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Authors: Emily June Street

Sterling

BOOK: Sterling
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Sterling
Emily June Street

F
or Tamara
, an ally in this process

The Eve of War

E
very girl has a fairy tale
.
The words blurred on the page.
I was reading a children’s book, a volume Papa had given me years ago for my tenth birthday. I sat on the sun porch on the fourth floor of our Shankar house, a sprawling stone mansion in the heart of the city that had been my home for my entire life.

I knew the book’s foreword by heart. The stories brought me comfort in times of distress, even if they were silly and childish. My habit was to sit with the book in my lap while rubbing my right hand across the wine-red birthmark that covered half my face. This past year I’d been reading the book endlessly; as soon as I finished it, I’d start again at the beginning.

It had been a disastrous year.

First there had been my failed engagement to Culan Entila, followed by my sister Stesi’s marriage to the High Prince, Costas Galatien. Next, Mama had died of a wasting illness—though depending on whom you asked, she might have been poisoned. Stesi’s sudden assassination had come on the heels of Mama’s death. Papa and I suspected Stesi’s husband of orchestrating the deed. In retribution, Papa had just launched a civil war against House Galatien.

As usual, I’d been left at home. Forgotten.

There’s a fairy tale to assuage any sorrow,
the foreword went on.
There’s
Cinder and Ashe
for a poor girl and
Rose Red
for a girl whose mother has died. Clever girls have
The Wise Daughter
, and misunderstood beauties can have their pick from
Fair Ruslana
or
Pretty Poppy
.

I snorted. The book no longer seemed comforting. Not as I sat abandoned at home with strife reverberating all around me. A fairy tale couldn’t fix a war, couldn’t fix Mama’s death or Stesi’s murder. No tale could fix the sad state of my House—wronged past bearing by our rulers, unsupported in our struggles to protect Lethemia from the threat of the neighboring Eastern Empire.

A story couldn’t fix Papa’s grief and despair at the loss of half our family. Nor mine.

Even so I flipped through the book, searching for my favorite tale,
The Ugly Duchess
. The pages of this story were worn; I’d read it so many times. It told the tale of a dark-skinned girl born into a fair-skinned world. She was called ugly for her whole life, until her father married her to a duke from a distant land. When she arrived in her new home, she discovered it was full of dark-skinned people, and they considered her beautiful beyond compare.

Once I’d believed something like that could happen to me, that someone—some prince or lord—would be able to see past my face.
The Ugly Duchess
had given me hope that beauty could be defined in many ways.

But that message was wrong.

My variety of ugliness could not be remedied by a change in perspective. There were no fairy tales for a girl like me.

I turned the book in my lap, rubbing the embossed gilding in the leather. The book’s introduction was correct, in its way. Everyone had a story. And the first circle of my story, the truth on which the world agreed, was that Sterling Ricknagel was
nobody
, the ugly, unlovable daughter of a great house.

No one would remember me in the history books. I would make no mark upon the world. I imagined no happily-ever-after for myself, no prince, no lord, no love.

I slammed the book of fairy tales closed. It was time to grow up.

Chapter One

I
stared
at the envelope in my hands, working up the courage to open it. The mahogany-paneled walls of Papa’s study seemed to close around me, making my chest tight and airless. The study, usually a refuge, seemed an ominous place this morning.

All because of the envelope.

I’d spent days without a word from Papa, living in a state of constant anxiety, waiting for news of the war. He’d said he meant to keep the combat short and sharp. He’d believed he could take Costas Galatien by surprise in Galantia and come to an almost bloodless victory by capturing the High City swiftly.

I’d hardly slept, knowing Papa’s life hung in the balance. He wasn’t the kind of man to sit at the sidelines of a battle. If he asked his men to fight, he would fight, too.

I’d already lost Mama and Stesi; I couldn’t lose Papa. He was the only one who loved me.

Tremors shook my hands. What if the envelope contained news of his death?

