The Queen of Inthya
Effie Calvin © 2018
All Rights Reserved
The castle at Birsgen had been built from cold gray stone, but the rooms within were warm and bright. Intricate tapestries and carpets in rich shades of crimson, emerald, and sapphire decorated the throne room, and a roaring fire at the far end of the room kept the worst of the chill that dwelled in the ancient stone at bay.
Princess Esofi of Rhodia sank into a curtsy, her elaborate skirts rustling softly in the silence. Before her were the velvet thrones of King Dietrich and Queen Saski of Ieflaria. Just behind her were the waiting ladies and battlemages who had accompanied her on the four-month journey to a land that would be her new home.
With Esofi’s entire retinue crowded inside, the throne room was not nearly as expansive as it ought to be. To make things even more uncomfortable, many of the residents of the Ieflarian court had gathered for the arrival of the princess, filling the room further.
Most of the Ieflarians Esofi had seen so far were dark-haired and fair-skinned with eyes of blue or gray, though in the larger cities she had encountered people who were clearly from far-off lands like Anora and Masim. The women usually wore their hair in braids, with younger girls allowing them to hang free and older women pinning them into coronets or coils. Esofi wished that she could take in their faces and study their reactions to her presence. But she knew she had to trust her ladies to do that for her while she devoted her attention to the regents.
“We welcome you to Ieflaria during this sad time,” said King Dietrich. “We regret that your arrival has been under such unfortunate circumstances.”
Esofi swallowed. Every Ieflarian they’d encountered since coming into the country had been dressed in gray or black or somber lavender. The queen herself was in a plain gray gown with only the simplest pearl circlet on her head, and the king wore a black velvet jacket over a gray tunic and breeches. Even the guards and servants wore black, instead of the crimson-and-gold livery that her books and tutors had told her to expect.
Esofi had worn her simplest dress out of respect, and her ladies had done the same. But Rhodian fashion was dramatically more opulent than the clothing found in Ieflaria, featuring lace accessories, layers of ruffled underskirts, and fabrics sewn with gemstones. Even the most subdued ensemble seemed disrespectfully lavish compared to the simple styles favored by the Ieflarians.
“Yes,” said Esofi. “I am deeply sorry.”
Three months. Crown Prince Albion, Esofi’s husband-to-be and heir to the throne of Ieflaria, had been dead for three months. Esofi had never met him, but they’d been exchanging letters since they were old enough to write. The loss still felt unreal, as though it were all a terrible joke.
“We are no longer able to uphold the contract that was signed fifteen years ago,” said Queen Saski. “You have the right to return home if you choose.”
She was wrong. Esofi could no more return home than she could transform into a bird and fly away.
“Your Majesties,” Esofi said. “Your lands have suffered greatly from dragon attacks in past years and will only continue to suffer if action is not taken. As the future queen, it was my intention to begin securing Ieflaria’s borders immediately. To this end, I have brought with me a company of the finest battlemages that the University of Rho Dianae has to offer.” She gestured to the back of the room where fifty mages stood in the midnight-blue robes that marked them as fully trained battlemages blessed by Talcia, Goddess of Magic. “But I believe this can still be accomplished, even now. I remain willing to marry your heir…your new heir.”
King Dietrich and Queen Saski both looked relieved, as if they had expected Esofi to pick up her skirts and flounce all the way back to Rho Dianae.
“For the sake of honoring the spirit of our agreement and protecting our homeland,” said King Dietrich, “we are willing to grant you this.”
Even though it had been her proposal, Esofi felt a soft pang in her heart at the words. Albion would have been gentle. Albion would have been kind. She had always considered herself lucky that her betrothed seemed to be noble in manner as well as blood and so near to her own age. Esofi had seen enough violent lords and vicious ladies to know that Iolar had smiled upon her when her parents had arranged her fate.
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” said Esofi. “I think my parents would have little reason to object if the terms of the marriage were otherwise unchanged.”
“Then in three days, we will formalize the new agreement.” King Dietrich gestured to a servant who came hurrying to his side. Esofi could not hear what the king said to him, but the servant rushed from the room immediately.
Esofi tried to remember who exactly the heir to Ieflaria’s throne was now that Albion was gone. Surely, someone had told her at some point. The winged courier who had brought the news of Albion’s death might have mentioned it. But Esofi’s grief-stricken mind offered no names. Her gaze found the statue of Iolar, Fourth of the Ten, where it loomed behind Their Majesties’ thrones. She offered up a rapid prayer to him.
“We have prepared rooms for you,” said Queen Saski. “The servants will lead you to them. If they are not to your liking, you may arrange them however you wish.” Her smile was warm and possibly even genuine.
