Authors: Brigid Kemmerer
We make camp long before nightfall.
Nolla Verin’s temper is a force to be reckoned with. She snaps at the guards about building the fire hotter, and even snaps at our mother about revealing too much information before we had the alliance assured. Despite her words earlier, she has never been rejected, and I can tell the prince’s words stung.
My sister sits beside me, staring into the fire, driving her needle into her embroidery again. “Did you see the way he clutched at that crippled princess? As if her people have given any sign that their alliance is valid.” She snorts. “They allowed the king to be slaughtered! The prince is such a fool.”
“He will regret this, Lia Mara.”
“You’ve said that, too.”
She turns those fierce eyes on me. “Do you believe otherwise?”
“I believe the prince cares for his people.”
“I care for my people, too.”
Maybe, but Prince Rhen has never invaded Syhl Shallow. He did not wantonly slaughter
people. I look away from her, back at the fire.
The silence between us thickens, turning to uncertainty.
“Do you believe I failed?” she whispers.
I look at her in surprise. “No. I believe you both seek different outcomes for your countries.”
“We could be unified!”
I swallow. They did not approach Prince Rhen as if they truly sought
“Will Mother attack?” I say softly. “Now that he has refused?”
Nolla Verin relaxes. She enjoys discussing strategy. “She will wait until the prince’s people are well and truly divided over the nonsense regarding this heir. The seeds are already sown. We will capture his cities and finally have access to the open sea.”
“What of this Commander Grey?” I say.
“Dead or alive, it does not matter.” She knots her thread and pulls a dagger to cut the string. “You saw the prince’s face when Mother said his name.”
I did see Rhen’s face. Harper’s too. Both filled with a wash of panic and loss and fear.
Nolla Verin shakes her head. “Mother was right to reveal what we know. The gossip that a former guardsman—a
, if he lives—carries this knowledge will spread quickly.”
She is right. A magesmith? An heir? A rogue guardsman? The gossip will be too juicy to control, and Rhen’s people are already divided.
Nolla Verin shrugs. “What we do know is what’s most important: this prince’s reign will soon come to an end, one way or another. Look. What do you think?”
It takes me a moment to realize she’s drawing my attention to her embroidery. I’ve hardly looked at it since we left Syhl Shallow, but now I see she’s added words in the center, the letters curved and winding through the stitched adornments throughout.
Two sisters. One heart.
The words should fill me with light and happiness. They don’t. I can’t scrub the memory of the slaughtered man and his daughter from my thoughts. That girl had a sister—a sister who fled because I refused to raise the alarm about her presence.
“You don’t like it,” says Nolla Verin.
“No, I do.” I reach to take the fabric from her. My finger traces over the lettering. “Your talent is beyond compare.”
“You look so sad. I thought this would cheer you.”
“It does.” I reach out and clasp her hand. “I am honored to have your love and to share your heart.”
I can’t help but return the smile. I do love her.
She leans in and kisses me on the cheek. “I thought it would be lovely for your pillowcase.”
I press the embroidery to my chest. “I’ll treasure it always.”
She stands and stretches. “Will you be long? I am eager to sleep.”
She eases into our tent, and her guards take their place.
I wish Sorra and Parrish would join me by the fire, because I could use Parrish’s easy humor, but my mother has not yet retired, and they would never be casual in her presence.
An exhausted part of my brain expects her to come join me, to needle me about my sister’s performance today, to jab and dig at my failings, but luckily she does not.
She does draw close, though, once, to drop a kiss onto my
forehead. A rare show of affection from her. “You think I forget you were my first daughter,” she says.
“I do not think that.”
“A mother knows.”
I blush. Likely our entire queendom knows.
“I know you think I am cold and unforgiving, too,” she says.
I say nothing. She’s not wrong.
“I am not heartless,” she says. “But outside of Syhl Shallow, the world is full of men who underestimate women. Men who undermine them. I cannot rule from a place of weakness. I do not have the luxury of mercy and sympathy. Nor will your sister.”
I remain silent. Leaving an unarmed man alive doesn’t seem like a
, but maybe that’s why I haven’t been named heir.
“You are not lesser than Nolla Verin,” she says. “Remember that, Lia Mara. That is why your studies with Clanna Sun are so very important. Your sister has been named heir, but she will need your support.”
“Thank you, Mother.” I’m not sure what else to say. Her voice is high and clear, and this likely has more to do with informing Nolla Verin that she has been a disappointment than anything to do with me.
Mother leaves me there by the fire and retires to her own tent. Eventually, Sorra and Parrish join me on the log by the fire.
Parrish offers me a bit of dried beef from a sack, and I make a face.
He laughs and pops it into his mouth.
Sorra makes the same face I did. “He’ll eat anything,” she says.
“Gladly too.” He pops another piece in his mouth.
