Daughters of Ruin CHAPTER ONE Rhea
First from the others was Meridan’s own
Lost a mother when she won a crown
Her daddy jumped up and defended the throne
Dance little queen, but don’t . . . fall . . . down.
—Children’s nursery rhyme
Rhea put up her hair as Endrit took off his shirt in the chamber below the private bedrooms of the castle.
Her maids were sent away.
The candles lit the room with warm halos floating a-pixie in the dark.
Rhea’s thick black curls took dozens of jeweled floral pins, stabbed in every direction, to stay aloft in the formal style.
As she fumbled in front of the full-length mirror, Rhea glanced at Endrit’s reflection. The years of assisting his mother in their training had made him the envy of all the noble sons at court, who seemed to be made of lesser mettle. Where the young lords would call for water and stop their coddled sword work at the first pain, Endrit had been the sparring partner—and punching bag—to the sisters, without the luxury of raising two fingers and storming off.
He was seventeen and looked like the flattering portraits hanging in the royal hall. Shoulders broad and tapering down across a barrel chest, and a taut abdomen. Rhea knew he kept his light brown hair a medium length because it looked soft and sandy when he lay under the trees in the orchards, regaling the swoony village girls with tales of castle comforts. And he knew it looked menacing when it hung wet over his obsidian eyes, in the heat of a fight.
After he pulled the linen tunic over his head, Endrit reached up and ran a hand through his wet hair. The third reason he kept it that length was to reach up and flex his arms and his abs and catch the princesses watching him in their mirrors.
Endrit smiled with mischief.
Rhea flushed and looked away. “Put your shirt back on,” she said.
“Excuse me, Princess, but it’s stifling in here. Some of us aren’t used to castle fineries.”
“Like clothing?” said Rhea.
“Like indoor heating,” said Endrit.
Rhea parried the jab with an unimpressed eyebrow. “Do you suffer a lot of cold nights, curled up with the old tabby cat?”
Endrit’s romantic exploits were the subject of endless teasing from the sisters . . . and endless speculation.
“I don’t know about that,” said Endrit. “Mrs. Wigglefoots never scratched so hard.”
Endrit turned to show a crosshatch of scars on his ribs stretching across the muscles of his back. Each was from Rhea, Cadis, Iren, or Suki missing their mark, swinging wildly, or losing control during their blade work over the years.
Rhea had no witty riposte.
The scars were deep and irregularly healed, as if some had been carved into already-scabbed tissue. Rhea remembered when she was first learning to throw her weighted knives, when she didn’t know to aim at the smallest target possible and was easily distracted. Endrit provided the human prey.
And if he wasn’t so skilled at diving clear, she would have skewered him a dozen times. As it was, she knew she was responsible for many of those graze marks along Endrit’s ribs. “Don’t feel bad, Princess,” said Endrit as he walked about the room, lifting the wooden dummies back onto their stands. “Some of these I remember fondly.” Endrit was the only one allowed to call the sisters “princess” in that puckish tone, and only in private. Rhea liked it when he did, because it made him feel like more than just the servant they had abused all these years so they could become masters of their arts. It made him feel like a friend.
Rhea finished with a last pin in her hair. Her head almost wobbled under the weight. Rhea didn’t spend any more time in front of the glass, not to admire herself as Cadis did. She simply used the glass to make sure her hair was ready for a royal ball and turned away. Not in disgust. Though maybe when she was younger. No, not disgust. Duty. Drive.
She was too busy to fuss about her thick mane or her inelegant posture. She was beautiful enough—though not as lovely as Cadis. And elegant enough—though not as regal as Iren.
Rhea caught herself thinking such thoughts and asked herself, And what about Suki? How do we measure against the youngest? Her answer was a welcome joke. She was certainly brave enough, but she would never be as wild as Suki.
Rhea straightened her red silk ball gown and said, “Aren’t you ready?”
“No,” said Endrit, lifting the last wooden dummy. “And neither are you.”
He threw a golden armband he had retrieved from the floor. Rhea caught it and clasped it around her left wrist.
It was a chunky piece of jewelry, made finer by delicate scrollwork patterns cut into the gold in the shape of a shining sun. It matched the elaborate necklace Rhea wore—the masterpiece of her family’s crown jewels. The lavish necklace began as a black lacy choker, set with hundreds of white diamonds all around and a giant ruby the size of an apricot at its center. Radiating from the ruby’s setting were long, thin, round black stones that tapered into impossibly sharp points.
When her father had first clasped the necklace around her neck on her thirteenth birthday, he’d told her they were the teeth of the crest-beast of their house—the onyx wyrm. It had been that evening after the shared birthday ceremony for all four sisters. Of course Rhea knew there were no dragons in the world, but she liked that her father told the tale as their ancestors would have, the way he had done when she was very young—before the war, before he had to treat her like her sisters, with no public sign of favor—like a bedtime story.
He looked at her in the mirror and she knew it must have been difficult for him, too. To pretend he had four daughters. To raise four queens—to pick up the burden their families had so recklessly dropped. She looked at him and saw a widower, a father, a great king. He was almost teary when he said, “You look a bit like your mother.”
As Rhea remembered the moment and stared into the same mirror as that evening, she touched the eight black diamond spikes that lay across her bare neck, reminding Rhea never to look down.
She was dressed for a coronation in full regalia. Nothing in the basement chamber shined as brightly as the crested sun-shaped ring on her right hand or the pointed dragon-shaped ring on her left.
Only Endrit and her father had seen her in ceremonial dress.
The wooden dummies stood around the open space in haphazard groups as if they were revelers at the grand ball. The walls of the basement space glimmered with weapon racks. A few punching bags hung in the corners. A replica of the throne of Meridan had been shoved to one side.
