The morning sun bathed the palace in intermingling shades of pink, orange and gold, the shadows between the colonnades a soft, fading lavender. Overhead, the last dim star of night was melting into a pale blue pocket of sky, serenely insensate to the madness below.
Malek Loren's red-plumed helm, cradled in his arms, glittered like the rising sun, crowning the Loren estate in an aureate blaze as it ascended against the dome of the southeast tower.
"Now, Roselia ..." Leaning down, he kissed her forehead, his lips cold. Even his irises were practically white in his bloodshot eyes; the sickness had sapped them of colour. It was a shock to see him so, every ghoulish detail of his illness exposed by the clear light of day. He seemed so small dwarfed inside his armour. Still he sat intransigent astride his stallion, awaiting his glorious death.
… The fool. The dear old fool.
A chilly gust whipped at her bare arms as he placed his helm over his head. The face guard creaked down like a coffin lid, cutting off the last strand of humanity.
"Go say goodbye to your brother now, daughter. He needs your courage; he loves you dearly. He fights for you, you know. Stay in the palace, and await our return."
Wordlessly, she stumbled away. A night of steady protests had fallen on deaf ears, as insubstantial as rainwater washing down a storm drain.
They fight for me.
Was it ungrateful for her not to appreciate it?
As she made her way past the ranks of waiting cavalry, all she could feel was bitter vexation.
He isn’t just committing suicide. He’s bringing the rest of these men down with him …
And they didn’t care—not today. There was only excitement on the brisk dawn air: the clank of armour, ribald jokes bandied across the ranks, heedless shouts and guffaws. Today they thought of plunder, rape, and revenge; only a few pairs of careworn of eyes stared dully into the distance, thinking of what tomorrow would bring. Tomorrow—when the battlefield was cleared of the wreckage and the dead were counted, the bodies brought home to the wailing mothers and wives, the fatherless children.
A shadow eclipsed her, and there was black-haired Alix, perched like a raven on his mount, a bird of war with dark, intense eyes and long, strong limbs, the sun a halo at his back. He reached down, sweeping her up in a fierce hug, lifting her halfway off the ground. His plated arms nearly crushed the life out of her.
He released her, and her feet squelched back down into the muddy earth. He grasped her shoulders with hands still human; his gauntlets waited in his saddle-bag. The warmth of the sun drained from the day as clouds deepened overhead, partly obscuring the light.
"Take care of the palace for me, will you sis?" He grinned.
… He actually grinned.
"Don't you know you're going to die?" she burst out. “There is no way you are going to win this fight in a day. Haven’t centuries of recorded history taught you anything? What about our entire lives? Nothing changes. All you’re going to accomplish is death—death for all these men. And if you find Telyra in the field, he’ll kill you too. After he murders Father. You think Father can still swing that battleaxe? He can hardly lift a fork!”
Tomorrow, her family’s adversary would still be here—she was sure of it. Why didn’t they get it? There were two circlets. The circlets chose their wearers, not the other way around, which was exactly why they meant so much in the first place. Two circlets weren’t about to select one man. Talystasia could never have a king. How come nobody could get the message?
Alix cocked his head and narrowed his eyes. "… Nonsense, Rose. This is a great day for us. You should tell everyone." He bit his lip, eyeing her up and down critically. “You shouldn’t have worn that. Whose corner are you in?”
Her skirts fluttered feebly in the wind. Any other day, they’d only have been slate blue, the colour of the gathering clouds—but today they were Telyra’s colour. What had she been thinking when she put this on …? She should have worn scarlet, the colour of blood spilled and victory won, the mark of House Loren. What encouragement was she to these men?
“How can you ask me that? It was just a stupid fashion choice, hardly tantamount to high treason. I’ve had more important things on my mind.”
“Like what? Your place is in court. You’re here to be seen.”
“Why are you reading into it? Uncle Palin’s wearing blue today too, or didn’t you notice?”
“Not that blue.”
“I’m not the one going on a suicide mission—”
"You disturb me. We’re all under stress, but you have to stay focused. Sister, I—"
The golden blast of a horn from the front of the line cancelled out his words. Rose looked up. The third division of the cavalry was disappearing through the gate in a muddle of crimson and silver.
"We ride, sis.”
The mane of his mount swished past her as he raced to catch up with the end of the line. Her father was already gone.