I can barely summon the energy for a smile. “Mother is upset that things did not go better with the prince.”
Sorra nods. “She does not want to wage war. The palace coffers are not endless. The Royal Houses are disappointed that she has not provided access to the seaport trade as she promised.”
“I didn’t know that.” I sit up straighter. I knew we had come to rely on the tithe from Emberfall in years past, but I was unaware our reserves had run so thin that the Royal Houses were beginning to withdraw support.
Sorra smiles. “Perhaps you would hear more if you spent time at court instead of with your nose in a book.”
I make a face equivalent to the one I made over the dried meat, and she laughs under her breath.
“War is costly,” she says. “Even if the prince’s alliance with Disi is false, it will cost a tidy sum to launch another invasion—and the Royal Houses are not willing to pay more when funds run low already.”
“To say nothing of the lives lost,” says Parrish.
His tone catches my attention, and I swivel my head to look at him.
He glances at Sorra, and his tone is subdued. “We should not slaughter people over access to trade routes.”
I think of the girl he ignored in the woods. I wonder if Sorra knows, or if this is a secret he keeps. I wonder if this makes him a lesser guard, the way it makes me feel like a lesser sister.
Sorra holds his gaze. “In time,
people will suffer without them.”
That was the whole reason Mother attacked in the first place. She would not be seeking an alliance at all if she hadn’t failed. If Sorra is right, if Prince Rhen will not discuss an alliance, we are left with no other option.
Parrish nods somberly. “We will destroy this country—or wait for our own to fail.”
“It seems there is no choice now,” I say. “Mother made her decision. You guard the wrong sister if you think I can bring about change.”
We look back at the flames. The camp falls silent around us, but my thoughts run too quickly for sleep to find me anytime soon.
Two sisters, one heart.
We do not share a heart. I know that much.
For all Mother’s remarks about the enchantress and the magical beast that drove our forces out of Emberfall, Prince Rhen was correct: he
succeed once. I know from my studies that nothing unifies people like a common enemy. Right now, his country seems divided over whether he is the rightful heir, but if he can find this Commander Grey, if he can find the
then Prince Rhen can solidify his position. He cares about his people. His passion is evident. He could very well succeed again.
I unfold Nolla Verin’s embroidery and trace my fingers over the neat stitching.
Two sisters, one heart.
If I share a heart with anyone, it is this prince. At least he seems merciful. Thoughtful, not callous.
I wonder how he would have reacted if Nolla Verin had approached him with thoughtfulness and respect instead of arrogance and disdain. If she had presumed to care for
people along with her own.
I wonder if I can find out.
You are not lesser than Nolla Verin. Your sister will need your support.
The prince wouldn’t listen to my sister.
Perhaps he will listen to me.
“I want to speak with him,” I say quietly.
Sorra looks at me in alarm, but Parrish’s gaze is more steady. “Your mother will never allow it.”
“I know.” I pause. “We must be swift, before the others realize what we’re doing.”
His eyebrows shoot up. “You mean to go
“Yes.” My heart beats like a drum. “Saddle horses. Be as silent as possible.”
I expect them to refuse. They have been my guards for years, but they are sworn to my mother. Sorra holds my eyes for so long that my mother would consider it insolence.
I know it’s not.
“Please,” I say softly.
“For peace,” Parrish says at my side, and her gaze shifts to him. Her eyes soften.
He hooks a finger in the edge of her armor and pulls her forward. “For our future,” he says. Then he brushes his lips against hers.
My cheeks burn, but I can’t help but smile. “There will be time for that later. For now, we need to hurry.”
Parrish grins and pulls back. Sorra’s cheeks are equally pink. They turn toward where the horses are tethered, their movement silent.
When I follow to help, Parrish looks at me. His grin has softened into a smile. “You were wrong,” he says.
“I believe we guard the
sister who can bring about change.”
Gossip and unrest always generate crowds, but tonight the tourney is busier than I’ve ever seen it. When darkness fell, it brought cooler winds and a sky full of stars, but the stands are packed with so many bodies it’s hotter than at midday.
“The prince is running scared,” a man mutters as he waits in the snaking line for ale. Worwick must be turning a heady profit tonight. I’ve never seen the line stretch to the stables. “There’ve been no magesmiths in Emberfall in decades.”
I’m saddling horses for the mounted sparring, but when I’m working, I’m invisible. People speak freely without consideration.
When I was a guardsman, stationed along a wall, it was no different.
controlled that beast that terrorized the castle,” says another man. “Everyone says it was Karis Luran, but I don’t know why anyone isn’t questioning this new princess. Maybe
the one who sent it. I don’t trust this alliance with wherever she’s from. They let our king die.”
I tighten a girth and give the horse a pat on the neck.
“Rillisk has been governed by the Grand Marshal for years,” scoffs a woman. “The royal family returns, and suddenly we’re supposed to bend a knee? Not likely.”
