Three Princesses: Chapter Six

“Alves, Bethes, Craedes, Daeades, Eredas, Faedes, and Galmes,” Olinthess recited, counting up the marks she had inscribed upon the lined tablet.

“Seven?” Pearl asked. “That seems… uneven.”

“There is an eighth, silent, but that is years away in the learning.”


Olinthess gave her a stony look. “My Lady, are you certain this is for you? Most girls start learning magic by the age of seven, often younger. Many have mastered spelling earlier than that; mastered, I remind you. They spend seven to nine years on the basic instruments, until it is certain their voice has finished changing, then they begin work on magical voice, while at the same time expanding their instrumental retinue to include two or three specializations. Many such women are accomplished casters at your age. They can calm beasts, bring and repel sleep, make foods safe, salve burns, drive men mad with rage, lighten the dim and darken the day, and cast less potent restoratives like the spell you heard yesterday. And these are considered merely the competent among us. The women you heard yesterday are virtuosos in their field, four of a staggeringly small number that survived your father’s wars. The truly skilled, those who never abandoned their training nor their experimentation, who taught and were taught by other virtuosos, all died in your father’s second march from Tauriconia, thirty-five years ago.”

That hurt, like a rock in her stomach. The greatest were all gone, dead before she was even born. Pearl lied in bed, her eyes wandering to her brother’s map on the wall. In truth, she was not sure if she could do this. It was one thing to work hard, even for years, knowing that one day the reward would be yours. But to labor never knowing if it was even possible, was another matter. Did she truly want to be a magician, or was there just nothing else to do while she lied in bed, waiting for Aivliriai to appear and help her stand at last. To face her father.

“My Lady,” Olinthess repeated.

“Sorry. Yes.”

“Yes? Then repeat the notes to me.”

“Repeat? Oh… Alves…”




“Yes. Alves, Bethes…” There was a long, painful pause.


“Craedes, yes.”

“Craedes is called the Sacred Note, as well as the Center Note and sometimes the Middle Note.”

“Middle? But it’s the third one. Out of seven. Or eight.”

Olinthess took a deep breath. “I never noted such similarities between you and your sister before. My Lady, do you think I am trying to deceive you in some way?”


“Do you doubt my expertise? Do you, drawing on your own experience with magic, feel that my knowledge may be insufficient to your needs?”


“Then I shall thank you to leave your doubts and suspicions unvoiced. If you learn nothing else, let magic teach you this: the noises you choose to make have consequences, and the more you learn the more you shall find that those consequences cannot be predicted. Every note, every sound, is a risk we choose to take, no matter how expert we become. Consider whether such risk is warranted before you choose to act.”

Pearl thought on that. Thought, before speaking. “Yes. Madam.”

“Good. Now listen with attent. This time.”

Olinthess repeated the notes, and Pearl murmured them to herself, but by the time they reached Eredas, the door opened and Aivliriai stepped inside. She wore a grey gown with a textured, bulky black shawl over it. Her ring and her silver headband were gone. She spoke something to Olinthess in Viisianar, and she responded in kind. Pearl tried not to stare too dully as she strove to divine some meaning from their words. After a brief time, they looked to her. Aivliriai said something more.

“I fear not,” Olinthess answered, in Mornal. “I take it you have found other things with which to occupy yourself during your sister’s lessons in the Viisianari tongue.”

Pearl cleared her throat and tried to disappear into the bed.

“My Lady,” Aiviliria approached, “if you hope to master or even comprehend the depths of magic, you must master the Viisianari language. I have not met a single Mornali that can speak it fluently. Even your brother Igetus, as driven to thought as he is, speaks haltingly, and he claims to have been studying for years. I fear magic may not be for you.” She held up a hand to forestall any objection. “But, this must wait. I believe it is time for you to stand, and therefore time to see your father. Time,” she stopped herself. “Time is the most merciless of gods, but it would seem she has granted the Emperor what he wants.”

Gods forbid, Mornal and Viisianar all, that Emperor Calphus should ever not get what he wanted.