At the bejewelled gates, he turned and gave her one last passing glance, his face a white speck framed by his helm—was he trying to shout something to her?
He wheeled about again, and a splash of cold and wet on her hem and the clanging, pounding roar of hooves and steel heralded the last of the fourth division behind her. They made for the gate, following Alix out of the yard, and they too were gone.
Through the dressing room window, the firmament continued to darken, cold emanating from the looming mass. Pulling the latch down on the window, she felt the glass rattling beneath her fingertips, the hum like that of a predator.
As a child, she’d fled to the nursery during combat. The luxuriously cushioned walls and forests of antiquated toys made it seem like an inviting nest of safety. It wasn’t the guards on the doors that gave her comfort. It was the windowless walls with no world outside.
In one hidden corner, a pair of names had been etched into the wall, worn and faded. She’d stared at them long and often, trying to make them out, convinced that beyond the veil of time, they belonged to kindred spirits.
Like all Lorens though, her long-dead playmates would have grown up to the harshness of steel and the charming guile of diplomacy.
Inevitably, a day had come when the nursery had been given over to a younger cousin. Banished from her sanctuary, she’d hidden in here or in her bedroom—and years later, after the arid stretch in the Senate—in her books.
The reality was, she hadn’t stood a chance in the legislature. She could talk all she wanted, but she was effectively without a voice because her words accomplished nothing. Always, she was the child in the nursery, playing at grownup games, and grownups had a way of taking things for granted.
Not that it really mattered. The Senate was little more than an over-glorified council of advisors. The true power rested in the circlet and the one who wore it.
The city’s dual plagues, hostility and poverty, were like the rain; they’d saturated the city long before she was born, so perpetual that they’d become mundane, as primordial and entrenched as the climate, timeless even to the dead children whose names had faded from the nursery room walls. Suffering, in Talystasia, was nothing more than ambiance.
The grownups were swift to silence her, so the library became her new refuge, its stories her new companions. Mute and solitary, she’d sat and gathered dust as they did.
Why had she summoned Rachel to the dressing room? It was hard to say, but all she could think of was her father’s final command:
“Stay in the palace, and await our return.”
Only he wasn’t coming back. Alix probably would, at least, she prayed he would—but Father? He had no intention of returning. That had been goodbye. His last words to her … an order.
It was unacceptable. She could not just sit here, waiting. Neither could she save him, but—
They don’t ride for me. My opinion means as little to them now as it did in the Senate. They really think I care about a suicidal crack at victory against an unbeatable rival? Why is that what they care about?
They didn’t even say they love me.
They didn’t need to. Why was she being so shallow …?
"Miss Loren! Your dress is—"
"Yes, Rachel, I know," she answered, closing the door behind her servant. “Filthy. And apparently a treasonous fashion today.”
"Does Miss Loren want me to pick her a new dress?" Rachel flung open the white-washed doors of the wardrobe. Outside, clouds billowed, drizzle spraying the window.
"I ... yes," said Rose.
"Which one? Red for victory ..."
"No Rachel, I want to borrow your dress."
Rachel looked down at her smock, plainly horrified.
"And your shoes. I promise it's all right, Rachel. If I ask you to do it, it's all right, yes?"
She visibly gulped, nodding quickly.
"But what will I wear, Mistress?" she asked, her voice rising.
With a forced smile, Rose nodded at the open wardrobe. "Anything you want.”
Rachel hesitated, as if her ears had deceived her, then turned away and started stripping out of her uniform—a garment that guaranteed anonymity.
Turning her back to give Rachel her privacy, Rose flung off her wig, letting her natural cloud of ringlets fall over her shoulders, unwashed and almost black with grease, so seldom seen in court. With fingers numb with cold, she undid the clasps of her corset and let her skirts and petticoat fall to the floor.
A thin bundle of clothing was thrust into her arms. Rachel's knee-length article was easy to slip on over her head, little more than a coarse cotton shift. She felt practically naked in it.
She turned to examine herself in the mirror. Lifeless, unresponsive eyes stared back. Her stringy brown curls draped in thin, motionless strands around the pallor of her face. Even the gold frame of the mirror seemed dull and lackluster, as blanched as the clouds outside.
Why am I doing something potentially dangerous …?
Tossing her head, she ran her fingers through her curls, trying to force some lift into them. She tried to put on a brave smile, but her eyes stayed flat and dim, answering her silently:
I’m never going to see my father again, except in a coffin.