A sharp rap came on the study door.

“Yes?” I called, glad for the excuse to postpone opening the letter. “Enter.”

Galen, the head of our household guard, tall and dark with the cheekbones of one of my imaginary princes, carried a parcel. He gave a small bow. “Lady Sterling. More post for you. This parcel came by special runner from Anatyr.” My stomach dropped, but Galen jerked his chin at the envelope in my hands. “I received a letter from Lord Ricknagel as well. Or should I say now, His Majesty Xander I Ricknagel.”

“What? His Majesty? Papa? He is—well?”

“More than well, Lady Sterling. He has won. Costas Galatien has been defeated. Your father will be King.”

Galen dropped the parcel into my hands. It wasn’t very heavy.

“Who sent this?” I asked.

“No letter accompanied it. Your guess is as good as mine, my lady.”

I nodded. “Very good. You may go, Galen.” Though Galen’s news of Papa cheered me, I still wanted privacy to open the letter. I became terribly self-conscious around most men; they stared at my face.

As soon as Galen clicked the door closed, I tore open Papa’s letter.

My darling Starry,

It is with great pleasure that I write to tell you that I have successfully captured our former King, Costas Galatien. Even better, Costas had a son with his secret bride, and as I write, that child, a possible future thorn in our side, has also been captured and is being sent to my care in Engashta.

I have vanquished Costas Galatien, who wronged our House so deeply. We have won, Starry. I have achieved what I always knew I was born to do: I have restored House Ricknagel to greatness and its proper position, first among the Ten Houses. I am finally the King I have trained to be my entire life.

Of course Costas has confessed to nothing, but I have yet to set a mage upon him for truth-speaking. When I do, we shall see the depth of his perfidy. For the time being, I hold him prisoner, and I focus all my energies on securing Lethemia for a new age of rule by House Ricknagel—a more just and secure age.

To that end, I am in the midst of negotiations with all the Ten Houses, who will accept me as High King of Lethemia in place of Galatien. I will be crowned in less than a sidereal’s time. This means, Starry, that as my only remaining offspring,
you
will be the heir not only to House Ricknagel, but also to the Crystal Throne. You are now the High Princess of the land. One day you will be Queen.

I require your presence. I have written to Galen to escort you to Engashta, where I hold my councils, as soon as possible.

I look forward to seeing you soon.

Your father,

XHR

The letter fluttered from my hands to the floor like a dying butterfly.
High Princess? Queen? Me?
Gods above, I could hardly face the head of our household guard! I certainly could not face a council of the Ten Houses.

I collapsed on the divan beneath the windows, closing my eyes and letting a slant of light warm my skin, which had gone cold and clammy from Papa’s words.

I turned to the parcel Galen had given me and peeled away the wrappings.

He’d said it came from Anatyr, but I didn’t know anyone in Anatyr.

The wrappings revealed a small wooden box, nothing fancy. I lifted the lid. Nestled inside sat Papa’s Emerald Ophira.

“Oh!” I covered my mouth with my hand.

At the start of the war, Papa had given the magical Ophira to his sister, Siomar, a magitrix. Aunt Siomar had set out with my handmaiden, Serafina, on a mission to destroy the naval fleets of our enemies.

The Emerald Ophira parcel did not contain a note, and by this I assumed that Serafina had sent it to me. Aunt Siomar would have written a letter. Serafina eschewed written words—because she could not be bothered or because she was illiterate, I could not say.

I gripped the bright green magestone and rubbed it over my marred cheek. Warm curls of invisible heat seeped through my skin. The smooth curve of the stone felt as soft as satin. Only Serafina had known that I often used the stone to comfort myself. Her sending it to me seemed like a final act of friendship, a silent goodbye that made me wonder if I would ever see her again.

* * *

W
hen I arrived
in Engashta after several long days of carriage travel, I alighted in a performance worthy of my late sister, but inside, my stomach twisted in knots. I was not ready to be a princess.

