“All young ladies want to ride their horses,” Olinthess answered patiently, “but all young ladies must also study how to better themselves for the good of the nation.”
“Imrell rides her horse three hours a day,” Arjallia complained, “and she’s got three companies under her command.”
“Oh? Is it your intention to command armies when you grow up?” Olinthess asked, an admirable mockery of surprise on her face at this news. “I had no idea. We should draw up a schedule for military education. I shall speak with Master Birvellion.”
Arj would have stamped her foot if she were not seated in her chair. It was carved of delicate goldenwood, inlaid with white lining that looked like ground pearls. “I only meant, you can ride a horse and still become someone important.”
“Yes, you can ride your horse, after you have finished your studies.” Olinthess tightened her jaw for a moment. “You know, my Lady, many people do not even own horses. I do not own a horse, nor does my daughter, who is about your age. Owning a horse is a rare privilege, a privilege that comes with some cost.”
“So the cost of owning a horse is never getting to ride it?”
“Never? Do you really think the end of your lessons will never come?”
“It certainly feels that way.”
Olinthess took in a great breath. “For once we are in agreement, my Lady. Let us continue.”
Pearl was standing on the balcony, overlooking the Square of Suppliants in Old Center. The Old Palace was once a religious structure for some ancient practices before the Viisianars took it from whoever used to live here. Since then, it served as guest quarters for important dignitaries and visitors. Pearl and Arj had both been given great suites, as had three of the Emperor’s more junior margraves. Most of the party from Bazazanil, along with their sisters and brother, were quartered in the Grand Palace at the northeast section of the city. There, the Emperor and his spellers were fervently pouring over missives from the Eastern Front, which had already begun to march in expansion beyond the Pillar. There was word of a magical kingdom farther east called Vaina, that was supposedly almost as powerful as the Old Empire itself, despite being a vassal to it.
These were matters for Imrell and the men, of course. Everia spent her days walking in the gorgeous Tearfall Gardens, which had an actual waterfall pumped in via hardened ceramic tubing connected to the Whip. The enormous pink wisterias, purple rhododendrons, moss-covered beeches, and fire-orange maples had moved more than one maiden to tears, to hear them tell it. Pearl had not yet bothered to visit, though they had been in residence at Ajman for over two weeks. Indeed, she had not been to the Grand Palace at all.
She was not unwelcome. Everia made it a point to invite them every time she visited the Old Palace, nearly every other day. She had even hinted just yesterday that Pearl’s presence might be requested soon. Being polite, most likely. Pearl could not think of a time when her presence had been requested, except to announce her betrothal to Margrave Kreokus, just after her seventeenth birthday.
Suddenly, Pearl looked up to realize they were alone. Olinthess had left, and Arjallia was staring at her own feet. She was wearing a simple dress of black velvet, white silken sleeves and an open collar that kept her from sweating as badly as Pearl surely was. Her golden hair was back in a sloppy braid, curiously loose and like to fall apart at the slightest agitation.
“What happened?” Arj looked up at her, her eyes leaden and dark-rimmed. “I was… pondering something. What happened?”
Arjallia’s eyes grew damp, but before a tear could fall she tightened her lips and said, “It’s so stupid! I just asked her a question. What good is a tutor if you can’t ask them questions?”
It was a fair point. Tutors in general were known for their patience and objectivity, arithmeticians especially. Olinthess, who had been on the cusp of nobility before Calphus’ Conquest, was an arithmetician, historian, and magician of surpassing accomplishment. “What did you ask her?”
“I just, she…” Arj stared at her feet again.
“What did you ask her?”
“It’s so stupid!” she echoed. “Why is a Viisianar teaching me Mornal history? She’s never been there. How could she know?”
Pearl pursed her lips. She would not bother telling Arj she was being wrong-headed; the girl already knew that. “Can you tell me who Herbulius was?”
“He was our grandfather. He was the king of Mornalith, before our aunt stole the crown from our father.”
“And how do you know that? Have you ever been to Mornalith?”
Arj stood at that. “Then I’ll just read a spell about it! Why do I need someone to recite it to me? I can just read it on my own.”