“Watch your voice,” says the first man. “I heard there’s royalty here tonight.”
My fingers go still on the buckle of a bridle. The horse butts his face against my hand, and I murmur to quiet him.
The second man chuckles lazily. “Royalty? Just another princeling no one has ever heard of.”
A breath eases out of my chest. Months ago, this would have been worrisome, but since the southern borders were opened, I’ve heard of minor royalty passing through Rillisk, as smaller lands seek to reopen trade routes.
The rough voice makes me jump, but it’s just Journ, Worwick’s other fighter. I prefer his company to Kantor’s, but right now he’s pale and sweating, one hand braced on a post along the wall.
I frown. “Are you sick?”
“I took a kick from a horse. The roads are packed. Two carriages collided. I tried to help.” He winces, a hand against his chest. “Worwick said you might have a poultice that you use on the horses.”
I do, but if he can barely stand, a poultice won’t let him fight. Little use in telling Worwick that, though. I call for Tycho to come finish with the horses, then look back at Journ. “Come to the armory. I’ll see what I can do.”
It’s cooler back here, away from the crowds. The scraver lies motionless in its cage, though its night-dark eyes flick open as we enter the armory. Journ drops onto a stool. When he removes his
shirt, half his chest is dark with bruising. He gasps from the effort it took to disrobe.
“Tell me the truth,” he says breathlessly. “Does it look as bad as it feels?”
“It looks like your ribs are broken.”
He swears under his breath. “Worwick will come undone.”
“You can’t fight like this.”
“Have you seen the stands? It’s barely full dark and there are no seats left. If I can’t fight, Worwick will put a blade through me himself.”
The words make me think of Riley the blacksmith. When I was a weapon for the Crown, guilt rarely pricked at me for the actions I was ordered to take.
Today, guilt is a thorn I cannot remove.
Journ shifts and winces. “Can you bind it? Perhaps my armor will offer some support.”
“I can try.” I pack stiff muslin against his rib cage while he swears at me, then bind it tightly. He sweats through the bandages before I’m done, but when I buckle his armor into place over it, he’s able to stand more easily than he was before.
“You have my thanks, Hawk.” He clumsily claps my shoulder, then wheezes.
“A child could run you through.”
“I need the coins tonight.” He takes a thin breath and pulls a sword from the rack. “Take a blade. Let me try.”
I’ve never sparred with Journ or Kantor, because it’s hard to hide skills from men who have them. But he’s injured and we’re alone, and Journ is a good man, so I take a sword from the rack.
He’s able to feint and thrust and parry, but his movement is lumbering, and I’m not putting up much resistance.
Still, he offers a grim smile. “I might not win, but I can fight.”
I swing my blade hard, and he’s barely able to block the blow. While he’s trying to recover, I twist my weapon, hook the hilt of his, and disarm him. The point of my sword sits at his neck before he can draw breath.
“You’ll be disarmed in seconds,” I say. “That’s not much of a fight.”
He’s blinking at me. A hand presses to his side, but he says, “You’ve been practicing.”
I lower my weapon. “Here and there.”
He winces and eases back onto the stool, then sighs. Drums echo from the arena, followed by a loud cry from the stands. Worwick will be rallying the audience, opening the evening’s events.
I need to get back to the arena. In this crowd, Tycho will be running like crazy to get the horses and riders out safely.
I’m stuck studying Journ, who’s dragging a damp wrist across his forehead. He gives another heavy sigh, and it’s full of pain. If it were Kantor, I’d let him go into the arena and take his chances.
“Why do you need the coins tonight?” I ask.
“We’ll have another child by year’s end.” He shifts and grimaces, but there’s no way to make broken ribs comfortable. “Another mouth to feed—as if it’s not hard enough to fill the ones I have.”
This does not feel like a moment to offer congratulations. “I didn’t know.”
He draws a breath that cuts short at the end, then winces and pushes himself to his feet. “We all have our burdens.” He reaches for a sword belt from the wall.
In the stadium, a horse neighs, hooves pummel the ground, and the crowd cheers.
I bite at the inside of my lip, thinking of Riley.
I owe Journ nothing. I owe Worwick nothing.
Across the room, the scraver’s cage rattles as it shifts and stretches. Its coal-black eyes find mine, and it hisses. The sound is full of censure, but that’s probably all inside my head.
We all have our burdens
I did nothing this afternoon. I can do something now.
“Remove your armor,” I tell him.
He utters a rough laugh that ends on a wheeze. “If I get this off, I won’t get it back on.”
“I need to help Tycho,” I say. “If you can’t bend to get your greaves off, I’ll be back in half an hour.”
“What are you going on about?”
“You can’t fight, Journ.”
He closes his eyes. “Hawk. I
“You misunderstand,” I say. “
can. Now remove your armor. I’ll be back.”