Each of the sisters had her own private training room. It was Declan’s gift, a secret entrance leading down into a chamber below each of their bedrooms. Among the only things they didn’t share. Rhea was certain he had built the best room for her, though she couldn’t be sure. The sisters kept their rooms private. But she knew. She just knew. The girls had all run up to be the first to hug Declan. And as he hugged them back, Rhea had looked up, and her father had winked a conspiratorial wink. A sly and warm expression that said, We’ll keep the little secret between us. Of course, was it such a shocking secret that a father loved his daughter more than others? Rhea was sixteen now, and knew they were unlike any other father and daughter in the kingdom. And so, perhaps, their secrets were uncommon too.
Rhea stepped forward and bowed a very slight bow to Endrit.
He had put his shirt back on. He was dressed no better than a stable hand. He was no better than a stable hand. But, oh, terrible hells could he dance.
He stood tall and bowed deep, watching her the entire time. Rhea felt a shudder that rattled her earrings. Endrit opened his arms, holding them in the formal waltz position. It was an invitation every woman in Meridan would accept.
“Care for a dance, highness?” said Endrit.
The room was silent but for their breathing. Rhea imagined the royal musicians playing as they would the following night in the grand hall at the banquet of the Revels. She steadied her hands. It had to be perfect tomorrow.
Endrit laughed. “Oh, come now. The marquis isn’t worth a fright, is he? Should I slouch down, maybe snaggle up my face like he does?”
Rhea smiled, which threw off her concentration. Endrit swung his knees out into a bowlegged stance and twisted his lips into a sleazy grin. He made gross chupping noises with his lips. “Come now, my little sweet. Let me swing you around the room as only lovers do.”
“Ew! Geez!” said Rhea. “Does he say stuff like that?”
“I dunno.” Endrit shrugged. “Never met a prince before.” He continued to make awful smoochie faces. As she giggled at Endrit’s hideous caricature, Rhea felt her muscles relax. She breathed out and stepped into his arms, placed her hands into his.
Rhea looked up at Endrit’s dark eyes and said, “I have to kill you, you know.”
Endrit nodded. “And what if I kill you first?”
“Then you’ll ruin the Revels and they’ll probably hang you instead.”
“That is too bad,” he said. “I was beginning to like it here.”
Only twelve women in the world were capable of training in the grimwaltz of the high style, because it required two exceptionally rare traits. First, it required a country—or in the case of Maria Fermosa, a criminal cartel secretly running a country. Second, and more specifically, it required one of the twelve sets of crown jewels, crafted generations ago by a master of the extinct Grimlaw Smithy.
Legend had it that each of the weaponsmiths of the great guild created one set—manipulating precious metals and gems into deadly jewelry worthy of queens and weapons worthy of assassins. Rings with poison caps, necklaces with hidden garrote wires, bracelets suited as much for shielding against sabers as for displaying the elegant wrists of nobility. The empress of Tasan was known for a crown that folded inward into a buckler. Maria Fermosa’s corset was famously lined with diamond mail. “The better to help me sleep on the bed of knives my lieutenants like to set for me,” she’d say.
Each set hid its own secrets. “Surprise is the only weapon they all share,” said the master Grimlaw before he killed the eleven masters of his smithy and then himself.
The twelve crown arsenals passed down in the noble families, as did the martial art that governed their use. Just as monks of the steppe had created the art of wielding farm equipment to ward off mounted raiders and the magisters of Corent developed hand-to-hand warfare for the close quarters of the Academy spires, the grimwaltz, too, had a razor-sharp purpose. In formal state ceremonies, diplomatic parleys, and events of public address, the royals were the most exposed and the least armored. Born of the necessity to marry statecraft and spycraft, the tactical core of grimwaltz was defense of political assassination and preemptive murder.
The battlegrounds arose from the familiar settings: a throne, a feast, a dance.
Rhea held Endrit as they waltzed around the candlelit chamber.
Only queens trained with the crown jewels. But other forms of the martial art had spread among the commoners. Mothers would slip their daughters a razor bracelet before they went riding with a suitor. “Be happy, my love, but always take a bit of grim,” they’d say. “Just in case.”
The high style prized elegance and discretion over explicit warfare. Hundreds of years ago, the emira of Corent—Iren’s ancestor—was said to have kissed a would-be assassin on his cheek and injected a paralyzing toxin with the hand draped behind his neck. She sat him down. The musicians played on. No one saw him stiffen.
Rhea’s toe clipped over Endrit’s foot and she stumbled the next step. She cursed her own clumsiness.
“It’s okay,” said Endrit.
It wasn’t okay. Tomorrow was the Revels, when each of the sisters would perform for the crowds to showcase their training for the year. Cadis would fight like a typhoon and astonish them. Iren would flow as subtle and sublime as a zephyr, and Suki would shine like a wildfire.
As they traced an intricate pattern around the wooden dummies, Rhea asked, “Has Cadis polished her routine?”
They twirled a figure eight around two dummies that Endrit had arranged to look like a quarreling couple. Endrit smirked and looked away, as if sharing some joke with another partygoer. He was always the one that other men tried to impress—even if he was below them.
“Come on, now, Rhea,” he said.
“Come on, what?”
Endrit didn’t respond.
Rhea hated that. When he expected her to know things. And the knowing was somehow being grown-up enough to see things as he did. She hated it even more that she did know in this case. She knew he would have said, “I keep your secrets, Princess.” Meaning he’d keep the others’, as well.
Endrit lifted his arm to let Rhea take the inside turn under it. As her back was turned, Endrit reached behind him and pulled a thin filleting knife—of the kind Findish sailors used to cut rope and clean fish.
When Rhea whirled around to face him, Endrit kept the knife behind his back. With his other hand, he pulled her into his chest. He smelled like barn hay, sweat, and horse liniment.
This part of the dance was an intimate struggle between them. Rhea wanted to see what he held behind him, but Endrit thwarted the attempt. She stepped forward into the space that Endrit’s foot vacated. He held her in a cross-body lead, so that she faced in the same direction.
Her shoulders nested across his chest. She craned her neck upward to keep eye contact. She felt his breath waft over her lips.