Aivliriai set out her table and box again, prodded Pearl with the silvery instruments, prepared the bitter purple syrup again and poured it down her throat again. Another leacher arrived, this one even younger than herself, and changed out some of the bandages as Aivliriai worked. Pearl was moving her arms and fingers now, and all of her aches had diminished. They began to swell horribly late last night when the magic outside in the hallways finally ceased, but the evening’s sleep did some good. Pearl bit her tongue twice swallowing screams as Aivliriai and the leacher helped her twist and sit up in bed. She sat there for a few minutes gasping, and only then realized that Olinthess had quietly slipped out.

“Well,” she groaned, “the floor isn’t getting any softer.”

With their aid, Pearl slid forward and eased her weight up onto her feet. Her spine and hips wailed in protest, but she managed to keep her own voice still. Aivliriai held her in place as the leacher retrieved a walking stick he had tucked in a corner. It was carved of ebonwood with a head shaped to resemble a rabbit’s. A glittering emerald was in the rabbit’s right eye, but the lefthand gem had been torn out.

Aivliriai spied the walking stick and breathed in sharply. “Where did you get that?” she asked the leacher.

“It was among the Emperor’s things,” the leacher said shyly.

The look she gave him could have curdled unicorn’s milk, but she let it go, and the two of them steadied Pearl as she took her first steps, walking stick in hand. It was slow, agonizing work. Pearl had never appreciated the scope and power of a healthy body before, and she resolved to do so in future, assuming she had the chance. She managed to slightly increase her pace as they wandered down the halls, but confessed herself defeated when they reached the wide stairway leading from the fourth floor to the fifth. The leacher carried her unsteadily upward, groaning in a thoroughly inconsiderate fashion, and the two set her back on her feet as gingerly as they could. For all the crawling and halting, they arrived at her father’s bedchamber far more quickly than she had expected. They stood outside for a bare moment before Aivliriai reached before her and opened the door.

There was nothing left but to go in.

It’s not real. I’m still dreaming. This is all still a dream. That was what she told herself when she laid eyes on the Emperor. He looked like a skeleton wearing the old Emperor’s skin, like a unicorn’s leathery hide draped along a baby’s shoulders. Despite the heat of the season, he was dressed in furs under several blankets. The furs were brown and white. The blankets were, predictably, black and indigo. His arms and shoulders were above the sheets, and Pearl could make out the individual bones of his hands beneath the floppy folds and glowing white skin, shining with sweat. His head looked like an actual skull, his ears were drooping and deep purple bruises surrounded his grey, filmy eyes. His lips had all but vanished, pulled back from his still-white teeth, grinning in death. Ever himself, Calphus the Conqueror was wearing his spiked crown in bed, but it was at a tilted angle, and Pearl could see stubble peppering his head. It was grey.

Not two moons back, this man had ridden a white unicorn across a bridge between his east and western empire, and slung a two-handed cudgel into the river with a single hand. Now, he was shivering beneath the blankets like a child with a chill. He looked over in her direction, but it seemed more to her he was turning toward the noise than looking at her.

“Is that her?” he asked dully. “Is that my daughter?”

Pearl felt a rip, like a barbed whip, lash through her body at those words. Her left eye blurred, her chest contracted, and though she did not stumble, both Aivliriai and the leacher tensed and held her, just in case. Her throat had closed, and it took a moment and a will to speak.

“It’s Pearl,” she said, forcing herself to speak clearly. I will not let him make me weak, she told herself. I will not let pity be the thing that defeats me. “You sent for me, your Excellency?”

“Ay,” he sighed, a sigh that was heavier than any weapon he had ever lifted. His hands were shaking, but he turned one over and moved it in such a way that he seemed to be beckoning her. “Come,” he said. His voice was still strong, despite everything.

She took a step toward the bed, thinking how she would rather be climbing the mossy oak again. “Yes?”

“Dammit,” he grumbled. “have a seat, girl, I didn’t summon you to receive orders.”

