She smelled flowers long before she could open her eyes. The entire world was throbbing in pain around her, and the light battering against her eyelids was hungry to worsen it. So she let the glue on her eyes keep them firmly shut, focused on breathing, and let the floral scents filter in and out of her. She briefly thought of her first meeting with Margrave Kreokus, and the flower smells that hung about him. These were different, sharper and wilder, but more pleasing, almost sensual as they caressed her nostrils and drifted with casual familiarity into her snubbed nose.
Her nose was one of the few parts of her that did not hurt. Her head felt as though a giant were slamming it against a stone floor. Her entire right arm seemed crafted from stone by a clumsy artisan who was now taking a hammer to his regretted creation. Her left elbow, wrist, and even fingers rang with needles after every heartbeat. Her backbone had a line of fire spiraling up and around it, starting in a molten lake near its base and twining all the way up to a stiff, throbbing knot of agony just below her skull.
Her legs were stiff, aching, twisting, and all the rest, but there was a sweetness in that. From the instant her tail hit the first branch, she had feared breaking her back. Ages ago, when the army was marching on the small town of Carrelasas, having just won a protracted siege against Chuereb. young Lord Kerebdiss was riding his charger about, daring any and all to race him, when he tumbled down a shallow ravine and cracked his spine. He begged to be put out of his misery, begged over and over for someone to put a knife to his throat. A life off a horse was no life for him. A life without conquest was no life for him. His father clung to him greedily, though, and flatly refused to let anyone give the young man what he craved. During the fight against Carrelasas, though, support forces were too light to watch him, and he dragged himself out of his camp bed and found a stray knife. The knife was broken in half, more handle than blade, but he was a driven man, and got what he wanted from it.
Pearl had been about Arjallia’s age then, and had only just started to notice men. She had developed intense and confusing feelings about Kerebdiss, which only made the whole situation more harrowing. For her, at least. She of course never told the young man how she felt. He was at least twenty, and princess or no, she would have meant nothing to a man that age. Older and wiser men were happy to marry girls with property attached to them, but young men’s passions were rarely moved by houses and tracts of land. Pearl wondered briefly if Arjallia had started to notice boys, or girls as some Viisianar women did. It was funny to think that, other than riding her horse, Pearl was unsure what Arjallia really wanted from this life.
She shuddered suddenly, and the entire world ached around her. Where was Arjallia? She tore her eyelids open and beat back the merciless light to examine her surroundings.
She was in a proper bedchamber, though an unfamiliar one. It was twice the size of her own, which itself was nothing to scoff at. Sconces were affixed to the walls every eight feet, glowing with dim orange embers; they looked past time to be rekindled. Between each sconce was a hanging of a single color. Each was different, each a deep, lush, lively hue, but they were otherwise blank and unembellished. There was a large goldenwood cabinet in one corner, holding clothing no doubt. A stone basin held water that was probably tepid by now. She could dearly use a splash on the face, but knew she would not be standing for several hours. Between one pair of sconces was a stretched deer hide on which was scrawled a map of the known world: that is, everything from the Bitter Sea to the boundaries of the newly discovered Kingdom of Vaina, bordered at the south by the mountains and the Cradle of Yaalk, a swelteringly hot kingdom full of farmers that always seemed to evade the Emperor’s notice by dint of its blistering heat. In short, it was a map of everything Calphus the Conqueror called his. Their home, Mornalith, and all its neighbors, the entire western continent, was entirely absent. As though it had never existed. It made Pearl think of the trees of the Tearfall Gardens being ripped from their homes and planted in a strange new land. Did they even know the soil from which they drank was not theirs?
She was unwatched. Were not the sick supposed to have someone looking over them? She tried to shout for help, then she tried to moan for help, then she tried to merely burble. Then she decided she would try again later.
Arjallia swam before her eyes. It was nothing; she had simply run off. The idea of some Viisianar assassin coming to murder the one member of the royal family who looked like them, leaving Pearl to rot in bed, was absurd. That made Pearl wonder briefly what sort of future Arjallia would inherit, looking so much like the people they had conquered. Would they accept her as one of their own, or resent her even more for being half Mornal and half Orckid? Half Orckid. With Calphus’ declaration, that term had lost all meaning.
Her mind wandered, and Pearl imagined an empire with Arjallia at its head. Perpetuating Mornal customs while calling them Orckid, stealing Viisianar customs and calling them Orckid. Looking like an Orckid. Surely they would come to love her. Surely they would come to love their dominators, their murderers, their masters. Pearl tried to figure how many members of her family would have to die for Arjallia to sit the throne, but she could never count past herself.