A flush crept up Pearl’s spine. She had meant to calm her sister, and clever questions usually had that effect. “There is a difference between spelling something and understanding it. It’s different when you’ve lived something, thought about it, experienced it in your head.”
“That too!” Arj pointed at her, almost waggling a finger, and for a brief second she resembled their bombastic father. “Why is Birvellion teaching the boys warcraft? What can a Viisianar possibly now about it? They lost!”
Her eyes widened. This was a side of Arjallia she had not seen before. “Arj. What’s wrong?”
“I just told you!” she nearly shouted, but deflated immediately after, looking down at the floor again.
Pearl stood, and waited, her hands limp against her sides. She was wearing a deep green skirt embellished with white Viisianar whirls and leaves, made of rough wool that felt slightly harsh against her fingers. Her feet were bare, having left her woven sandals at the edge of the balcony, enjoying the cool of the polished marble flooring. She was wearing the same white blouse she had worn into the city a fortnight ago, a simple green vest over it. She felt very green. Briefly, she thought of the hemlock trees, and the moss their father’s unicorn had kicked from the bridge when they first came to Ajman. That bridge had likely already fallen by now, or been disassembled. Perhaps a stone bridge was now being built in its place.
She made a casual gesture at Arj’s head. “Did something happen to your hair?”
At that, a single tear fell from her eye. She wiped it away, furious. “It’s just stupid hair.” Her fury was fading fast, try as she might to stoke it further.
Pearl thought a moment. Which one did her hair in the mornings? “Has something happened to Hursta?”
Arjallia covered her face with her hands, then balled them into fists and nearly clubbed herself in the sides of her head. “It’s not…” she muttered, “it’s not…”
Pearl strode over, the rough skirt almost scratching against her knees. She reached down and took Arjallia’s hands in hers, then drew her sister back down into the chair. Pearl knelt before her. “What happened?”
“She just… she…”
She nodded a few times, unable to say the name.
Arjallia hiccoughed sharply, her face in her hands again. “She left.”
Pearl’s entire body thrummed at that, but she resisted the urge to leap to her feet. “She left? You mean she ran away?”
Arj nodded again.
“Yes I’m sure!” she screamed into her fingers, her golden braid loosening greatly. “I said so!”
Pearl reached out and gently took her sister’s hands again, but this time Arjallia shoved her away violently. She reacted so brutally she actually pushed her chair backward, tipping over and nearly falling. Pearl was on her feet in an instant, grabbing the chair before it could fall, and righted it again. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I should have listened to you. Do you know why she left?”
“It’s so…” she stopped herself this time. “She said it was wrong, that she didn’t want to be an Orckid. But she already was an Orckid. She’s been an Orckid all her life. What is she even talking about?”
“Oh.” Pearl moved around behind Arjallia and tried to fix her braid. Whoever had done it was a poor replacement for Hursta, but not so talentless as Pearl was. “Words can change meaning over time,” she said guardedly. “Being an Orckid now isn’t the same as being an Orckid a thousand years ago.” Or twenty-three, she thought.
“But Father said we were all Orckids now,” she insisted. She was angry, but years of habit kept her still when her hair was being done. “He said everyone was the same now, that we were all one people.”
“That is… a lovely sentiment.”
“Why wouldn’t Hursta want us all to be one people? She heard Father’s speech, I know she did.”
Pearl suppressed a scream. Arjallia was almost fourteen; it was long past time she came to understand the world. Pearl never knew what happened to her own mother, but Arjallia’s mother had been cast aside not long after she was born. She was a noblewoman and unaccustomed to nursing a babe, so the babe was given to a wetnurse and the noble was given to some margrave’s son. Igetus once suggested, rather cryptically, that their eldest brother Tortorus had made use of her once or twice before letting her go. Or so she thought. She was only eight at the time, and it was hard then to make sense of Igetus’ riddles.
Someone cleared their throat. Pearl looked to see a young sergeant standing near the entrance to the room. He was a stout, handsome lad, no more than twenty years, his uniform covered by a tabard of black and purple: the new colors of the new Orckid Empire. The iron pin near his left shoulder was wrought in the shape of a manticore, marking him as a sergeant under command of one of her father’s chief margraves. She forgot which one. Grokmium, perhaps.