She stared at his skeletal hands and, very reluctantly, sat on the side of the bed. He extended his hand to her. She shut her eyes very tightly, just a moment, then opened them and took his hand. It felt warm and damp, almost alive.

“I know I wasn’t a father to you,” he grumbled. She did not deny it. “I wasted my life on Tortorus, and wouldn’t you know it, he got his revenge by turning out just like me. Still, he’ll keep the Empire going.”

And going and going and going, she thought. To what end, who could say?

“I never knew what to do with you girls.” He seemed to be casting about.

“Have you seen Everia’s baby?”

He grunted at that, a bitter half-laugh. “She came. We shared some words. She won’t bring the babe in the room, though. She still thinks I’ve got some fever like to kill the boy. Mad from the labor, I’ll warrant.” He growled at nothing. “She’s named him Calphus.”

Pearl tried not to laugh. “That’s a very… bold name.”

“Bold, yes. Daring. Ambitious, one might say.” The Emperor’s shaking hand pulsed twice, squeezing Pearl’s. “Tortorus loves conquest as much as I do. I’m sure his sons do as well, and they won’t like being sent back to rule any more than I did. Fostus will die in a cell if he’s lucky, and those babes of his were sickly when we left. Their uncle will toss them to the wood wolves if they don’t die of some eastern illness. Fever!” he barked with acidic humor. “What does that leave? Igetus? Maybe, ah, maybe. He’d rule well, but the lords will never let him. You cannot rule if you are not loved.”

That’s true enough, she thought. You certainly never ruled a day in your life.

“Naming that boy may be the cleverest thing your sister’s ever done,” he grunted in pain.

Your sister. All their lives, it was My daughter. Now it was Your sister. She wanted to slap him. Instead, she wiped her eye. “Will that be all, your Excellency?”

“Dammit, come now. I’m trying to make a decent farewell, before the last of my meat rots away and I fall into dust. At least have the decency to meet me halfway.”

She stood at that, releasing his shivering hand. “I have always met you entirely your way, your Excellency.”

“Then it won’t hurt to do it a few minutes longer.”

Her face twisted up so much it hurt. Her legs seized, and she nearly fell over, but Aivliriai held her steady. The leacher had vanished. “What do you want, your Excellency?”

“I want you to call me Father,” he wailed in frail outrage. “Is that too much for your father to ask?”

The world was throbbing around her. “What do you want, Father?” It was not the first time she had said it, but it was the most painful. The most wrong.

“I want you to understand, girl, it’s not my fault. Tortorus, even Fostus. We are what the world made us.”

“So are we all, then. Father.” It was easier to say the second time. Sickeningly easy.

“She stole my crown,” he wailed again. “My own sister. My own blood! She was meant to love me, and she reached out and took my future away!”

The world seemed to be beating like a human heart, throbbing red and black.

“But I took it back.” His withered claw curled in to a shaking fist. “I came to this new world with nothing, and now look. My Empire! Stretching from sea to sea, more than twice the size Mornalith ever was. I lost a kingdom, but I built a world. I’ll spit that in her face when I join her in the Underrealm. She died alone, you know,” he grumbled. She did not know, nor did she have any idea how he knew. No one spoke of modern Mornalith. As far as the Orckid Empire was concerned, Mornal history ended the day Calphus left. “She had no heirs,” he went on, “three husbands, all limp as fish, and facing her who wouldn’t be!? Some duke or other has the throne now, and he’s welcome to it. What’s Mornalith to this empire I built with my own two hands!” He almost roared that, lifting his hands and looking at them. His filmy eyes loosened, and he suddenly looked confused and afraid. “My hands…” he muttered, suddenly lost. “What’s… what’s wrong with my hands?”

“You are dying, your Excellency,” said Aivliriai, without hesitation.