I reached into my reticule, where I’d tucked the Emerald Ophira before departing Ricknagel Manor. I ought to have locked it in Papa’s study where it belonged.
That is a powerful magestone, Sterling, not a plaything,
I could hear Papa say.

But the Ophira’s heat comforted me. I assumed that was part of its magic, though I’d been born without a trace of talent. When the Conservatoire mage had come to test me, I’d failed every task. Even so, holding the stone, someone with no talent at all could touch magic.

The Ophira gave me courage as I passed through the wrought iron gate of the Duke of Engashta’s four-story home, where Papa was in residence for his councils.

Engashta was a strategic city situated at the meeting points of three Lethemian provinces: Entila, Talata, and Shiree. The Duke had been one of our allies in the war. His house was as white and pristine as a lady’s porcelain tea-cup, gilded with intricate mouldings. It was tall and narrow, nothing like sprawling Ricknagel Manor, which covered nearly two square leagues.

Papa awaited me in a spare salon on the third floor of the Duke’s mansion. White walls, white drapes, and white velvet upholstery covered everything.

I felt nearly as wan.

“Sterling!” Papa rose from behind a broad desk. “You made it!”

I ran to him. Papa never minded my shows of affection; only my mother had scolded me if I touched her in public. Papa’s arms were wiry with muscle. He did not believe a leader could be anything but a great soldier, and he trained himself as ruthlessly as he did his men. In his embrace I felt safe. Oh, I loved him! And he loved me—despite my blemish, despite everything.

“I trust you had a comfortable trip?” he asked.

“It was fine, Papa.” I lowered my voice. “Have you truly captured and defeated Costas Galatien?” I hardly believed what he had written.

“Yes, Starry. I wouldn’t have let you travel otherwise. It is done. The Galatiens are vanquished. I shall be crowned King in Galantia in a fortnight. I sent for you because we are throwing a ball.”

“A ball?” Throwing a ball?
So soon after the close of a war? I sat down on the white divan across from the desk. My expression must have been telling.

Papa laughed. “Yes, can you believe it? Tirienne Talata demanded a ball as the price of her support.” His voice changed. “That and you, Starry.”

“How do you mean?” I understood why he had to throw a ball, if Tirienne Talata demanded it. Aside from the Galatiens and the Ricknagels, the Talatas were the most powerful family of the Ten Houses, and their lands spanned a vital and strategic position. Without House Talata as our allies, destroying the Galatien hold on Lethemian power would have been impossible.

Papa sat beside me, loose in his posture, all out of character. Xander Ricknagel was a man raised in a military tradition, and he’d kept his back as rigid as a board for all the years I’d known him. This stranger curled into the sofa like a courtier. My calm, stoic father looked almost manic. His cheeks flushed, and he grabbed my hand.

“Starry, you must be brave about this. I could not have finished this war so quickly without House Talata’s support. They demanded that I wed you to their son, Erich, in exchange for their allegiance. You will marry him in Galantia after my coronation. This ball is to announce your betrothal.”

I sat, stunned. I had never expected my father to sell me in marriage without consulting me. He had not done that to my sister. Stesi had told him she wanted no one less than High Prince Costas Galatien as her husband, and Papa had moved the Twelve Heavens to satisfy her. He’d promised Stesi she would not have to marry against her will, and I’d always assumed he meant that promise for me, too.

The air seemed to have left my lungs. “But Papa!”

Fleeting distress crossed my father’s face. “It’s done, Sterling. I cannot change it. It was their price, and I needed them.”

Serafina had taught me how to compose myself, how to arrange my face so no one could read my emotions. I did so, sucking in my cheeks and pinching flesh between my back teeth.

Papa nodded at my expression. “Good girl. I knew I could count on you to be brave. The ball is all planned, but you’re to pick the theme. I believe the Duke’s housekeeper is waiting for word from you.”

BOOK: Sterling
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