“Miss Loren …?”
Tentatively, she pulled away from the mirror. "I am going out. I don’t want anyone to notice me—hardly anyone does anyway. Not to be unkind … but dressed like this, I may as well be invisible.”
“What, now, Mistress …?”
“Don’t tell anyone.”
"Pardon me; where are you going?”
… A high place—the highest in all Talystasia, which she knew to be safe because nobody ever went there. The very summit of the mountain was a knoll which crested well above the shoulders that Talystasia was constructed on. The ancient central Wall that divided the city from north to south ran straight through it, but the high, treacherous pinnacle of rocks, scree, and scraggly trees peaked even higher than the Wall itself.
It surely commanded a flawless view of both sides of the city and the lay of the land below and beyond—even a shortcut across the Wall, if anyone were looking for one. Nobody ever did.
"The tor,” she answered, her voice a tired, fragile shell around her withering spirit.
“Anytime I go anywhere near that place, I swear a goose has walked over my grave … bad enough I can see it from my window.”
“The sentries say that too.” She shrugged.
“And you, Miss?”
“Yes. It’s not right. But I try not to be superstitious.”
“Even so, why would you want to go over there, Mistress …? And now …?”
Because nobody ever does.
It wasn’t just the orders she was sick of. It was the complex, well-oiled machinery of unspoken assumptions that governed life in Talystasia, and the unquestioning acceptance which buttressed the interminable status quo. She might be powerless against the poverty and the violence, as she was against the climate—but here was one mindless custom she could easily defy. Nobody ever went to the summit, or the wild growth of forest that bloomed like a fungus along the base of the Wall, not even the sentries—but she could.
And there, she could watch as her father and brother dismantled the only shaky peace she’d ever known for the sake of their sad, imaginary glory and their grownup games.
For once, she wasn’t going to shut herself off from the world. They didn’t want her in the Senate, then fine—but she wasn’t going to hide. But neither was she going to stand around in court, garbed in the colour of blood, a useless, brainless advocate of mature madness.
… Not like Rachel really cared. She only cared about keeping her in her place—like everybody else. So why explain?
“Thank you so much for your help.”
Outside the dressing room, she leaned against the wall, her stomach a seething knot. The hall was empty, the chill raising gooseflesh on her arms, brushing poisonously against her bare knees. Making for the east staircase, she reached down habitually for skirts that weren’t there.
At the bottom of the third flight, she peered around the corner. There were only servants, their nervous chatter echoing off the walls.
Adopting a casual walk, she ducked into a broom closest where she’d played hide-and-go-seek in the days before her exile from childhood. Grabbing a bucket and a mop, she resumed her trek, her hands shaking on the handles.
Avoiding the great hall, she detoured through the honeycomb maze of softly lit ivory and yellow passageways which serviced the east wing of the palace, and then out into the din of the atrium.
The crowd congesting the open, airy architecture swelled like an unsettled, motley sea, mirroring the tossing branches of the trees through the glass walls and skylights, molten with rain. Tides of silk and velvet and prismatic currents of robes and gowns swept around drab, bedraggled islands—huddled knots of servants and townsfolk desperate for information. Dodging past courtiers, preening like jewelled peacocks even as they whispered in fitful, hushed voices, she sped for the servant’s side door, narrowly avoiding careening into the voluminous mass of cerulean robes that marked out Uncle Palin.
Then she was running through the drizzly, wind-thrashed afternoon, heading for the back gate of the palace. It was untended by the staff, who had centuries past condemned it to the tangling growth that sectioned the palace district off from the tremendous, forbidding bulk of the ancient Wall.
Even when she was young, she had never lingered more than a minute or two here. The gloomy immensity of the Wall filled her with inexplicable dread, as did the sinister darkness between the trees. There was nothing wrong with the trees. And yet … they were wrong. There was a reason the servant quarters faced east and the upper class apartments west.
But the grove, chilling as it was, was less so than the Wall itself. And so the trees and the dense, wild undergrowth remained untouched, an inadequate barrier, and life bustled by, navigating a wide berth. In much the same way that certain families concealed their secrets in plain view, cloaking them in the banality of day-to-day life, the ominous edifice was tolerated, even overlooked, avoided by habit and not by thought.
It reared above the foliage like a monster from another time, majestic and alien, hundreds of feet high and hewn of dark, immovable stones laid before memory.