His eyes crinkled at that, so terrified and ashamed, that Pearl had to look away. “Yes,” he said at last, voice thin as a reed. “Yes. Of course. Thank you, Aivliriai. You were… you alone… so many times, I tried… I tried… I tried to bring them to me. I tried to include them in my councils, make them a part of this new world. I didn’t want to destroy you, I wanted everyone. In Mornalith, kings used to adopt heirs. They always chose the most worthy, no matter how high or low his birth. The Viisians could have been a part of this new world, but they wouldn’t… they wouldn’t… all but you, Aivi.”

Aivliriai looked as though she had just sucked on a lemon, but she let it pass. “I had hoped to build a better world with you, Excellency.”

“Ah, yes,” he muttered absently. “Would that we could.”

“We can,” she answered, stepping forward, her decorum giving way to animation. “You promised the slaves liberty. You said if they followed you and fought for you, you would free them. I have the edict. We have a witness,” she bobbed her head at Pearl. “We can make it good.”

He closed his eyes. “They’ll all be as free as me, soon enough.”

“Excellency,” she pressed with frightening intensity. “Do you want to be remembered as a valiant commander who rewarded his loyal soldiers, or as a petty tyrant who broke his word, who stole the crown of liberty from countless thousands?”

“Remember?” he asked absurdly. “What good is memory? Will memory bring me back from the dead? Will it purge this poison from me? Give me another year, another day of life, and I’ll worry about my memory then.”

Aivliriai strode over to her tools and returned with a wooden tablet and coal ink. “I have it here, your Excellency,” she urged. “Put your mark on this edict. I beg you. We have a witness, we have everything needed. For the good you say I have done you, put your mark on this, and be known as Calphus the Great! I will see it done, I swear.”

“No!” he suddenly shouted, like a child defying his father. “You’re trying to take my realm from me. You you, you expect me to mark some spell without reading it?”

“You cannot read, Father,” Pearl said blankly.

“Well then read it… read it to…” he stumbled and stuttered, his shaking hand wavering back and forth between them before finally settling on Pearl. “You there, girl, read it out. Prove it.”

Aviliriai looked into her face, desperate, pleading. She handed over the tablet.

It was written in the Mornal scrawl, but the lettering was ornate and her head was still battering against itself. “Be it hereby decreed by Emperor Calphus the First, the Conqueror, Lord of the Orckid Empire, that all those held in bondage of slavery within the border of the empire are hereby released from durance, and that the vile practice…” She stopped herself.

“What?” muttered the dying man in the bed. “Was that all?”

And that the vile practice of enslavement, slavery, slave trade, and inherited durance are hereby abolished eternally within the borders of Orckid. So shall it be upheld by me and all my heirs and guarantors, from now until the end of time. There was a blank spot in the bottom left corner for the Emperor to make his mark: the shield braced by two spears.

“I took it back,” he muttered. “She stole my crown, and I made a better one. When they take what’s yours, you have to take it back.” His entire body tensed, and for a brief moment his frail fist looked again as though it could crush an enemy’s skull. “You have to take it back!”

“Excellency!” Aivliriai shouted, bulling forward. She knocked Pearl out of the way. Her legs seized and she fell to the floor. She cried out like a child as every muscle in her body screamed, and her legs jarred as though struck by a mallet. Aivliriai continued to press the Emperor. “I can save you, Excellency! Put your mark on this, and we will bring the magicians back. They can make you well again. I can make you well again. But mark this, and you will be saved.”

A high, pitiful whine came from his lips. “You’re lying. You’re lying to me. Everyone lies to me. You want to trick me out of what’s mine, when I’d give it freely if you’d only ask.”

“I am asking now, Excellency. Please! Put your mark here.”

“I loved you,” he was weeping openly. “I loved you, and you betrayed me. But I surpassed you.” He sobbed, and Pearl sobbed with him, her arms too sore to press against her agonized legs. “I thought you were my pillar, and you stole…”

“You. Stole.” The voice was so high and horrible, Pearl did not know a person could make such sounds. She was momentarily shocked, then horrified to discover the sounds had come from her.