“Thank you,” said Esofi with another curtsy. “The journey has been long. It will be good to rest in a proper bed again.”
“You will have plenty of time to recover from your journey,” said Queen Saski. “We cannot begin wedding arrangements until one hundred days of mourning have passed. Tomorrow, you will join me for tea and meet my daughter, the Crown Princess Adale.”
“Of course, Your Majesty,” began Esofi. “I…” But the rest of her words died in her throat as her mind caught up with her ears. Princess Adale. She had heard that name before. She was Albion’s younger sister and the only other child of King Dietrich and Queen Saski. Albion had mentioned her in his letters, spinning tales of their adventures and mischief.
But…a princess? Like most people, Esofi did not have a strong preference regarding the gender of the one she married. But marrying the same sex was a privilege that royalty was seldom able to indulge in, since the production of heirs usually took priority over all else. Two women could still manage it if one of them could hold a Changed shape long enough, but men had to be content with surrogates. Most of the nobility back home did not care to take such risks with their bloodlines. Perhaps it was different in Ieflaria. Or perhaps Their Majesties were merely desperate.
Fortunately, Queen Gaelle of Rhodia had instilled iron willpower in her children, and so Esofi was able to successfully fight back her urge to turn around and look to her ladies for their reactions. She realized the king and queen were still waiting for her to finish her sentence.
“I…think that will be lovely,” she completed. Then she pressed the back of her hand to her forehead as delicately as she could manage. “Goodness, how the journey has wearied me.”
“Then go, rest,” said Queen Saski. “We will speak again tomorrow.”
Dismissed at last, Esofi gave one last curtsy before turning and leading the procession from the room. Once they were out in the halls, Captain Henris approached her. He wore the same midnight robes as the other battlemages, but his were trimmed in silver embroidery. Captain Henris was not a young man any longer but had served Esofi well during the long journey, and she found that she trusted him implicitly.
“Your orders, Princess?” he asked.
“You may send the mages to the barracks,” Esofi said. “Tell them that I thank them for their service. And find me tomorrow morning, before I meet with Her Majesty.”
“Of course, Princess,” he said.
With the departure of the mages, the hall became significantly less crowded. Esofi turned her attention to her ladies. There were three of them, and all had come with her by choice. The first was Lady Lexandrie, the second daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Fialia and Esofi’s second cousin, who had been her waiting lady since they were thirteen. She was a tall woman with a cascade of golden hair and a regal demeanor. If Lexandrie had any faults, the foremost one was stubbornness, followed closely by an innate belief that no person in the world had ever worked as hard or suffered as desperately as she had in her eighteen years of life at the marble palace of Rho Dianae.
Next was Lady Mireille, daughter of the Baron and Baroness of Aelora. With six older siblings, her prospects in Rhodia had not been high—but her ambitions were. Esofi was still not entirely certain how the young woman had managed to win herself a place on the royal procession, but that didn’t matter now. Mireille’s traveling papers had proclaimed that she was sixteen years old, but her youthful face could have passed for twelve.
Mireille’s presence had been welcome on the long journey. She was a bright, cheerful young woman, desperately eager to please and only occasionally prone to simpering. She would rush eagerly to complete any task Esofi set them to, and Lexandrie was always happy to let her work in solitude until the assignment was minutes from being complete.
In some small way, Esofi felt that she and Mireille had a sort of kinship between them. While Lexandrie was certain to return to Rhodia someday, Mireille and Esofi never would. There was nothing left for them back there. Ieflaria would become their world now.
And last was Lady Lisette of Diativa, who was in actuality not a Lady, nor of Diativa, nor even named Lisette. She was a tiny woman with black eyes and hair the color of moonlight who could go days at a time without uttering a word. Esofi did not know for certain how many blades, lockpicks, and poisons Lisette had on her person, but she felt quite sure that the number was absurdly high. She was an unnerving girl until one became accustomed to her, but Esofi’s mother had insisted upon her presence in the royal carriage.
“Such a lovely welcome,” said Lexandrie in a bright and vapid tone. “Didn’t you think so, Princess?”
“Yes, of course,” said Esofi in an equally cheerful tone—she knew perfectly well that there could be any number of people listening in, waiting for some word against the co-regents or a sign of weakness. The fact that they spoke in the language of Rhodia was no protection against that. “I will be glad to rest my feet at last, though, and for a cup of tea.”
“Princess Esofi,” said a woman, emerging from the throne room behind them. She looked to be around the same age as Queen Saski and wore a lavender gown decorated with pearls. In keeping with the Ieflarian fashion, her long hair was in coiled braids. “I am Countess Amala of Eiben, waiting lady to Queen Saski. Her Majesty has asked me to show you to your new rooms.”
