never heard that he wrote to anyone else.
Not that she was in love with him herself. Naturally not. She had too much sense to fall in love with anyone, but she was sure she’d seen his gaze lingering on her from time to time.
But Gulien snorted. “You idiot. You will not.”
“Why not? He’s gorgeous and brave and nice to me and oh yes, not a Tamaristan prince with a stupid name like Gajdosik! I’ll marry him and then it’ll be impossible for Father to marry me off to anybody else.” She glared at her brother. “What? It’d work.”
“Father would hang Kelian,” her brother said succinctly, “and then he’d lock you up in the highest tower room until he could marry you off to someone appropriate, which he would do so fast the gossip wouldn’t have time to get outside Caras. If not to Prince Gajdosik, then to somebody else.” Gulien gripped her shoulders and shook her gently. “Idiot. Probably Father will just dangle promises in front of Gajdosik, pull him into an alliance while he sorts out whatever trouble there is between him and the Kieba. Then he can find some decent Carastindin lord for you. Paulin, maybe.”
Oressa rolled her eyes. “Paulin! I don’t think so!” Lord Paulin’s family, the Tegeres, had its principal estates in Little Caras, but the family had for generations had ties to Markand and Illian; Lord Paulin’s father had bought a court title with the wealth he’d made in silk, dyes, alum, and finished cloth. On his death, both the title and the wealth had passed to his son, who was rich, influential, ambitious, and loyal to Oressa’s father. Also indolent, corpulent, and nearly fifty.
Over the last year or so, Paulin, during his increasingly frequent visits to Caras, had begun courting Gulien. He invited him to his own town house to examine rare books or to attend special performances by Illiana dancers—not too often, but often enough. When he was at court, ostensibly to attend on the king, he made time to flatter Gulien’s interest in old books and his knowledge of history. When some political question was under debate, if he had a chance, Lord Paulin made a point of drawing out Gulien’s opinion and complimenting him on his understanding of politics.
In short, he did all the things a clever man would do if his family did not enjoy any particular favor with the king and he wanted to be sure his family’s fortunes were poised to rise when Gulien took the throne. Lord Paulin had only one daughter, a long-married woman nearing thirty, or Oressa had no doubt he’d be dangling her in front of Gulien, too.
But for all his cultivation of Gulien, Lord Paulin still treated Oressa with a kind of benign disinterest. Though she imagined the disinterest might change in a hurry if her father suggested he might marry her and add a handful of princes to the clutter of sons he’d had by his first wife.
It wasn’t that she blamed him, not for courting her brother’s good opinion nor for ignoring hers—any practical man might do the same, and at least Paulin went about it intelligently. Besides, she was fairly certain he sincerely did like her brother. She believed she would be able to tell pure sycophancy from an honest like-mindedness, and she was sure Gulien could not have been fooled by any pretense of interest in history and rare books.
But marry Paulin herself? Hardly.
“He’s clever enough, Oressa, and I know that matters to you—”
“Oh, he’s clever! Clever enough to flatter you whenever he gets the chance!” Gulien, his eyebrows rising, started to say something, but Oressa raised her voice and went right on. “He talks to me like I’m just a pretty little lapdog, when he notices me at all. And he’s old! I think Kelian is a much better idea.” But of course she knew Gulien was right about her father’s response. She eyed her brother. “You know what? If I can’t marry Kelian, I’ll run away to Markand. I’ll be a temple maiden and carry the fire in the procession and dance around the golden fountain every solstice—don’t laugh at me!”
“I’m not laughing at you.”
“You are. Your eyes are laughing,” Oressa said darkly. She glared at him harder. “I won’t marry Gajdosik. I’m not joking. Live in a cage? Not likely!” She knew she might have to. She understood she might have no choice, but she refused to admit that even to Gulien—she hardly admitted it to herself.
It was on the tip of her tongue to say, If Father insists on someone marrying into the Garamanaji, why not have you offer for Alia Garamanaj? But she didn’t say that, either. It would be a stupid suggestion, unless Prince Gajdosik was particularly fond of his sister, which she’d never heard, and had brought her with him, which she doubted. And worse, it would be cruel, because three years ago her brother had been engaged to a girl from Illian, but the girl had sickened and died; and then last year he had been engaged to Lord Bennet’s daughter, but she had died in the spring plague. Gulien hadn’t even known the Illiana girl, but he had liked Bennet’s daughter well enough, and the whole thing had left him rather shy of getting engaged to anyone, as though he feared any formal offer from his father to a girl’s father might carry illness and bad luck with it.