She was lying on her back, too pained to stand or even sit up. She could not see the collapsed thing that had been the Emperor, lying up on the bed, but that did not matter. He could hear her. She could only see Aivliriai, staring down, a look of disgust poorly disguised. Pearl flushed grey, and burst.

“There is no greater thief than you,” she howled. “Calphus the Criminal. Calphus the Burglar. Your sister took your crown because you were weak, and frightened. You were so frightened you fled to another world, so frightened you stole an entire world.”

It felt good. She could have told him how he had broken her heart every time he patted Everia’s cheek while pearl stood against a wall like an attendant. She could have told him how he groomed Tortorus to rule and taught Fostus to fight whilst Pearl had not even received her own tutor. How Arjallia was given everything she had been denied, while Pearl did not know her own mother’s name. She could have told him how it ached to see Imrell’s defiance laughed off even when her own desperate bids to help him were scolded and dismissed. She could scream that even Igetus, who was everything a man should not be, was more trusted and respected and relied upon, while Pearl alone was made to haunt the armies of Calphus like the ghost of a stillborn child. She could tell him how Calphus the Great had hurt her every day, deliberately and thoughtlessly, but always carelessly.

But she did not want to. She did not want to share her pain with him. She wanted to give him new pain, all his own.

“You have been running from your sister your entire life,” she howled, rolling on the floor. Aivliriai looked at once horrified and ashamed, but soon her image blurred as Pearl cried on. “Calphus the Conqueror? You lied to slaves, and swindled them, got them to die for you, because you were too afraid to face the weak and timid Viisians by yourself. Because you knew you weren’t good enough! Because you feared slaves! You couldn’t even conquer the harbor that took your miserable hide in until you married into wealth. Calphus the Conqueror!?” She could feel her tender throat tearing again, but she did not care. She laughed, maniacally, writhing on the floor. “Calphus the Conqueror!? I name you Calphus the Coward! Calphus the Callow! Calphus the Craven! And I will make it my life’s work to have those words echo through the annals of history, from here to magical Vaina and all the way back to Mornalith, so the whole world will know what a poisonous, evil, selfish little monster you are, and how you had to steal the world because you were too weak to work your evil by yourself…”

She had more to say, but she was out of breath. She was gasping, hiccoughing, laughing, screaming, throbbing with the world around her. The world was beating, black and red, black and blue, and all the air was gone. Black and black. Then nothing. Deep in the dark recesses of her mind, she could hear someone shouting, “Excellency. Excellency! Calphus! Please!”

She awoke minutes or hours or years later, gasping as though she had just broken the surface of a river. Life was a pinpoint of light before her face that slowly expanded into a dim orange room. There were strange, beautiful noises floating in the air. A bed was nearby. Stiffness and aches washed over her as though they were as much a part of her life as the air that desperately beat its way into her chest. Her face was wet all over. Madly, it only just occurred to her that she was dressed in little more than linens and bandages, lying on the floor, screaming and sobbing like a spoilt child. Somewhere in that same palace, lying in a Viisianar bed, Calphus the Second was squalling just as madly.

The room reeked of filth and decay and death. The strange noises grew soft, and Pearl’s blurry vision resolved on two tall, slim, beautiful dark shapes that floated before her, like two black pillars on a sandy orange beach in a black storm. She tried to ask where the other six pillars were, but coughed horribly instead. Tiny warm droplets spattered on her cheek and forehead. She was croaking again when she asked, “Is he dead?”

“He is,” Aivliriai answered without hesitation.

Her head was murdering her, but she could not move her arm to rub it. She wanted to say Good, but really she no longer felt anything. “What… should we… do we call Igetus?”

The two blurs hesitate. They made more noises, speaking in Viisianar. They were whispers, some heated. “My lady,” Olinthess said at last, “how are you feeling?”

“Like an empty tunic,” she groaned, “that’s been dunked in the river and beaten dry against a rock.”

“You hear?” Aivliriai said, “The soul of a poet.”

“A poet in infancy,” Olinthess countered.

“It is the only poet to hand,” Aivliriai answered.