They turned around the room. Any audience would see the blade glisten behind Endrit. But only sparring dummies shared the floor.
They stepped and cross-stepped, back and forth, feint and parry. With his firm hand on her lower back, Endrit always managed to turn Rhea before she could see the knife. They tangled and clutched, until finally the moment they both knew was coming, when the flautist would stand for a trilling climactic solo, and Endrit sent Rhea into a wild free spin toward the middle of the floor.
Rhea twirled at the center of the chamber hall with one arm above her head like an automaton in a music box. Her other hand rested on the ruby brocade hanging from her neck. She felt her skirt billow and corrected her balance for the weight of the sparkling jewels she wore. Her back arched. She spun on the ball of her foot and felt graceful for the first time all night.
And more than anything, she felt watched.
As Rhea straightened out of the spin, she lowered her arm. Endrit extended his hand and she took it. They knew the flautist would hit a note at this point that sounded like a goldfinch being crushed in a doorjamb.
Endrit reeled her in. She spun toward him. As she did so, Endrit lifted the knife and stabbed just as Rhea turned in to his arms.
The knife whistled downward.
It clanged on the ruby brocade, nestled in Rhea’s palm. The delicate gold chains strapped it around her fingers so that it held firm—and armored the inside of her left hand.
The tip of the fillet knife found a socket in the brocade to stick itself.
She stared at Endrit.
He whispered, “You’ve got this. Fight speed.”
Rhea’s hand shook, holding off the pressure, until she wrenched her hand and sent the blade scudding across the stone floor of the chamber.
In the same motion, she pivoted her hips and dug a right hook into Endrit’s ribs.
He grunted and let go.
Rhea dashed away, to a safe distance.
In the moment’s reprieve, Rhea made a formal ready position and inserted the point of the dragon ring on her right hand into the well of the sun-shaped ring on her left. With a twist, the head of the dragon punctured into a compartment of the sun ring and coated the tip in corkspider poison.
Endrit bored down on her with clenched fists. He opened with a left. Rhea smacked it down with the brocade in her open palm. He winced as his knuckles cracked on the stone. He swung with a heavy right. Rhea ducked under and punched twice on the same rib as before. This time she pulled short before stabbing him with the poisoned ring.
Endrit staggered back.
But not long.
He lunged with a vertical knee and caught Rhea’s chin in her crouched position. Rhea’s eyes flashed white. This part always hurt at full-contact fight speed.
Rhea moved with the impact and hit the ground at a midroll.
She scrambled behind a dummy to buy time to regain her footing and to reach for a hairpin. As Endrit approached, she flicked her hand and launched two of the weighted pins at his face. Endrit lurched sideways.
The darts planted into the face of the dummy.
The audience would understand the dummy was a stand-in for the attacker. Already, between the poison ring and the darts, she had killed two would-be assassins.
Endrit strode forward, reached down, and grabbed a broadsword from the belt of a dummy. Without hesitation, he marched toward her, raised his sword, and struck down across her body.
Rhea dove under the angled blade. She followed the motion into a sideways somersault. She ended in an alleyway formed by dummies standing in two rows. Endrit pressed the attack. He dashed around the dummies to one end of the rows.
His heavy blade would be carried only by soldiers or royal guards attempting to kill her, a simulation of the ultimate betrayal and a grim reality—the possibility of her own bodyguards turning coat of arms.
Her father used to whisper, “Even our men. Even Endrit or Marta. If they turn, you put them down like rabid dogs.”
She couldn’t blame him for worrying. It was betrayal and assassination that had taken the last king and queen of Meridan. She knew he was determined never to let that happen again. In the advent of such a paranoid outcome, Rhea would be woefully disadvantaged, just as she was now, with Endrit approaching.
Rhea gave ground and reached for more throwing blades. More and more locks of her hair tumbled onto her shoulders as she pulled the pins and sent them flying at Endrit.
He marched inexorably forward.
She showed off her precision. It had gotten even better over the last year.
Dummies on either side of Endrit sprouted gems between their eyes as he approached.
A whole unit of blackguards, dead.
Rhea stood at the end of the row.
Endrit closed the distance and swung again.
This time she caught it up high, early in the swing, with the side of her thick bracelet. A delicate shield for hacking blades.
Endrit slashed down again and again.
Rhea counted in her head.
The blows made her entire arm jolt. On the last step, she had a disarm maneuver that was new to the routine, the one that could maim both of them if she failed.
Don’t falter. Don’t falter, she thought.
Endrit swung the sword sideways at her neck, like a scythe cutting the heads of wheat. Instead of deflecting the strike, Rhea stepped to meet it. She blocked with her inner forearm—bless the smith for making her bracelet strong. When the sword clanged on her bracelet, Rhea followed it with her left hand and hit the blade up by the hilt with the brocade in her open palm.
The sword twisted between the two opposing forces and wrenched out of Endrit’s grip. The blade caught Endrit’s shoulder, slicing the tunic as it flew off, clattering on the stones.
Endrit winced, but he didn’t drop a step.
He grabbed Rhea around the neck, just above her choker.
She pulled two of the black stone sunrays from her necklace and made the motion of stabbing just inside his collarbone on either side.
Endrit let go, as any assailant would have been dead by then.
They moved into the big finish: a series of sparring drills where Endrit attacked from every direction—swinging wildly, changing forms from the Corentine ridge-hand to Tasanese grappling. Rhea exhausted the rays of her sun necklace, cutting off kicks at the knee, meeting “vicious with vicious,” as her father would say.
She was an exhibition of cold, efficient, and most of all, lethal control. That was the heart of grimwaltz and the heart of a ruler, after all—control.
The dummies in the dark room each found a new way to die.
The wound on Endrit’s shoulder bled.
The left side of his tunic was nearly soaked.
The final stunt was a subtle routine that began with Endrit grabbing Rhea’s wrists. Some of Marta’s best choreography. Rhea stepped out to break Endrit’s balance and twisted her hands around to grab his wrists. They struggled for leverage.