So Oressa only said, “You’d better tell me exactly what our father decides. Or maybe—” She cut that off. Maybe it would be better if she found a way to listen herself to her father’s next meeting with Meric and Baramis. . . .
“If you try to sneak into Father’s private rooms, they’ll catch you for sure, and then he really will lock you up in the highest tower.”
“Would I try such a thing?” Oressa laid a hand over her heart to show how shocked she was at this suggestion. She didn’t tell her brother that she’d managed this exact feat once before, when she was eleven, just to see if she could do it. She’d pretended to be a servant boy, and actually she’d come pretty near being caught and hadn’t even learned anything worth knowing. She’d sworn to herself she’d never try it again. But now she was afraid Gulien wouldn’t tell her what their father said or did or decided. Not if he thought it was better she didn’t know. Not if their father ordered him not to. She couldn’t dress up as a boy anymore, but she’d thought of two other ways she might get in if she tried. She said, “You don’t need to protect me, you know—”
“You don’t try nearly hard enough to protect yourself! You’ve got to stop sneaking around, Oressa. If you’re caught once—just once—you have no idea how seriously Father might take this.”
Oressa found herself beginning to get angry again, this time with her brother. How could he say that? Of course she knew how angry Father would be. How could she not know? She knew better than anybody, better than Gulien did himself. He hadn’t ever believed her about their mother, but she knew—
Her brother put a hand under her chin, lifting her face to make her look at him. He said seriously, “The next time I catch you, I’ll call you out right then, in front of everybody.”
“You—” Wouldn’t, Oressa meant to say. But her brother looked very serious, and she wasn’t absolutely sure.
“I would. I will.” Gulien let her go, rose, and stood for a moment with his fists on his hips, staring down at her. “I’ll check that the hall is clear, Oressa. But this is the last time I’ll help you. You’re twenty years old! Far too old to act like a servant’s brat. You need to start behaving with a princess’s dignity.”
Oressa didn’t protest that her brother was far too concerned about dignity, especially hers. It was true, but he wouldn’t agree. So she only got to her feet, ignoring the hand Gulien held down to her. Then she brushed the dust off her skirt, straightened her shoulders, ran her hands through her hair, lifted her chin, and put on a proper royal attitude like a cloak. “You may check the hallway, if you like,” she said as regally as she could. Once he had, she strolled away toward her own apartment as though she could imagine nowhere at all she’d rather go.
The king’s chambers were on the lowest floor of the palace because the king was no longer young. His knees ached in the winter and ached worse when it rained, and he didn’t like to climb stairs, and so two years ago he’d moved the royal apartment from the highest level of the palace to the lowest. That might have made it easier for Oressa to sneak into his rooms, only in actual fact, it didn’t. The royal guardsmen hated the wide hallways that led right by the king’s apartment from the more public areas of the palace, and they hated having three different doors to guard instead of just one at the top of a flight of stairs, and they most especially hated the wide windows that opened into the garden. But the king did not want to climb stairs, so the guard captains tripled the number of men on duty for each watch and made them all stand guard with an ostentatious zeal that was supposed to serve as a rebuke to the king for imposing this inconvenience on them, though Oressa doubted her father noticed. Or, at least, cared.
But the guards’ fervor made things difficult. Sneaking in unobserved would be practically impossible. Oressa had decided that long ago. The trick would be to make the guardsmen think they observed one thing when really they were looking at something else all the time.
Dressing up as a boy was no longer very practical. Oressa had tried it, rather hopelessly, after she’d started getting a woman’s shape, when she was thirteen, but it had clearly been no use: She had taken too much after her mother, and her curves were very soon too obvious. At first this had seemed purely inconvenient. Then it had occurred to her that if she married, she would leave her father’s palace, and that had seemed worth the inconvenience. But then her father had delayed and delayed deciding whom she should marry, and now here was Baramis, with his brilliant idea that she should marry a Tamaristan prince.
“It’s almost dusk,” her maid, Nasia, said briskly, behind her. “What would you like to wear for dinner? Your green silk? I added cuffs to hide the mended place, so that’s all right, and the color brings the gold highlights out in your hair.”