Olinthess said something more in Viisianar, then moved to the other side of the Emperor’s bed.

“My Lady,” Aivliriai began tentatively, “Why did you climb that tree, four days ago?”

She closed her eyes. “Rogulus was up there. He was too frightened to come down.”

“You did it for your family.”

“I suppose. I don’t really know the boy. I’d like to think I would have done it for any boy up a tree.”

“Indeed. We all wish to see ourselves as virtuous. My Lady,” she began uncertainly, “the Emperor was at last scrawling his mark upon this edict when he passed. Your witnessing was vital in the supporting of this edict, which I have no doubt will prove a controversial one. But you were insensate upon the floor at the moment of signature, and worse…” she struggled here, “the Emperor passed in the act of scrawling his mark. You see.”

The speller held the tablet out for Pearl to observe. There was a mark in the bottom-left corner. That it was a spear, and what looked to be part of the shield that came next to it, Pearl did not doubt. That her father had drawn it there, she doubted heavily.

“Your father changed his mind at the last moment,” Olinthess added, unnecessarily. “Perhaps your words had an effect on him.

I hope they did, she thought. She wondered when she would start to feel again. That would be a dark hour.

“My Lady,” Aivliriai continued, “will you act as witness to the signing of this edict? Your brother is a… calculating man, but I believe he will honor your father’s dying wishes. I am certain he will.

That makes one of us. “If he watched the Emperor sign it, and if Imrell or the Margraves were in the room, then he might.”

Olinthess snapped something in Viisianar, but Aivliriai stopped her. “You think Igetus will doubt its authenticity?”

I think the whole world will. “I think he will choose to doubt its authenticity. Igetus doesn’t care about slavery one way or the other, but he won’t want to offend any powerful lords just now. He’ll need them to help him keep control.”

Her legs felt swollen and sore, like blisters bursting open.

The two women shared a glance across the dead man’s bed, then Aivliriai turned back to Pearl. “My Lady. Will you vouch for the authenticity of this mark?”

“Do you think that will do any good?”

Olinthess said something, again in Viisianar, that made Ailviriai smirk. “To hear your father speak… to hear what he spoke… you and your brother work well together. When one of you has an idea, the other is able to elaborate on it at once. Your father once told me his councils would be more effective if Imrell were the one babysitting Arjallia.”

It was at once gratifying and infuriating to hear that, of course, Calphus could not stand Imrell’s objections. In the end, for all his talk, he was as Mornal as any of them. Perhaps the most Mornal.

Suddenly, Pearl became aware that she was still lying on the floor. She felt ridiculous. She tried to sit up, but abandoned the effort immediately when her neck screamed and the room began to swim again. “I think I may be thirsty.”

The two looked at each other again. “I shall fetch the leacher,” said Olinthess. Aivliriai snapped something at her, in Viisisanar, that prompted a tense glare. Whatever was said, Olinthess seemed to acquiesce, and left the room.

“My Lady, I am sorry to trouble you at this grievous hour—”

“Don’t bother. We both know what I thought of my father.” Half the Palace likely does now.

“Do you remember then, my Lady, what we discussed yesterday, when you first awoke?”


“Yes and no. We spoke also of trying to change people, and through them nations. We spoke—”

“I know what we spoke of,” Pearl interrupted. Aivliriai’s condescension was starting to grate. Olinthess was pompous too, but she was more upfront about it. Even Igetus, for all his ego, did not waste time thinly veiling his insults. “What’s your point?”

“My point, my Lady, is that we seem to have been given an opportunity to try and tame the unicorn. If we can reach them as children, shape them then, perhaps—”

Olinthess bulled back into the room. Her breath suggested she had run. In her hand was a tall clay cup, presumably full of water. She stepped over to Pearl and looked down at her. After a pause, Aivliriai knelt down. “Good to see you,” Pearl remarked caustically.

“May I help you up?”

Such dense questions. “I’d welcome the attempt.”