The music the next day would swell—every stringed instrument in full volume. Then, just as abruptly, the music would drop.
Rhea and Endrit straightened, hand in hand.
They were back in waltz position as if nothing had happened.
Except now Rhea’s curls were untamed and unbearably hot. Her hands still shook, twitch reflexes still set to caution. Endrit’s tunic was a sopping rag—sweat and blood. He said, “Well done,” but his grimace gave him away. He was hurt.
The chamber was a slaughterhouse strewn with two-dozen dummies—stabbed, poisoned, or crippled.
They each stepped back, bowed, turned, and bowed again to the pretend audience.
Rhea instinctively angled her bow in the direction where her father would be sitting—the king’s balcony of the Royal Coliseum.
The instant they finished, Rhea rushed to Endrit’s side. “I’m so sorry,” she said, helping him take a seat.
Endrit took the help, but didn’t seem to need it.
“Don’t worry. That was perfect.”
“I cut your shoulder open.”
“They want realism. Your dad would have loved it.”
Rhea paused a moment from examining the shirt.
“I’m telling you, Princess, it was perfect.”
Rhea took a moment to relish the idea of gaining back the honor she had lost after the Revels of the previous year. No one told her she had lost it, but she saw it in the eyes of the king and in the way Marta patted her on the shoulder and said, “Good work. Learn from this and you’ve won.”
She only ever said that to the loser.
Rhea had certainly lost her sparring exposition to Cadis. In front of all the nobles of Meridan, Rhea had dropped to a knee before the future queen of Findain. It may as well have been surrender—a banner that read THE BLOOD RUNS THIN IN MERIDAN KEEP. The entire crowd had been stunned. Her father, who loved her—she knew he loved her—still couldn’t hide his disappointment.
It wasn’t his fault. Rhea knew she had caused him endless jibes in the court of public opinion. Rhea had subordinated the house of Declan to a bunch of treacherous Findish merchants in one clumsy step.
She heard a voice.
Rhea snapped out of her memory to see his obsidian eyes peering at her.
“Where’d you go, Rhea?”
“Nothing,” said Rhea. “Take your shirt off.”
Endrit laughed. Rhea added, “So I can see your cut, you dandified peacock.”
“Of course,” said Endrit. “And anyway, to the victor go the spoils.” He gave a cheeky grin.
Rhea rolled her eyes and helped him pull the sleeve so he didn’t have to move his left shoulder. The cut was shallow. It would be scabbed by tomorrow.
“We have bandages in the outer hall,” said Rhea.
“We’re done? Are you saying all I had to do was stab myself?”
Rhea pressed down on Endrit’s shoulder. He howled with laughter and pain.
“You’re lucky we got it perfect,” said Rhea, standing. “Otherwise I’d make you go until you bled out.”
“A noble way to die. I’m sure there’d be a royal funeral.”
“A royal funeral? Ha! We’d flop you down behind the barn,” teased Rhea. She left the jewels scattered around the private chamber: the pins stuck in the dummies, the blades of the sun necklace embedded in several wooden posts. She’d return the next morning.
“I suppose that’s fair enough,” said Endrit. “That happens to plenty of royals too.”
When Rhea and Endrit walked into the common hall that connected the rooms of the four queens, Rhea was disappointed to find her sisters and Marta there, thus ending her privacy with Endrit. And Rhea’s sisters seemed disappointed to see a shirtless Endrit—not because of his partial nudity, but because he was in that state with Rhea.
The six-sided room had one door on every wall—four leading to the queens’ rooms, one coming from the throne room, and one for the servants to use coming from the kitchen.
At the center of the room sat a giant round oaken table large enough to seat fifteen and sturdy enough to stage a Tasanese circus. The sisters ate their meals at the table, studied there for Hiram’s exams, and on nights such as these, when they couldn’t sleep, they convened around it to while away the hours.
Cadis had been regaling them with an improvised tale of Rusila, the Maid Marauder, something about winning a race to a treasure by lashing her ship to the back of a sea dragon. Only Suki had been listening, as she lay on her back in the middle of the giant table, throwing an iron ring up to the vaulted ceiling between the segments of the chandeliers and catching it on her feet.
Iren and Marta sat together on the far side. Before them were several sheets of stained glass. Iren used a long steel cutter that looked like a fountain pen, with a diamond tip, to cut intricate shapes into the glass. Marta used Iren’s nippers to snap the cut pieces out of the sheets.
At first blush, it looked like she was making an elaborate set of wind chimes in the old Corentine style. The spires of her home were famous for decorative glasswork, situated as they were in the windy mountains, above the cloud line. The Corentines admired the elegant and delicate work. Many of the balconies of the Academy spires were hued of colored glass.
When Rhea and Endrit entered from the bedroom, everyone stopped—the storytelling, the juggling, the glasswork.
In that short instant, as Rhea weighed all the disappointment in the room, she couldn’t help but feel hurt. Hers was not malicious. She just wanted more time with Endrit. Why shouldn’t she? But theirs, well, their disappointment was because they wanted to spend less time with her.
Marta stood up when she saw Endrit bleeding. The pliers in her hand fell to the table. Just as quickly Marta controlled herself, as she always did. She wouldn’t embarrass him by doting over it. But for the slightest of moments—every time one of them injured her son—they would see the shadow of outrage pass over her.
“What happened?” said Marta in a controlled voice.
Only then did Rhea realize she was in bigger trouble than she’d thought. She had summoned Endrit to her chamber after-hours. She had continued to train at full contact, though they all knew that Marta forbade training the day before the Revels, to give them time to mentally prepare. And she had cut a bleeding gash into her son’s shoulder.
Rhea’s answer caught in her throat.
To her eternal gratitude, Endrit stepped forward. “This? This is nothing,” he said.
“How did it happen?” said Marta.