The green silk did nothing of the kind, Oressa knew. There weren’t any gold highlights in her hair, which was the most ordinary brown imaginable. But her maid, an efficient older woman with five grown daughters of her own, insisted on saying thing like that. Nasia had married off all five of her daughters and these days exercised her strong romantic streak by matchmaking for the servant girls and advising them all about their clothing and manners and marriages. This should have kept her busy, but somehow she always seemed to have time to fuss about Oressa’s clothing and hair and jewelry too—more so every year that Oressa remained unmarried.
Oressa said, “The green will be fine.”
“And those gold twist earrings and that necklace of hammered gold disks—”
“Yes, whatever you think.” Oressa wandered away toward the bathing room. Getting past her father’s guardsmen wasn’t actually the real challenge. She could always just present herself at the door and ask to see her father and they’d probably let her in. But getting everyone to forget about her so she could linger and overhear everything . . . that would be a trick.
“You’re very silent tonight,” Nasia said, laying out the green silk dress and matching underthings and light slippers and the gold earrings and necklace. She took a towel from the warm stack and held it for Oressa. “You’re not sickening with anything? Your moon-time hasn’t arrived?”
“I’m only thinking.”
“Well, it’s certainly made you go very silent.” Nasia laid the back of her hand against Oressa’s forehead, just to make sure. “But you’re not over-warm,” she admitted. “What are you thinking about?”
“Kelian,” Oressa said, to distract her.
“Oh, he’s worth a thought or two,” Nasia agreed, taking this bait with enthusiasm. “He’s certainly not for you, of course, my dear, but no harm in thinking, is there? Would you like to go out to the officer’s training yard tomorrow morning? I think they’ll be practicing their footwork.”
Practicing on foot with short sword and dagger, she meant. All the palace girls liked that best, especially on warm summer mornings when the men took off their shirts. Oressa thought about Kelian with his shirt off and blushed. Then she thought of Gulien saying, Father would hang him. She knew her brother was right. But it didn’t stop her from blushing. She said in an austere tone, “I think we’ll have more important things to think about tomorrow than watching the guard officers train.” And, though she didn’t say so, she suspected the guard officers would have more important things to worry about than impressing girls. But she wasn’t supposed to know about that yet, of course. That was the hardest part about overhearing things: remembering what she wasn’t supposed to know.
“Your father needs to stop all this fussing about and find you a husband,” Nasia said, amused and plainly entirely ignorant about the sudden urgency of the Tamaristan threat. She couldn’t know what echo Oressa heard behind her words when she added, “He should have done it long since. I know it’s difficult to match princesses, but no father should let his daughter reach twenty without inviting a firm offer or two from suitable young men.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” Oressa said mildly, and picked up another towel to dry her hair.
There was a polite rap on the door, the kind of firm tap that guardsmen used. Nasia rustled off to answer the door, leaving Oressa to dress herself, except for the buttons on the dress, which were innumerable and very small and mostly impossible to reach. She rubbed her hair with the towel, waiting for Nasia. She could hear the woman’s voice, an indistinct murmur, and the guardsman’s deeper voice.
Nasia came back into the dressing room, took the towel firmly away from Oressa, handed her a comb, and began to do up the buttons more quickly than usual. “Your father’s sent a formal letter,” she said in clear delight. “He might have been listening to me, it seems! The man’s to deliver it directly to your hand, so it’s very formal. I’m sure you’re dying to find out what it is, child!”
Oressa clenched her teeth. Nasia was obviously sure that this must be the letter every father sent his daughter to give her formal notice that she was being courted by some eligible young man. And of course Nasia was probably right . . . in a way.
“Your hair’s still damp. There’s no help for that, but you can’t go out to supper with it loose over your shoulders like some merchant’s daughter. I’ll braid it and put it up and it should look well enough. Don’t fidget, please. Where did you put those gold bangles of yours? Those would look nice with the earrings and that necklace, and of course everyone will be looking at you tonight, child, won’t they! The first days of courtship are such a wonderful time for a girl. All right. There. Don’t look so solemn!”
Oressa took a deep breath and followed her maid out to her reception room to let the man give her the letter. Because the man would undoubtedly report her attitude and manners to her father, she took small ladylike steps and kept her eyes demurely down.
The man turned out to be a guard officer she knew slightly: Beriad, Lord Meric’s cousin, an intelligent and good-humored man who had gone into the king’s guard because he wasn’t his father’s heir. Oressa liked him, so she had never let slip any hint that she knew of his unsuitable closeness with a certain long-widowed lady of the court. But even if she liked Beriad, he was still her father’s man. She tried not to show him anything but a blank court expression as she took the letter he held out to her and slit the fragile paper.