“Good morning, my Ladies,” he stammered. His eyes were small, but a gorgeous sea green. Igetus said green eyes came from old Titonic blood, and that the Titons were all mad, but anyone who could achieve even sergeantry in the Imperial army must be stable enough. Pearl found the flush on the back of her neck had returned. Not knowing what else to do, she stood.
The boy’s little eyes widened. Evidently, he had expected a more verbose response. “My Ladies, that is, my Lady, my father has commanded your presence.”
“Oh?” Pearl asked. “And who is he?”
His face went gray. “Your father! The Emperor. My Lady. Excuse me, please. The Emperor your father, Calphus, has commanded your presence.”
“It has been said before that he is three men in one,” Pearl quipped. “Just as well that you should style him thrice.” She was curious and more than a little unbalanced, but inside she welcomed the chance to put off this awkward conversation. “Just me?”
The boy’s jaw had gone slack. Clearly, his instructions did not cover how to deal with there being more than one other person in the room. She was reasonably certain he had no idea how charming his stupidity was.
More to keep herself from grinning like an idiot, Pearl spoke again. “My sister’s attendants are nearby. Please accompany her while I fetch one.”
“Yes, my Lady,” he answered at once, clearly back on solid ground now that orders were being thrown about.
“Your lady am I? Are you certain this time?” She offered him a deliberate smile as she walked out, a little salve to his terrified stare.
Arjallia’s six servants, five now she supposed, all lived in a single large antechamber, men and women together, just off the foyer of her chambers. She found two of the serving women there, sitting close and seemingly whispering in each other’s ears. They both bolted to their feet when she entered, and fell over each other agreeing to come fetch their lady. On the way back, Pearl inquired as casually as possible if Hursta had indeed run off, which the women confirmed.
It was an incredible thing. Deserting the army on their journey to Ajman was one thing. Out in the rainforests to the north, a mere hour’s head start could render you unfindable, unless the Emperor turned the entire army after you. Even south, into the savannahs past Barsalam, the lions and leopards and wild unicorns made for unfriendly companions, sure to discourage any search. But to run away within the city walls, surrounded by city guard and nobles wondering where a slave might be headed in such a hurry. To run away was as good as death.
When the three women returned to the classroom, Arjallia had retrieved Pearl’s sandals from the balcony and was smiling as she offered them up. Pearl was curious at this reversal, but decided not to press her good luck. She promised her sister they would speak again that evening, more than half hoping they might both forget those words before the sun died, then followed the sergeant outside.
The miasma of life assaulted Pearl’s senses the instant they left the Old Palace. The Square of Suppliants had not been used as a ritual place since the Conquest at least, meaning it was typically filled with fruit stands, street magicians, and all sorts of people hurrying from one place to another. Indeed, mere seconds after stepping out, Pearl was accosted by a monkey in a little purple vest that danced back and forth in front of her as a Daridan woman sang a spell she claimed would make Pearl fertile. She suspected the spell was meant to dull the senses, as the monkey was very obviously trying to pick her nonexistent pockets. The sergeant gave it a gentle nudge with his foot, and the monkey scampered after other passers.
Pearl was heartened to see a troop of four young corporals approach quickly, dressed in scale byrnies and leather chest plates. It was dangerous for a noblewoman to cross the city with a single guard. Her satisfaction turned to mild amazement when she saw the two mounts prepared for the sergeant and herself.
The first was a tan gelding that she eyed with admiration. A more insecure man might insist on riding a charger or stallion even in the city, cocksure he could control such a beast, but geldings were safer not only for the rider but for the rest of the people as well. More delightful, though, was the creature next to it.
This second horse was even smaller than the gelding, cream and butter colored, with a mane white as a winter sky. Most remarkable was the small bone nub that protruded just above its eyes.
“They call it a Chuerebese unicorn,” said one of the corporals, clearly much more confident than his commanding officer. His piebald white and brown skin marked him as a likely child of the sacking of Ajman. Just like herself.
“Unicorn?” Pearl half laughed. “Their horns normally grow out of their snouts. And they’re usually proper horns. I suppose if this one grew any more, the horn might bunch into its skull.”