The speller knelt closer and eased an arm behind Pearl’s neck. She tried not to tense up; she feared she might vomit if she did. Aivliriai eased more of her body down, under, and behind Pearl’s torso as she gently lifted her to a sit. She was as gentle as she had no doubt been with Calphus, who now lay forgotten on the bed. “Here.” She took the water from Olinthess and held it to her lips, but Pearl took it and drank. Here arms felt like needles were in them, but it was better than feeling like an infant.

“So,” she began, “this is more than just saying that Calphus made that mark. Igetus will listen, maybe, and then he’ll do what he wants. You need someone to keep saying this is the Emperor’s mark, as often as it takes, to make sure this edict is enacted. As our great Emperor would have wished.”

“To honor his dying request.”

“His dying command,” Olinthess added.

“His dying command.” She wanted to laugh, but she feared she might pass out. “Sounds like I’m the one taking all the risks here.”

“We would of course help you however we can.”

Olinthess said something in Viisianar, and Aivliriai snapped back.

“Enough!” Pearl near-shouted, and sure enough the room throbbed with her. She took a moment to steady herself, finished the water, and dropped the clay cup carelessly on the floor. “You’re having two conversations, and I’m only privy to one of them. Enough.”

“My Lady,” said Aivliriai, “you are surely… aware enough… to understand that we may have some difficulty—”

“Trust,” she interrupted. “This is about trust. Fine. Here’s some trust. I trust that Calphus did not make that mark – that half-mark. I trust that one of you started making it, probably Olinthess, and then the other one stopped her. I trust that while I was passed out from screaming like an idiot, the two of you were arguing about whether you should tell me the Emperor signed it, or try to convince me to sign it instead.”

“You? Why would we do such a thing?” Aivliriai’s shock was admirably feigned, but Olinthess was staring with unguarded apprehension, and perhaps the tiniest pinch of respect.

“Because you want me committed. You don’t want me to just say this is Calphus’ signature and go home, you need a Mornal royal to fight for this, and you think if I sign it myself, I’ll commit. Maybe you were just going to ask me to finish signing it, but whatever it was, you want me to be part of this.”

“And will you be?” Olinthess’ stare was iron.

She wanted to ask what was in it for her, but in truth she could not think of anything she wanted. Was not this what she wanted? To undo a little of Calphus’ work? Soften some of his needless cruelty? And perhaps it might make this world a little safer for Arjallia.

“I need some time to think about this.”

Aivliriai hesitated at that, but Olinthess did not. “We do not have time,” she insisted. “The palace must learn of the Emperor’s death. Igetus has already seized power, and he will act while you are thinking. The more concerned he becomes with consolidating power, the less he will be willing risk. You must come to him. We must come to him, with this, even as we tell him of the Emperor’s death. It must be now.”

This was it. This was Pearl’s one chance at greatness, to be something other than Calphus the Conqueror’s forgotten child, and all she wanted to do was lie down and sleep. She took the tablet from Aivliriai, and the charcoal ink from Olinthess. She finished the mark of the Emperor.

“I guess we’d better get me on my feet, then. What happened to that walking stick?”

The two women looked into a corner of the room. First, they knelt down and each got a shoulder under one of Pearl’s arms. She felt queasy and lightheaded, but she got to her feet. After a moment, Olinthess brought her the walking stick. It had lost its second emerald eye at some point, probably when Pearl dropped it.

Aivliriai was looking at it. “Whose was this?” Pearl asked.

The speller looked at her, ashamed, as though she had been caught stealing sweets at night. “It does not matter.”

“Who’s standing in the way of my learning now?” she asked archly.

Aivliriai stared into her face, and for a brief moment Pearl saw a bloodlust there that would have made the Emperor proud. “It belonged to Erridan Fa Belethenri. He was a distant member of the royal family.” She stepped away and opened the door for Pearl. “He was my husband. He died in the assault on the palace, twenty-three years ago.”

Pearl looked out the door, nowhere else. With Olinthess’ help, she stepped outside, and the three women set out to face Igetus.

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