“Well?” Nasia asked, too polite to crane her neck and stare over Oressa’s shoulder, but understandably dying to know what name the letter contained.
Oressa glanced down at the few words—too neatly penned to have been written by her father’s own hand—and found herself clenching her teeth, struggling against an outburst. She had already known what this letter would say. It was ridiculous to feel like this. She should have been prepared. Only guessing and knowing weren’t the same, and now she found out how little prepared she had been. She smothered anger and fear and said as blandly as she could, “What a very interesting notion of my father’s, to be sure.”
She would live and die a virgin before she married a Tamaristan prince, but she didn’t say that. She would climb out her window and run away to be a temple maiden in Markand, and nobody would ever guess except Gulien. But she certainly didn’t say that. She swallowed her anger, determined that Beriad would not be able to tell her father that she’d had hysterics, like a girl, like a child. He was watching her worriedly—obviously her tone hadn’t been quite as light and unconcerned as she’d tried to make it.
Nasia, her eyes narrowing, also guessed something was wrong. She plucked the letter from her hand, smoothed it out, and looked down at the thin spidery letters. Then she looked up to stare in confounded dismay at Oressa. “But,” she said in a blank tone. “But this says—this is—a Tamaristan prince?”
“A Tamaristan prince? Surely not.” Beriad, plainly just as surprised, shifted to look over Nasia’s shoulder. Then he stared at Oressa.
“It’s a sensible decision, I’m sure, under the circumstances,” Oressa said coolly. “Naturally my father wants only what’s best for Carastind.” Despite her best effort, her voice wavered on the last words, and she turned and fled—in a decorous stroll, but it was definitely flight—back into her private rooms before she could lose her composure entirely. She did not slam her door behind her. Princesses did not have tantrums and slam doors. But she tried her best to make the quiet click of her door carry the same emphasis as a crash.
Gulien himself brought Oressa her supper, not so very much later. Ordinarily Oressa loved sharing supper privately with her brother. She actually did like the formal dining hall, with its carved and gilded tables and heavy crystal goblets and beautiful painted plates, but when she and Gulien shared their father’s high table, Gulien had to sit all the way across the table from her and so they couldn’t hear each other unless they shouted. And no one shouted at the king’s table, ever. So she usually liked it much better when Gulien joined her for a late, informal supper.
But tonight, after all that had happened, Oressa could hardly bring herself even to look at her brother. She knew nothing of this was his fault. She knew it was all her father’s fault, but she couldn’t help some of her anger spilling over on Gulien.
“I tried to stop him, you know,” her brother said tentatively.
Oressa still didn’t look at him. “No one can stop him doing anything he wants.”
“I think it must be true that he offended the Kieba somehow.”
“Really? I can’t imagine how.”
Gulien sat back. “You’re too hard on him. I know you don’t want to hear it, but you are. Carastind needed a decisive king after our great-grandfather—”
Oressa sighed loudly to make her brother stop and said pointedly, “Some people think it’s important to make the right decisions. Apparently Father thought it was just fine to offend the Kieba instead!”
“Anyway,” said Gulien pacifically, “I did try to tell him that you couldn’t marry a Tamaristan prince no matter how much gilding Gajdosik puts on the bars of your cage, and he said—”
“I know what he said!” Oressa jerked her head up and glared at him. “He asked what you thought a princess was for—the decoration of the court? Because he already has plenty of decorative objects and would prefer useful ones.”
“Well . . .” Gulien opened a hand. “That’s close.”
“What, was it even worse?” Whatever their father’s precise words, Oressa could imagine his exact scathing tone. She tore a piece of bread into little pieces and then littler pieces, until it was a pile of crumbs in front of her.
Two of her father’s guardsmen had also turned up at her door. They were just like an honor guard, except they, like princesses, weren’t there to be decorative. Oressa knew they were there to stop her from running away to, say, become a temple maiden in Markand. That was rather insulting. Oressa had every intention of sneaking out of her room later, even if all she did was stroll back down the hallway to her door so she could look puzzled when the guardsmen were shocked to see her. She could do this perfectly easily by going out the window and climbing around to the aviary. She did that all the time. No one expected a princess to climb around on the outside walls of the palace, though really there was plenty of fretwork and carving so it was very easy. And the aviary would be deserted at this time of night, so it would be perfectly safe.