“Game of checkers,” said Endrit, grinning brighter than a three-tiered candelabrum. “You should teach these girls how to lose gracefully.”
The ludicrousness of the excuse, and the sheer confidence it took to expect the others to believe it, made Marta finally crack a smile. Endrit glanced back at Rhea and winked.
“You will address them as ‘queen,’ or ‘highness,’ or ‘princess,’ ” said Marta as she sat, but the bite in her tone was already gone.
“Yes, ma’am,” said Endrit.
Suki rolled over, sprang off the table, and walked with Endrit toward a hutch in the corner. At fifteen, she was one year younger than Rhea and two years younger than Cadis and Iren. Somehow the divide seemed even wider. She still wore her hair in two pigtails.
“Hey, Endrit!” she chirped.
Endrit guided her over to his right side so he could put his good arm around her shoulder. “Hey, Susu. How’s my favorite acrobat?” he said.
Even from behind, Rhea could tell that Suki was blushing.
She couldn’t help but envy his easy air and his ability to make friends with them all. How can any one person like four such different girls? And how do they all like him?
It was a mystery to Rhea. She suspected the world outside of Meridan Keep, outside of the Protectorate, had plenty of easygoing friends, whereas the four queens could never be so casual and could never escape the fact that they were in constant competition.
For instance, in the competition for Endrit’s attention, Suki had clearly just won. She took him to the hutch, grabbed several bandages, and was already helping him tend to the wound. Meanwhile, Rhea was standing in the space between her door and the table, with nothing for her arms to do but dangle.
“How was the game of . . . checkers?” asked Iren, as she cut a long line across an azure sheet. The glass sang a high, grating pitch.
“Uh, good,” said Rhea. She sidled into a high-back chair at the table. Marta’s disapproval soured the air.
Iren, of course, didn’t notice, or pretended not to.
She has such slender fingers, thought Rhea as she watched Iren inlay a razor-thin shard of glass onto a tableau. Iren’s exhibition last year was an obscure juniper tea ceremony from the Corentine dale country. The year before that, she’d played her harp—all thousand veils of the Falconer’s Dream by PilanPilan.
It was as if Iren wanted to prove how advanced the Corentines were, how cultured, how smug.
Rhea’s father didn’t mind it as much as he did Cadis with her athletic exploits. Hiram lapped it up as if it were the first time anyone had played PilanPilan in Meridan Keep. Though to be fair, it might have been.
Rhea couldn’t keep her eyes off of Endrit and Suki in the corner. Endrit’s rakish grin was all she could see and Suki’s obvious tittering all she could hear.
“We were just saying it should be nice weather tomorrow,” said Cadis.
Rhea doubted that they were sitting together and discussing some almanac. She recognized halfhearted court conversation when she heard it.
“Oh?” she said. “Should we switch to plate leather?”
Marta looked up from her study of Iren’s glasswork. “Of course not. Full armor if you plan to go full speed.”
Rhea knew it. She just had nothing else to say. It was getting harder and harder to be around them. To force herself where she was obviously not wanted. Where she halted all sisterly conversation and sucked the warmth from the room. Rhea was about to excuse herself back to her bedroom when she heard the unmistakable scraping of a shinhound’s paws on castle stone.
When they all turned to the outer door, Rhea used the opportunity to steal a gaze at Cadis. She had tied her long blond hair into many thin braids that became dreadlocks—the common tradition of the Findish marauding parties. Bits of shell, coin, and other precious stones where woven into each braid and clinked musically when she turned her head. The green and gold sash that wrapped the braids back accentuated her resolute jawline and sharp-hewn nose. She was a queen already—although of a different sort from Iren. She was a war general, a queen by no right other than that she was stronger, more charismatic, and deadlier that anyone else.
Rhea made sure to look away before anyone caught her staring—“stewing in her own jealousy” as Suki had put it once. Rhea swore she wasn’t jealous. What was she to be jealous of? Meridan had beaten Findain. No, she preferred to think of their relationship as an early distancing of Meridan and its subjects.
The truth was that she and Cadis had been avoiding each other ever since the last Revels, their last match, a full year ago.
Marta wouldn’t allow them to spar anymore. “Not until you can stand as sisters again,” she’d said. Rhea wasn’t sure they had ever been sisters.
The shinhound scrabbled into the hall—a welcome distraction for everyone but Suki. Without looking up from her glasswork, Iren reached out a finger, pointed to a square of marble on the floor, and said, “Ismata, sit!”
The massive beast lowered its head, marched directly to the square, and sat awaiting further orders.
Cadis exclaimed with surprise, “Ha!” No one had ever dared order a shinhound before.
“You can tell them what to do?” said Endrit.
“And you named him Ismata?” added Suki.
Iren continued to work, but she smiled and nodded. After making them wait a moment, she said, “I’m counter-training them.”
“Without Hiram’s knowledge?” said Marta, scandalized by such an impertinent idea.
“I had to name them so my commands could override his. Come here, Ismata.” The shinhound bounded forward and let Iren scratch him under the chin. To Iren, this was just another project. But if Hiram found out, the magister would put the entire kennel to the sword.
Iren reached into her sleeve, drew out a strip of salted beef, and held it out. The shinhound snapped it up.
“Now you’re showing off,” said Cadis.
“Wouldn’t you?” said Iren.
“Oh, of course,” said Cadis. “I’d teach the dog your tea ceremony and present him at the Revels wearing laces and a petticoat.”
Marta sucked her teeth. For such an embarrassment, the magister would kill the dogs and burn the stadium with all the revelers still in it.
“I think it’s hilarious,” said Suki, eyeing Endrit to make sure he agreed.
“You shouldn’t have done this,” said Marta as she approached the hound and pulled the rolled parchment from the holster around its neck.
The beast, even while sitting, was nearly as tall as she was and twice as thick. Rhea imagined her teacher during the Battle of Epiphany Rising, fending off war dogs with a long-handled bident, which the soldiers called “shin guards.”