“Oh, don’t let the bonehead fool you,” the corporal continued in a friendly jaunt, oblivious to the stares of his more respectful fellows. “Buttercup here’s as sharp as Mornal steel.”
Buttercup. Of course. “I am delighted by this kindness, corporal. What is your name?”
“Hathmet,” he said with a white grin. “M’lady,” he added, belatedly.
Definitely born in Ajman. Pearl still had trouble telling one region’s accent from another, but she remembered more than one Hathmet from her childhood. “Goodman Hathmet, I’m afraid you forget yourself.”
His grin froze and faltered, but only a moment. “Yes, M’lady. It won’t happen again, M’lady.”
“I’m glad to hear you’ve found your courtesies at last, Hathmet, but you mistake me. You should have said ‘as sharp as Orckid steel.’”
It was a full two seconds before the corporal caught on. Wisely, he answered her with a simple, “Yes, M’lady.”
Despite the chastening, Hathmet was still bold enough to offer a leg up onto her mount, though she had mounted horses nearly twice this size without assistance. The splits in her skirt were not made for riding, and the wool made itself known again as she took her seat, the right heft bunching up in her lap as she sat. She was confident she could pick her way to the Grand Palace herself, but allowed the sergeant to lead her on his gelding at an easy pace, the corporals forming a loose square around them on foot.
“Where did you find this unicorn, Sergeant?” she offered lightly.
Hathmet, marching before her on her right, answered her. “She was born here, M’lady. The stables have got all manner of—”
“Are you a sergeant, Corporal Hathmet?”
Hathmet was a friendly and gregarious fellow, and she found him more than a little disarming. She also suspected his insouciant airs would get him killed before Summer’s end.
“What is your name, Sergeant?” she asked as they neared the end of the Square, heading toward what she thought was the wrong byway.
“Barim, my Lady. Barim Alfas.”
“Barim Alfas? Were you born here in Ajman?” It was a foolish question. The boy was Mornal without question, and too old to have been born here. But in the Orckid Empire, second names were given to the nobility rather than the other way round. In Mornal, peasants and slaves had second names to mark who they were, such as Toggo Bricklayer or Grelta Bedslave. When you were an Emperor, Calphus was all people needed to hear. If Barim Alfas was a sergeant, odds were good he was not a mere peasant.
“No, my Lady. From Ol Ilothrend. That is, from Tauriconia, I mean. My Lady.”
Tauriconia had been Ol Ilothrend before her father took it from the Viisianars. He made it his capitol, resting at the fork of two rivers he called the Crowsfeast and the Crowsfoot, in honor of all the corpses he had made that day. He stayed there for nearly six years, building his armies, conquering towns to the east, putting down rebellions, and siring his third, fourth, and fifth child. His wife Taurisa, for whom he had renamed the city, died giving birth to Imrell. People like to say Imrell killed her mother by tearing her way out, and that was why she was so vicious. Imrell discouraged the rumors, but did not seem especially to dislike them. Calphus marched his armies out of Tauriconia less than a year after the Empress’ death.
“I take it you have not been there for some time,” she ventured. To call it by its old name, at his age, suggested he had never called it home. It also suggested he had more than one friend with Viisianar sympathies, but she let that rest.
“No, my Lady. My father took me to Lurida, when Margrave Pelcian took it.”
Pelcian, that was it. The manticore was Pelcian’s sigil. “You are a military family. You are proud, I hope.”
“My Lady.” Even for him, it was a brief answer.
“Tell me, Sergeant Barim, what did you say to my sister, whilst I was away?”
“Your sister, my Lady?”
“Yes, my sister. The little girl you were watching, whilst I fetched her servants. Not twenty minutes ago. You recall, I’m sure.”
“Oh. Yes, my Lady.”
“Well, my Lady?” She almost screamed, but then he continued. “I told her. I told her not to worry. About her servant.”
“I see.” That hardly sounded convincing enough to have made Arjallia smile. Could this sergeant with the unusually Orckid name have some unique knowledge of Hursta’s whereabouts, or even reason to believe the slaves of Ajman might not fear their masters for long? No, that was madness. Conspiracies and uprisings there likely were, but if Barim Alfas was secretly a rebel agent, a cunning mastermind and informant, then he was also the greatest pretender she had ever met. The Chuerubese unicorn beneath her was likely more full of guile than the sergeant at her side.