But teasing the guardsmen wouldn’t change anything. Prince Gajdosik’s ships would still be in the harbor, his men would still be on their way north from Paree, and her father would still be planning to sell her to him in exchange for an alliance against his brothers and Estenda. With all that, teasing the guard almost didn’t seem like it would be worth the effort. Running away to Markand, that might be worth some effort. If she had the nerve. She’d never been on her own in the city; she’d hardly ever even left the palace. And Markand was a long way away. And could Gulien cope with their father without her? It was all ridiculous and impossible. She scowled down at her pile of bread crumbs.
“Stay put,” Gulien told her. Oressa might have been angry that he would dare command her about anything, only then her brother scrubbed his hands over his face and added wearily, “Will you? Please? This isn’t the time for your tricks. Everything’s upset—it’s too hard to predict where people will be. You’ll be caught. We’ll find a way to get you out of this, Oressa, only you can’t do anything foolish. It’ll just make things impossible. But I promise you, I won’t let anyone sacrifice you like a game piece on a board. All right?”
Oressa started to ask how he planned to stop their father from doing anything at all. But she saw then that he was desperately worried and that part of what worried him was herself. She said, in her meekest tone, “All right.” Although she couldn’t help but add, “For now.”
Gulien looked at her silently for some time. Then he said, as she had, “All right.” He rubbed his hands over his face again and went away.
Breakfast, like the previous evening’s supper, was a silent, strained affair. Oressa had no one to share it with but Nasia, and her maid knew maddeningly little about what was going on. Oressa thought about sneaking out of her room and listening to the rumors, but it was easier to get rumors from her father’s guardsmen as the shifts changed. Except that half the rumors contradicted the other half. The Tamaristan soldiers were advancing up the road from Paree toward Caras. No, they were still in Paree. No, they’d left Paree, but they’d gone inland rather than up the coast. Oressa personally doubted that one: She couldn’t think of any obvious reason why a Tamaristan force would head into the desert when conquering Carastind so obviously depended on taking Caras.
Other rumors said that another Tamaristan force had landed north of Caras, up by Addas, near the border Carastind shared with Estenda. No, but more ships had been spotted out to sea and might be heading north. No, there were ships, but they clearly meant to come straight into the harbor at Caras.
Oressa supposed Gajdosik had a plan for dealing with the cannons at the harbor mouth. She couldn’t imagine what it was. Maybe he just had so many ships he was willing to sacrifice some to get his men to the docks.
By the time Gulien came back to see her, near dusk, she was exhausted with worry and the effort of staying in her rooms like an obedient child. But Gulien looked worse than she felt. He was carrying half a dozen old scrolls and one fat book. He sat down on Oressa’s couch, piled all the scrolls and the book on the cushions next to him, let Nasia bring him a cup of cider, looked at it with blank weariness as though he didn’t quite know what it was, and set the cup down untasted on the flat arm of the couch. Then he looked at Oressa and said without preamble, “Gajdosik’s rejected Father’s offer.”
“What?” said Oressa blankly. She was stunned. She’d been furious about their father’s plan to give her to the Tamaristan prince. But she had never for a moment thought Gajdosik might turn that offer down. “He can’t have,” she said, and looked at Gulien, trying to figure out what he might really have meant.
But her brother only shook his head. “Our courier came back with a message. A very clear message. Prince Gajdosik doesn’t want an alliance.”
“He’s arrogant, but he must truly believe he has enough men to take Caras and then make himself king of all Carastind. Maybe he does. We’re getting reports—well, all kinds of reports. But there may be two or more princes behind this attack. There are definitely a lot more Tamaristan soldiers than we expected. And there might be another force in the north after all. We thought not, but now we think maybe there is. But however many branches there are to this attack, we’re fairly certain it’s Prince Gajdosik making all the decisions. We’re sure he’s going to try to take Caras. We have no idea how much else he might try to take. He’s an aggressive bastard, that’s the truth. And arrogant. He declares—” Gulien stopped.
“What?” When her brother stared at her without answering, Oressa threw a cushion at him. “What?”
“Well, he says, while a Carastindin princess might be useful, he doesn’t need his marriage bound about with concessions and promises,” Gulien said finally. “And a strong man takes the whole loaf instead of being satisfied with a mouthful of bread.”