She tried to move, not even to roll on her side, just to shift her weight slightly. She felt like a god was stomping on her. She wanted to pray for an end to the pain, but could think of no one who would listen.
The Mornal gods had been largely forgotten by Calphus and his men when they crossed the Bitter Sea. She had read of them a little. Pearl had aspirations of becoming a speller when she was young, until Igetus explained to her that spellers were little better than slaves. That did not stop her reading, though. The Mornal gods seemed vague and ill-formed, more a coterie of legendary warriors from times past than any organized hierarchy of creators and rulers. There were older gods before them, gods of storm and drought and beasts, faces that frightened ancients might hang on the elements of nature. Most of the Mornal gods were heroes who fought and bested these older gods. One did not have to think hard to discover the significance of such myths.
The Viisianars worshiped the Sixteen Pillars, gods that represented different virtues and vices, as well as broader fortunes and misfortunes. At present she could only remember Mallidos, the Pillar of Pain. It seemed fitting such a god would have such a Mornal-sounding name.
She tried praying for Mallidos to take her pain away, but producing even the faintest sound wracked her throat with agony. She tried not thinking of all the aches and itches and sores, which of course only made them worse.
In time, she drifted off again. Her dreams were foggy and malformed, mostly, but she could later recall one where she was standing in the middle of a tiny island in a black, raging sea. There were eight pillars erected in the sands, but the storms made them shiver like saplings. She thought at first the pillars were made of ebonwood, but the furious rains washed the very bark from them, leaving them white as willows. Just before she woke, the white too was rinsed off, leaving them translucent as glass. The wind pulled them loose from the sands and they were floating up into the roaring sky as the hungry light of day began to lap at her lids, and she was drawn unwillingly again into the world.
The light did not hurt so much this time, and her aches felt old, familiar, and almost sweet, like honors she had earned. It made her think of Imrell’s boasting of the pains and bruises after a workout with sword and shield: proof you were getting stronger. Pearl did not feel stronger, but the sweet edge of the pain was welcome. The floral scent had a honeyed tinge to it, and the air sounded like…
There were sounds in the air, sounds she felt she had not heard in years. Someone was playing magic. Viisianar magic was playing in the Grand Palace of Calphus the Conqueror.
It sounded like the lyre, yet richer, more complex. As the clear, bright beauty of the tones chased the grogginess from her, she realized it was more than one. Three, maybe four lyres were playing nearby, working in accord with each other, crafting a spell of such sublime, bittersweet, aching beauty that her eyes dampened to hear it. And when she thought it could not grow more powerful, they sang.
Magical voice was a power that escaped the Mornal mind. The magicians of Calphus’ army had tried to lend their lungs to the power of the Mornal drums and horns, to grant vigor to their men in battle even as the drums stoked cowardice in their foes, but the secrets escaped them still. The New Orckid Empire could steal whole-cloth from the Old, take their buildings, their offices, their labor, and their lives, and add to it all their pride and martial fury. Yet without this magic, it seemed to Pearl that the New Empire would never hold a handle to the Old.
The spell was in Viisianar, and Pearl could not pick out one word in five. She always grew bored when Arjallia’s tutors were teaching her their tongue. Just now, it filled her with regret, as though she had wasted her life. Yet the spell comforted her even as it filled her with such longing to know more, such ache and will and lust for living. She wanted to run a mile, to leap from horseback and knock an army down, to climb the walls of Ajman and plant a great standard on its battlements, her standard. It would be blue as her eyes, and on it the Chuerubese and Mornal unicorns would both run free.
When the leacher came in, tears were in his eyes too, but when he saw she was awake, he rubbed them away harshly. He had a flattish head and full, brownish hair flowing down to his shoulders, and his nose was unusually long, but his reddened eyes looked kind enough.
“My Lady,” he said gruffly, “you are awake. This is good. I will fetch some water for you.”
Pearl tried to object, to ask what had happened, how long she had been asleep, if the baby was all right, if Everia, little Rogulus, the Emperor, Arjallia, if Arjallia was all right, but even as he swept out the door her voice croaked, rattling against her throat like rusty scales in a steel gauntlet. Her heart broke at that. The Viisianar spell made her want to sing. More than anything, it made her want to sing.