They exited the byways into an enormous plaza that put the Square of Suppliants to shame. It had five disproportionate sides, and the far end opened into an enormous road that surely led to the Grand Palace. It was crowded as well, but she also noted much finer clothing here. The peasants were servants, the slaves were in ordered file, and everyone else was clearly someone of importance. A line of corporals stood against the southern edge, staring straight ahead as a much more ebullient sergeant harangued them. An old Mornal man with long gray hair and vibrant blue robes chattered seemingly to no one as he looked up at the light blue sky, all the while a Viisianar woman in a linen shift wrote down what he said, seemingly switching tablets as randomly as he switched subjects. A Viisianar mother in fine clothing and her three children were distributing oranges to beggars. A lord she thought she recognized was holding a map before him, flanked on either side by two women, spellers, each of them dressed better than Pearl was. Tucked in a far corner, Pearl was shocked to see a withered, skinny Mornal man fumbling with a Viisianar lyre, fruitlessly trying to coax some magic from the unnatural instrument.
“Sergeant,” Pearl shouted above the din, “did my father mention why he wanted to see me?”
She thought he said, ‘No, my Lady,’ but it was difficult to parse his mumbles out from the crowd. She gave up trying to make conversation. Men like Barim Alfas were made to be looked at, not spoken with.
The huge byway was relatively sparse, the few stragglers found there quickly vanishing under the gaze of Pearl’s escort. Once they had cleared the crowd, the Grand Palace became unmistakable.
An immense structure of cream-colored stone, it looked to be five stories high, with towers at each of its four corners, and a gigantic drum in the middle, topped with a huge bulb that diminished into a single sharp spike. The windows were large enough to dive out of, and more importantly large enough to climb into, betraying a lack of martial consideration that helped explain Ajman’s fall twenty-three years back. The doors, however, were made of heavy Mornal steel, and looked almost brand new. They were being thrown wide at that moment, and out walked Igetus, flanked by a woman on either side, more spellers by the look of it. Igetus was all in black, which was not unusual, but his new felt cap was resting on a recently shaved head. Pearl could not remember the last time Igetus had shorn himself like a warrior.
“Finally,” he said by way of greeting. “We feared you might not come.” A gaggle of grooms scurried out to take the reigns of their horses. One of them offered a leg, which she ignored as she dismounted.
“I see it hasn’t taken you long to learn our father’s courtesies,” she answered. “He must be proud.”
“Follow me,” he said, turning around at once and reentering. It was a difficult thing to get a rise out of Igetus.
Pearl watched them lead the unicorn away, taking one last moment to appreciate its beauty, then stepped into the enormous palace.
“Brother,” she offered as they tread on lush, thick carpets of Viisianar weave, past great tapestries of Viisianar design, and under sweeping arches of Viisianar construction, “we have not seen one another in two weeks. Are you well?”
“I am,” he answered, proving even more laconic than Sergeant Barim.
“You’ve shaved your head.”
“Most men do.”
“Most men, yes. I’ve never seen you do it.”
“Now you have.”
She was beginning to look forward to her talk with Arjallia that evening, if only to get a complex sentence out of someone. She cursed herself silently for remembering, willing herself to forget again. “These tapestries are breathtaking.”
“You grew up in this palace, didn’t you, Igetus?”
“I was already a man when we first came here.”
“Close enough. We were drilling with swords and sergeants at eight years. Tortorus killed his first man when he was eleven. Fostus when he was fourteen.”
He did not bother to answer.
They climbed a great marble staircase up one flight of stairs and into a vast chamber. Pearl was no warrior herself, but she immediately noticed how open and indefensible the interior of the palace was. The stairway was so wide, a full troop of invaders could fight up it. Everything was so exposed. Presumably, the Viisinars had felt that once the palace had been occupied, the fight was as good as over. They had not been wrong.