Oressa jumped to her feet, glaring at him.
“I didn’t say it!” her brother protested, raising his hands. “He said it!”
Oressa swallowed her first furious response with some effort and declared instead, “We’re not going to let him do this!”
“No. No, we’ll fight.” But her brother’s tone made it clear that he expected to lose. He said, “Even without the Kieba’s help, we could throw them back in any ordinary year. And in any ordinary year, the Kieba would probably protect us. But this year . . . I guess those rumors about the plague and about Father offending the Kieba did make it across the Narrow Sea, and I guess they sounded more plausible than I’d have thought. . . .”
Oressa felt sick.
“So I’m going to go see the Kieba myself.”
Every time Oressa thought she couldn’t be more shocked, Gulien said something more shocking. But as she thought about it, she started to like the idea.
“I know it’s not completely safe, even for a Madalin,” Gulien said earnestly. “We don’t intrude without invitation—that’s always been true. But—” Gulien patted the scrolls he’d brought. “Our records show we’ve had a good relationship with the Kieba all the way from the reign of Oren Madalin. I looked it up. When the fire rain came and every Madalin except Oren died, that’s when the Kieba extended her protection not just to Carastind, but to our family specifically. That long ago, Oressa! I simply don’t believe our father could have offended her so badly she’d forget she’s favored us for hundreds of years! Even if he has, surely I can persuade her to be generous and forgiving. Then, if the Kieba defends us, Gajdosik will have no choice but to tuck his tail and run back to Tamarist, and if he can’t win mercy from his brother there, that’s just too bad for him.”
“Yes,” said Oressa, nodding. “I’ll come with you.”
“Oh no, you won’t—”
“Yes! What else should I do? Wait here to see whether it’s Gajdosik or the Kieba who gets here first? Because I bet it’ll be Gajdosik, and you’ll get back to find him in this hall and me a married woman—”
Gulien held up his hands to stop her. “Our soldiers would be ashamed to know you think so little of them.” He paused to let her realize this was true. When her eyes dropped, he went on. “As I say, we’ll fight. Caras won’t fall in a day, and we’ve men coming from Little Caras and farther east. They’ll get here before Gajdosik, and the plague rain this spring didn’t fall inland, so that’ll help. We’ll hold. You’ll hold here. I’ll take a pair of fast horses. It’ll take me maybe two days to get to the Kieba’s mountain if I ride fast and don’t stop for the night. You’d slow me down, Oressa. But that’s not why you can’t come. It’s dangerous right now for travelers, but that’s not why either.”
Oressa put together several things she should have understood more quickly. She said, “You need me here so I can tell Father where you went.”
“When you think it’s time,” Gulien said quickly. “Not too early, not too late. I trust your judgment, Oressa. There’s no one else I can trust with this.”
This was definitely true. “All right,” Oressa said, not very happily. She was half relieved, maybe more than half, to see her idea of fleeing to Markand become impossible. “All right,” she said again. “I’ll stay here. I’ll do this. But if you don’t come back, Gulien, I will come after you. You tell the Kieba that.” She tried to smile. “You warn her how much trouble I’d cause her. Tell her that.”
Gulien hugged her, briefly and hard. “Keep safe,” he said. “Be careful. And if you aren’t going to be careful—”
“Be lucky,” Oressa finished with him, and hugged him back. Then she let him go and stepped back.
The Mountain of Kept Memory
Long ago the Kieba, last goddess in the world, raised up her mountain in the drylands of Carastind. Ever since then she has dwelled and protected the world from unending plagues and danger…
Gulien Madalin, heir to the throne of Carastind, finds himself more interested in ancient history than the tedious business of government and watching his father rule. But Gulien suspects that his father has offended the Kieba so seriously that she has withdrawn her protection from the kingdom. Worse, he fears that Carastind’s enemies suspect this as well.
Then he learns that he is right. And invasion is imminent.
Meanwhile Gulien’s sister Oressa has focused on what’s important: avoiding the attention of her royal father while keeping track of all the secrets at court. But when she overhears news about the threatened invasion, she’s shocked to discover what her father plans to give away in order to buy peace.
But Carastind’s enemies will not agree to peace at any price. They intend to not only conquer the kingdom, but also cast down the Kieba and steal her power. Now, Gulien and Oressa must decide where their most important loyalties lie, and what price they are willing to pay to protect the Kieba, their home, and the world.