Marta never talked about the bite marks on her forearms, just as she never discussed the war.
She unrolled the parchment and read, “By the word of good King Declan, Protector and Preserver of the Pax Regina.”
Rhea let go of the lock of hair she had been nervously twirling around her finger. She tried not to tense in front of the others, but rarely did her father speak to them through the magister’s hands.
Marta continued. “Regarding the Revels, tenth of their kind. In light of the ever-present threat of attacks and subterfuge by Findish radicals—”
Rhea knew what would happen next. Marta paused, as if to give Cadis time to act righteously indignant. Cadis stood erect and jutted her chin to take the insult with public dignity. To Rhea, the show was overwrought. Her father had expressly written “radicals.” No one was saying the perfect princess had anything to do with it. But that didn’t matter to Cadis. She wore her victimhood proudly.
“Go on,” said Rhea.
“—to protect against such treason against the four crowns, the midnight ball will be reserved to the noble families of Meridan, royal guests, and guardian hands of the high court.”
“That’s not fair,” said Suki.
“None others shall be permitted into Meridan Keep,” said Marta, finishing the message. “So spake the king.”
Rhea held her breathing. Of course her father would be cautious. He was the only one with the burden of protecting the Keep from attack. Hiram’s spies must have uncovered a plot of some kind. But none of the girls were interested in spycraft. They just knew Endrit and the other performers couldn’t come to the celebratory dance. After all his work.
Rhea was heartbroken too. But she knew the others would blame her for the whole thing.
And she had the least to complain about. She’d be dancing with Endrit anyway, at the exhibitions. Even so, she had hoped to dance with him later, when fewer eyes would be upon them and they weren’t trying to kill each other, when—maybe—she could close her eyes, feel warm hands about her, and calm her anxious thoughts for just a short while. Rhea bemoaned the loss quietly, to herself.
“It’ll be just us and a bunch of inbred nobles?” said Suki with a pout.
“They don’t inbreed in Meridan,” said Iren.
“Then why are they so scrawny and weird?” said Suki.
“Because they’re pampered and boring,” said Iren.
“Well, I’m not touching any of them,” said Suki. Sometimes she still sounded like the five-year-old brat who had been spoiled rotten back in the court of Tasan. The high emperor had five children. The sycophant Tasanese nobles treated all of them like a pantheon of insolent gods.
As soon as Rhea rolled her eyes, she regretted it. Suki—of course—had been watching Rhea as she insulted Meridan, to measure the success of her needling.
“I hope there is a Findish revolt. Then we can finally go home.”
“Suki!” said Marta. Rhea bit back the obvious retort, as she always did with their baby sister. If Findain instigated all-out war, the last thing the girls would be doing was going home. But if Rhea said it—even though Iren and Cadis already knew—it would destroy the last vestige of their relationship. They stabbed and stabbed the dragon, but if Rhea ever breathed her fire, they would act shocked and claim they always knew dragons to be so vicious.
“What?” said Suki. “How long do we have to do this? I have my own little siblings to condescend to.” She cast unsubtle glances at Rhea as she spoke.
Is she foolish or delusional? Even if she returns after ten years, which of her siblings would even recognize her? In such a formal court, would they ever bow to a Meridan-raised queen, even if she is the oldest now?
For a tense moment only the shinhound made any noise, chomping on some other treat that Iren must have given from a hidden fold in her sleeve.
Endrit—thank the gods for him—finally broke the silence by giving Suki exactly what she seemed to be mewling for. He reached out, put a hand on her waist, and pulled her back from her battlefield. He wrapped his arms around her shoulders—so obviously as a big brother would, though Suki wouldn’t know it—and said, “There won’t be anything so exciting as a revolt. The Findish have their future queen to fight for them at court.”
The stable hand is no diplomat, thought Rhea. Cadis had no sway in the Meridan court. It would only make them feel like hostages. But Rhea was tired of caring how her sisters felt all the time.
“Come on, girls,” said Marta. “To bed. You’ll be up all night tomorrow.”
“Not if those Findish radicals attack,” said Cadis bitterly. The barb wasn’t as funny as she might have expected.
“And not if I have to dance with nobles,” said Suki.
Rhea felt them all avoid her gaze. They blamed her, though they would never say it. She was the daughter of the man who’d conceived of the Protectorate—the nature of their entire relationship. Their captor—if they wanted to think of it so ungenerously. Rhea was certain that Cadis felt so. She had a seafarer’s wanderlust, always consulting maps and travelers’ accounts of the wider world. She was the one already fit to rule—the only one among them rightly called a woman. But here she sat. Of all of them, Cadis seemed the most shackled, the most caged. Rhea would happily open the cage, if she could, and wish good riddance of her so-called sister.
At least she would not be treated as their constant villain, even though she was their sister and friend and advocate.
“I could speak to the king,” offered Rhea. “Maybe we can bring guests.”
Suki scoffed, “If I wanted your dad to listen to someone, I would have asked Cadis.” It was Rhea’s mistake to ever hold out an olive branch.
“Has anyone considered that maybe I’m not so keen on dancing with a bunch of termagants who do nothing but abuse and boss me around?” said Endrit.
“Endrit!” said Marta, the only one still horrified by his familiarity with the queens.
Suki laughed, turned around, and slapped Endrit’s shoulder where she had just bandaged his cut.
“Are we toilsome prey compared to your handmaidens?” said Cadis. The look she received from Endrit, which both Rhea and Suki observed, was a raised brow, an impressed smirk, and a mischievous sparkle of the eye.
The shinhound shuffled nervously and barked to remind Marta that the parchment needed to be returned.
“Oh, they’re not maidens,” said Endrit. “Does the captain of Findain not approve?”
Cadis made a playful show of turning her back to him. Rhea always suspected that Cadis could have him if she wanted.
“All right. To bed with all of you,” said Marta, clapping her hands.