The chamber walls had standing braziers every eight feet, burning brightly to light the windowless room. An immense red carpet, half the size of the Square of Suppliants, sat unfazed by the burning fires. Bizarrely, a quartet of carved onyx poles sat against one wall, graven into the shape of what she assumed were ancient Viisianar queens, or goddesses. They were beautiful to look upon, but she would have expected her father to crush them when he took the palace fifteen years ago, or Margrave Dodimar to have done the same when he took up residence in the Emperor’s absence. Yet there they stood.
At the far end of the gargantuan chamber was a large square plinth, draped in gold-lined red fabric. Around it stood four men, and around those men stood five more women, each holding several tablets in their arms. Imrell was leaning against a nearby wall, still wearing her armor after two weeks in the city. She looked up as Pearl approached. Pearl had to suppress a gag of laughter. Imrell’s tusks were now of gold, each one sporting a small jewel near their base. Amethyst, she thought.
Her father was coughing into a fist, and still had not looked up, even as the three other men turned to meet them. She thought she recognized Neevius, thoroughly cleaned up and in crimson robes. The other two men were new, or at least unknown.
One was as old as Neevius and her father, almost unnaturally slim for a Mornal, in violet robes, with a large golden manticore stitched over his chest for all to see. Pelcian, then.
The other was younger, but still old. At least forty, older than Igetus even. He wore a sleeved cloak of white wool in spite of the heat, a red tunic and black trousers tucked into dyed-red boots. He wore a woven belt of cloth-of-gold, whose end dangled almost obscenely between his legs. Despite his fine dress, he had allowed his head to grow stubble. Men were known to let their heads grow a bit on a long march or an active siege, but to come before the Emperor with a stubbled head suggested either great pride or great foolishness. When it came to braving Calphus the Conqueror, the two were often one in the same.
Igetus’ spellers flocked over to the others, then lined up against a wall. Pearl’s escort did likewise, with Sergeant Barim standing a few feet from Margrave Pelcian. Silence followed, and the lords at table glanced back and forth between them and the Emperor.
Igetus cleared his throat.
“There you are, there you are,” their father grumbled, coughing again lightly before finally standing up and saying, “Well, there she is. Look all you like.”
Pearl examined the lords again. Neevius, if it was Neevius, was already turning back to the map. Pelcian was looking politely, a bored glaze covering his eyes. Igetus crossed between them back to the map, and as he moved away her eyes fell again on the third lord. There was an anticipation on his narrow face, tinged with something like anxiety. She knew that look well. It was a look she had seen on many men, young and old, when they came to see the Emperor’s daughter. They had expected to find a legendary beauty like Everia, like Arjallia would one day be. Terrified of displaying disappointment, a strange sense of desperate wonder would splash across their faces, hoping beyond hope that Pearl herself would rescue them from this awkward disappointment. She never knew if they expected her to be dull-witted or spoiled, cripplingly shy or obnoxiously affectionate. She only knew that they wanted their disappointment to be justified. When she was still a child, she had ached with the desire to give them that. Anything to end that desperate stare. Now, she pitied them almost as much as she despised them.
“Well?” her father grunted. “What say you?”
The lord was stirred by this and managed to stammer in a manner that one could almost mistake for charm, if one were inexperienced enough. “I am… I am overwhelmed, your Excellency.”
“Are you?” he answered, sounding remarkably like Igetus for once. “Well, say what you wanted to say.”
The lord swept closer, his white cloak billowing like a warhorse’s barding, his cloth-of-gold belt swinging pendulously between his legs, and Pearl was suddenly seized by the urge to fly from the room. A pleasant scent of flowers hung about him, though she could not say exactly which. Her eyes kept fluttering up to his stubbled head, which must surely be the source of her father’s ill humor with him.
There was a second of silence, awkward enough to fill an hour, before Pearl chose to speak first. “Good morning, my Lord.”
His smile was warm, if formal. “Good morning, Princess.”
More silence followed. Instinctively, she glanced over at Sergeant Barim. The handsome young man was watching Pelcian, eager for an order, any order, that he might enact. Pelcian, meanwhile, was grinning at them. “Perhaps you should introduce yourself,” he offered with an amused edge.
There was a brief but heavy hesitation as the man took in breath to speak. “Of course,” he said after another lifelong second. “Where am I today, yes. Princess, it is my honor to meet you at last. My name is Margrave Kreokus. And I have the honor of being your betrothed.”