The leacher returned with the water in a few minutes, accompanied by a Viisianar woman in a white silk robe wrapped in a deep red sash. She wore a thin silver band on her head, which was unusually round for a Viisianar, giving her long neck a bird-like quality. After a moment, Pearl recognized her as the Emperor’s speller. She could not remember her name. She carried a small folding table, which she set up and placed atop it a little lacquered box of brownish red.
“Good afternoon, my Lady,” she said as the leacher approached. He put a hand behind her head and shifted it to receive the water. The instant he touched her, her entire spine seized and throbbed. The magic helped, but only so much. Even so, she choked down the water and felt its cool, refreshing vitality, a magic of its own sort, trickle through her dry body.
“Where…” she croaked between gulps. She was replete, but allowed the leacher to continue pouring the entire pitcher. She held the last gulp in her mouth, swallowing it in tiny trickles to cool her itchy throat.
While she did so, the speller spoke, rummaging through the little box and pulling out tiny vials and little instruments made of silvery wire. “The Emperor still lives, if that was your worry.” It was not, but it did no harm to know it. “Everia’s baby is well. It is a boy. Everia herself is frailer than ever and feverish, but I am confident she will recover.” The speller looked at Pearl out of the corner of her eye. “The boy, Rogulus, broke his shoulder falling after you. Some say you grabbed him as you fell. I was not there of course, and cannot say. What is undisputed is that you cushioned his impact admirably. His arm is in a sling. Hopefully it will teach him something, though that is more disputed.”
“Arj,” she rasped. The leacher was examining various parts of her body, which she only now noticed was more bandage than body. Both her legs had splints on them, and the terror that they might be broken thrummed through her.
She was staring at her legs, but still she croaked, “Sis… sister…”
“Your sister? Imrell? She is managing the castle guard, and by extension the city guard. You have been in and out of dreams for nearly three days, my Lady. There was a panic that first day. Your brother and sister feared the Ajmani were revolting against them. There were some minor demonstrations, but once Imrell led the guard back out of the palace, order was restored soon enough. Igetus had objected to it, but she defied him. He is ruling now, my Lady. Igetus. Things are smoothing out well enough, though there is still no word on who actually killed the governor.
At this, the leacher perked up. “It was his slave, wasn’t it? They caught and killed him that day.”
The speller eyed the Mornal leacher with a look suggesting she had said too much. It was too late now, though. “They caught and killed a slave, that is beyond dispute. He is still rotting out there. He died yesterday morning. Whether he killed the governor, I cannot say.”
“Arj…” she croaked again. The leacher excused himself to fetch more water.
“Arjallia?” the speller asked. “Oh. That sister. One of the guards has her, I think. She is well.”
“Where…” Where had she gone? Why did she run away? What was she thinking? Who found her, and what might have happened if they did not? But all Pearl could say was “Where,” and barely that.
“Back at the Old Palace, in her chambers. She has guards about her day and night, Kreokus’ and I believe Palcian’s. She visits every day. She has not been by today yet, so I expect you’ll be happily reunited soon.”
She approached the bed with a small vial, in which sat a purple mixture. “This syrup should help dampen and relax your throat. We have already been giving you honeyed sleep syrup for your pain; any more and I fear it might affect the recovery of your legs. You hear the magicians in the halls, I am sure. They should help as well.” She lifted the vial to Pearl’s lips. Instinctively, she tensed and tried to shrink away, her muscles screaming in protest. “My Lady,” the speller said matter-of-factly. “If I wished you harm, I have had over two days to clap my hand over your nose and mouth and be done with it.” Pearl drank the syrup. It tasted bitter, as though it were burnt, but she could already feel the agony in her throat receding.
There were long and uncomfortable minutes as the speller prodded various parts of Pearl’s legs with her little silvery instruments. After one particular grunt, she prepared more of the purple syrup and fed it to her; more to shut her up than for concern of her wellbeing, Pearl suspected. The leacher returned with another pitcher and poured it down Pearl’s gullet. After he was done he looked to the speller, who dismissed him with a nod, and backed out of the room. It was peculiar seeing a Mornal act so deferential to a Viisianar. She took it as a good sign.
After making sure the door was shut securely, the speller approached her bed, an overt air of apprehension hanging about her. “Can you speak?” she asked.
“I can make some noises,” Pearl rasped out. “Is Arjallia well?”
“She is at home, as I said,” she affirmed. “I am sure any misfortunes would have been communicated to the Emperor.”