Iren continued to gather her glasswork into the oilcloth, and that was signal enough for all of them to disperse. Suki griped and demanded a kiss on the cheek from Endrit, who obliged.
Cadis marched straight to her room. The precaution for their personal safety was still a personal insult, apparently.
Endrit slung his arm around his mother as if she were another sister and leaned down to kiss her sincerely on the temple. As he walked Marta out, he said over his shoulder, “Good night, my queens,” as a jester might say it, with too much gravitas, to make it sound foolish.
Suki chirped, “Good night!” and ran off, leaving Rhea and Iren sitting across from each other at the oaken round table.
Iren collected her glass-cutting tools in silence. Rhea sat for a short while, listening to her heart, still pounding from her training.
Rhea suddenly felt the overwhelming desire for a sister—a true sister—in whom she could confide, one whose only loyalty was to her, and not the others. She wished she could tell Iren about her training and ask if Iren felt as she did about Endrit in moments of such intense and terrifying desire that she imagined herself pinning him down, kissing him, pressing herself to him, but found herself at a loss for what to do after.
The image would turn murky and dreamlike. Rhea would feel embarrassed, as if Endrit could tell that she was childlike and ill versed in the details of love.
When they were younger, Iren had showed them an illuminated page from the poems of the ribald monk Hakan. In the corner, a couple sat entwined, one kissing the other’s nape, the other openmouthed like a baby bird, begging the gods to transfix them, just as they were, onto the parchment of a book, so that they could remain in their embrace forever.
The girls had giggled at the lewd painting and teased one another.
Cadis had elbowed Suki and said, “That’ll be you and Cooky Cogburn,” the greasy old kitchen master.
“No! Akh. I wanna be the girl who rides the gryphon across the sea,” she’d said, pointing to another illuminated page.
That was a particularly nice memory for Rhea, a time when they were four sisters sneaking together—not three and the king’s daughter.
“Something wrong?” said Iren.
Rhea returned from her memory to the table, the central chamber, midnight before the Revels Ten. The candles guttering outside. The guards clapping their heels on the stone.
“No,” she said.
“You were staring at me,” said Iren.
“Sorry,” said Rhea.
“No,” said Rhea. She hated them to know her weaknesses.
“We could have Cooky send up mulled cocoa.”
“No, thanks,” said Rhea, smiling at the coincidence of old Cogburn in her musing.
“After the last time, it’s natural to be nervous,” said Iren. She paused from her packing to look up. It wasn’t a warm expression, but it might have been the best Iren could muster. Only she could be so blunt in her caregiving. Rhea didn’t respond.
“You missed one,” said Iren. She pointed with a glass grinder at Rhea’s left ear. Rhea reached up and felt a hairpin still in her hair.
“Thanks,” she said. Will I forever feel like the sloppy pig slumped before the emira of Corent?
“I was serious about speaking to the king about admitting Endrit,” said Rhea. Iren stacked the glass pieces from largest to smallest, arranged by color.
Finally, she said, “Ismata, go kiss the future queen.”
The shinhound sprang around the table and licked Rhea’s outraised palms. Rhea laughed. It felt wonderful to laugh. It was a small gesture, but Iren’s favor came in tiny doses, and Rhea was relieved to have it.
“For your kindness, Your Majesty,” said Iren.
Rhea walked down the wide stone corridor of Meridan Keep as she always did—as her father taught her—with a weapon hidden in her palm. The hairpin was sharp enough to suture a crocodile’s maw. “Pray you never need it,” her father had whispered, “but some in the castle will never love us. Some think I killed my friend Kendrick and hid his heir in the dungeons.”
But such was always the way—Rhea knew—with royal clamor. Rumor and conspiracy rarely bothered with the truth. Rhea had watched her father weep for good King Kendrick, his bosom friend, every year. She had seen the dungeons, which Declan had emptied of prisoners and showed to disbelieving nobles.
“All this room,” he had said, standing in the basement floor. “I suppose Meridan Keep will boast the largest wine cellar in all of Pelgard.”
He had no heart for dungeons and no interest in rumors.
“Meet rumors with quiet, my love.”
When Rhea was younger and felt her sisters hush whenever she entered a chamber, that was his coda. Meet rumor with quiet. But he was no fool, for as she got older, he told her of the discontented nobles who would fare better under some mocked-up heir to Kendrick—a puppet they would name Taylin, after Kendrick’s misbegotten babe. He told her of the Findish rebels. And he added to their code: “Meet rumor with quiet, treason with cunning.”
Rhea followed the shinhound Iren had secretly named Ismata toward Hiram’s study, where she would likely find her father as well. The magister was cunning enough for all of them.
His shinhounds carried secret messages throughout the palace and the spy networks of Meridan.
No treason would match the young magister’s cunning.
Rhea wondered if he knew of Iren naming the hounds and training them to her command.
As she climbed the tower to the magister’s study, matching the hound’s pace, Rhea noted the soreness in her thighs. Perhaps she’d worked too hard before the Revels.
She paused on the landing, outside the candlelight of the study to compose her breath. From the room, she heard Hiram’s voice. “Ah. Good boy, Ismata.”
Rhea smiled. Of course the magister knows. Perhaps he was charmed by her childish attempt to give pet names to war dogs.
“Is there a return message?”
The voice was her father’s.
A rustle of parchment.
“No. The king commands. The children listen.”
Her father made a mocking sound. Do they know I am here?
The scrabbling of the shinhound must have covered her footfalls. Rhea felt a momentary thrill at the illicit idea of spying on the two great men of Meridan.
Iren, in all her properness, would have surely disapproved of queens skulking in dark hallways.
Rhea eased forward along the wall to the edge of the entry and listened.
“Very well, then. They’re likely cursing my name,” said Declan.
“Good,” said Hiram. “Those who complain for want of handsome dancing partners lack real dangers to speak of.”
“I’ve heard that Taylin is handsome,” said her father in a playful tone.
“Oh, I’m sure he’s quite the beauty. Grown ten feet in every direction.”
Her father laughed. It must have been great relief, when every day the nobles spread rumors against him, as if the dead heir would arise to take the throne and give them back their ill-gotten lands.
Her father sighed heavily.
“Old friend, I fear the Findish use the myth to court our own banners away from us. They claim he captains a galleon and a crew of rivermen who pledge his return.”
“Rumormongering to stir discord. The Findish revolt isn’t nearly so illustrious,” said Hiram.
“I know. The poor child is dead. But these river rats pirated far too inland for my liking. I think we’ll have to buy their loyalty.”
Rhea had never heard her father speak of corruption. She thought of retracing her steps back down but feared the shinhound would hear and reveal her.
“Oh?” said Hiram. “But they have money.”
“And I hear they eat scum snails dredged from the river,” said Declan. “The only choice is to give them a bride.”
“Pity the bride to such beasts,” said Hiram.
“Pity my daughter, then,” said Declan. “I’ve given them Rhea.”
Rhea bit back a gasp. Will he really? Are the Findish rivermen so important? Am I? Has he lost so much faith in me after the last Revels? Has he given me up? Really?
She gripped the jewel of the bladed hairpin so hard that it imprinted into her palm. She imagined guards charging up the stairs at that very moment to deliver her into the grasp of ravenous pirates.
Rhea’s mind raced with improbable thoughts as she stood with her back to the stone wall, until she heard the giggling of the two men in the study.
“You may enter now, daughter mine.”
I should have known. Rhea stood frozen for a second longer, feeling sheep-headed for having been taken in by the foolishness. She knew she would have to show herself—a child pulled from a hiding place.
Hiram cleared his throat and the shinhound trotted out into the hall to herd her in. It was cruel to threaten her life with a joke, but she deserved no better for spying, she supposed.
Rhea patted the dog, exhaled, and stepped into the doorway. Both men wore insufferable grins. Rhea knew they could read the credulity on her face.
“Check her teeth,” said Hiram. “The river rats will want a deck maid who can bite through the scum line if it gets caught.”
He barely finished before both of them broke off into peals of laughter. Rhea was once again a child. But even so, seeing her father smile—rare as it was these past ten years—was a welcome joy.
Hiram’s private study was warmly lit by sconces inset into stone, caged to keep sparks from the many shelves of scrolls and codices. Cabinets full of curiosities—natural and unnatural—lined the back wall.
Declan and Hiram sat in pinned leather chairs. The reading table between them held a map of the four kingdoms of Pelgard, a few volumes of poetry, and a snifter of plum brandy from Tasan’s plantation archipelago.
Both had cups in hand.
Her father had a tin box of ice, which must have been raced upstairs by shinhound from the sunken domes along the outer wall of Meridan Keep.
“Tell me, good spy, what did you hear?” said her father.
“Nothing but doddering and foolishness, Father.” The insult had the opposite intended effect. Rhea continued. “I’ve come about the ball.”
“Of course you have,” said Declan.
“The Findain threat is real, domina. Don’t let our joking numb you.”
“I know,” said Rhea, “but we’d like to bring guests, at least.”
Her father sat up and placed his cup on the table. “Marta and her son?” he said, his face familiarly grave.
“Yes. Not only them,” said Rhea. “Other servants, the cadets competing in the Revel games.”
“Boys,” said Hiram.
“Kings and magisters, practically, compared to the river rats.”
Hiram gave a conceding bow and smiled. He liked a sharp riposte.
Her father stared at the figurines situated on the map. She could see his concerns. What if some cadets were Findain sympathizers? What if they attacked at the ball? All the “what if” possibilities that necessitated her training in the grimwaltz.
Rhea added to her cause. “It would mean a great deal to us, especially to Suki. . . .”
Her father turned his attention. “And why especially for the little queen?”
“You’ve seen it. She’s still learning her charms on Endrit.”
Is it any less so for myself? If anything, it might have been more so.
“She talks of going home,” said Rhea, “and seems distant, heartsick.”
Her father seemed genuinely grieved by the notion. “Very well,” he said. “I know this . . . arrangement is difficult.”
Rhea wished she could dash across the room and hug her father.
“Wise, my lord,” said Hiram. “We don’t want Suki to end like her sister.”
Declan acknowledged with a joyless smirk. “Anything else, my blood daughter?”
Rhea shook her head, no. “Thank you.”
“Have you prepared this time for the Revels?”
Rhea was not defending for such a stab.
She knew he referred to her surrendered loss to Cadis.
Perhaps it was the reference to Suki’s ignoble sister, Tola, that sent him edge-ward. Tola the soldier who had attempted to murder Declan during peace talks. Tola, who singlehandedly forced Declan’s hand into the Battle of Crimson Fog. Tola, who had inadvertently given Declan his greatest victory at such great cost of lives.
“Yes, Father,” said Rhea. “I’ve trained.”
“I’ve heard you train as one who wants only to survive,” he said, still testing her.
“I meet such silly rumors with quiet, Father, as I was taught. I train only for victory.”
Her father nodded. “Very well. Let the cadets and the servants dance. If they mean us treachery, then I can always throw Hiram at their feet and run away.”
Rhea was thankful and ashamed, as she often felt around her father. At once swaggering as heir of the house of Declan and horrified to be its weakest in generations.
She took the downward stairs in leaps, hoping her sisters would credit her for the news. Knowing them, they would see it as yet another show of favoritism.
Even though she risked her father’s safety for it, Suki would likely act suspicious and look to Iren and Cadis for some reaction to parrot. Iren, of course, would remain conveniently silent and Cadis, annoyingly pleasant.
No matter. Endrit would be at the ball.
She didn’t need sisters of such disloyal quality. She didn’t know if the rumor her father had mentioned had been spoken by one of them, but she knew the sentiment was theirs.
And she knew what to do.
Meet rumor with quiet, treason with cunning, and vicious with vicious.