“What’s your name again?”
“Aivliriai. I am your father’s speller.”
“It was kind of him to send you to my aid.”
Aivliriai’s apprehension grew sharper. “He wants to see each of his children. Before he goes.”
Pearl tried to nod, but gave it up as a lost cause. “I’m guessing you don’t mean to imply he’s marching to Tauriconia at last,” she said, mumbling more than a little as her voice warmed up.
“I have written spells to send to Tortorus and Fostus, and for Arjallia to read herself when enough time has gone by. He had remarkably little to say to his firstborn son, whom he spent his life molding. But then Calphus spared few enough thoughts for his sisters and father and mother all these years. I suppose Tortorus was made in his own image. As for Fostus, vacuous words of familial unity will have little effect at so late an hour.”
“He was… kind. I did not know the Emperor held such softness in him. Even at his calmest, smallest moments, the bite was always in him. It is was clear he did not know her, but still he had an inkling of what she would want to hear, and what she would need to know, being who she is. What she is.” Aivliriai sighed, deeply. “It is tragic. The most powerful man in the world. So late in his life did he start to appreciate letters, so late in his life. That monster might have earned the soul of a poet, but now it is too late.”
“You keep saying ‘was.’”
“We’ve been here barely longer than a moon’s turn. You seem quite fond of that monster.”
“It is… complicated. I thought I could change him. I thought I could turn the course of history.” She stifled a bitter laugh, gesturing at Pearl. “I suppose I still do, but I fear your brother and sister are sealed against me. Spellers are tools to them, as they were to your father when he first came here. Your father changed, though. However little, he changed.”
Pearl’s eyes narrowed. “Were you lovers?”
Aivliriai’s entire body seemed to react to that, and she looked as though she might vomit. “No,” she said, simply. Definitively.
“Forgive me,” Pearl rasped. “My father had a taste for—”
“A taste?” she asked, more than a little sharply. “What did your father have a taste for?”
“Esselliyevraa was a Tessendar, a Margrave you might call it. She was the queen of Ajman in all but name, and we were proud to be her subjects. Your father turned her into his concubine. I call that a taste for cruelty. My Lady.”
Pearl took a moment. She had never heard the name before, but she could figure who she was, what her father had done, and what the results had been. “I’m sorry,” she repeated, more sincerely. “I didn’t know.”
“You did not know. You did not know the story of the mother of this sister whom you seem to cherish so. Did something prevent you from knowing?”
She shook her head slightly, though every motion pained her. “Only myself.”
“Only yourself.” Aivliriai strode over the map that hung on the wall. She pointed to a seemingly insignificant spot, between Barsalam and Shesha but farther south, unmarked. “Have you read Greyannamar’s treatise on the breeding and training of Orckid unicorns against Mornali unicorns?” Pearl did not bother to answer. “It mostly describes the method of raising and conditioning the Orckid unicorns to respond to their riders, to obey, when to be cowed and when to be violent. There is a brief passage at the end where he discusses Mornali unicorns, your white unicorns. He had spent seven years writing this codex, and your father began his invasion in the eighth year.” She turned away from the map. “He says that Mornali unicorns are not worth the effort, because their masters will not start training them until they are of age, and by then the rigors of nature have shaped them to attack and nothing else. He says that those who fool themselves into training such beasts will encounter so much resistance, so much brutality, that they will convince themselves that those rare moments when the creature is tired or docile are signs of improvement, when they are merely the natural fluctuations of the animal’s humor.” She approached Pearl again. “Sometimes I fear I have wasted these weeks trying to train a unicorn.”
“A man is not a unicorn,” Pearl croaked.
“Nor is a woman,” said Aivliriai. “One hopes.” She strode to the door. “You should be able to stand sometime tomorrow. Do not try to do so before I say, or you may damage your legs irreparably. I have orders to bring you to the Emperor as soon as you are able to walk. He is not like to last much longer.” She opened the door again. “Do you require anything? Shall I send the leacher back in?”
“No,” she grunted. “Thank my brother for the use of his room, if you see him.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Is this his room?”
“Blank hangings, a map, a basin, and nothing else? A small, functional bed. Plenty of floor for pacing back and forth. Who else would call this their home?”
“I have known many who would love to call this their home. They lived in this castle, once.” Aivliriai shut the door behind her before Pearl could think of an answer.
It was an hour or so later, when she considered that perhaps an answer was not required.