“Oh! Of course,” said Esofi, stepping aside so Amala could take the lead.
Amala walked down the lamp-lit hallway with rapid, purposeful footsteps, speaking candidly as she went, naming each room as they passed it. Esofi glanced back at her ladies, and Lisette had a particularly intense expression upon her face. Esofi knew she could trust her to remember everything they were being told and was glad for her presence.
They continued through a maze of stone halls, servants and nobility alike stepping aside to stare at the foreigners in their castle. Esofi kept a practiced smile at her lips the entire time, until finally Amala came to a stop in front of a large door, ornately carved with a depiction of a unicorn in a meadow.
Amala withdrew a key from the purse at her belt and unlocked the door. “These will be your rooms, Princess. You will find adjoining rooms for your ladies, and Her Majesty has already assigned servants to see to your needs.”
Amala gestured to her, and Esofi stepped inside. The first room was an elaborate parlor, furnished in the Ieflarian style, all intricately carved dark woods and jewel-toned carpets and tapestries. Glass oil lamps cast the room in a golden glow, and a small fire burned in the stone hearth.
At the center of the room stood a middle-aged woman, large-boned and silver-haired with a nose like an eagle’s beak. She wore the uniform of the castle staff, but Esofi could tell from just a moment’s glance that the woman was not a maid.
“Mistress Abbing is the palace housekeeper,” explained Amala, and the woman curtsied. Esofi nodded at her.
“If there is anything you require, Princess,” said Mistress Abbing, “tell any of my girls. If you catch them lazing about, send them directly to me and I’ll sort them out. We’ll come in to clean once a week while you’re at the sunrise service.”
Esofi nodded again. There was never a day that the Temple of Iolar did not perform a sunrise service or the corresponding sundown service in the evening. But most people only attended on the first day of the week. In some circles, that first service was considered mandatory.
“That room will be yours, Princess,” Amala explained, gesturing to a door on one side of the room. “You will find the servants are already unpacking your things. They should be gone within the hour. And for your ladies, their rooms are through that other door. If there is anything you require, Her Majesty has ordered it will be given to you.”
And with that, Amala excused herself. Mistress Abbing went into Esofi’s room to yell at the servants, and Esofi immediately sank down onto the nearest sofa, only to pause in wonderment at the softness—after three months at sea and another in a carriage, she had almost forgotten what proper furniture felt like.
“Well—” began Lexandrie, only to be cut off by Lisette raising one thin, pale finger into the air.
“Not yet,” said Lisette, and embarked on a rapid search of the entire room. Esofi sat very still as Lisette examined everything and anything, turning over cushions and pulling books off the shelves and even tapping at the stones on the walls. After a few moments, Lisette seemed satisfied.
“Nothing in here, at least,” she said.
“May I speak now, then?” asked Lexandrie. Then, without waiting for a reply, she went on. “Esofi, have you realized—?”
“That they mean for me to marry Princess Adale? Yes,” said Esofi.
“And you will agree to it?”
“It makes no difference to me, does it?” asked Esofi. “I shall marry someone at the end of the mourning period. Or would you have me return home and tell my parents that I rejected the heir to the throne of Ieflaria?”
“Of course not,” said Lexandrie. “But you’re not a peasant. You need heirs. And I know you can’t hold on to a Changed body long enough to—”
“But maybe the Crown Princess Adale can!” interrupted Mireille.
“Perhaps she can,” Esofi agreed. “Or perhaps there is a sizable list of heirs already, and so Their Majesties are not concerned. Until I speak with Queen Saski tomorrow, we will not know, and I will not spend any more time worrying about it, not while there’s a fresh bed and a warm fire waiting in the next room.”
Fortunately, none of her ladies seemed to be in the mood to argue, and the four sat in exhausted silence until the servants were herded out by Mistress Abbing, who bid them a good night and reminded them to only ask if they required something, no matter the hour.
The ladies went into Esofi’s room, which was furnished in a similar fashion to the outer parlor. It featured an area with a bookcase and writing desk, and a table set with a bowl of unfamiliar fruit, which Lisette ordered them all not to touch. The far wall had a large window that overlooked the dusky gardens.
Esofi’s ladies set to the task of unlacing her complicated dress and corsets. After some brief but frantic searching, Mireille found her nightgowns in the dresser.
Once in bed, Esofi tried to keep her thoughts clear of speculation, but it was easier said than done. She turned her thoughts to the gods, as she had been instructed in her childhood.
There were as many gods in Asterium as there were stars in the sky, though Esofi only really concerned herself with the Ten. She wondered if Iolar was watching her from Solarium but immediately dismissed the thought as hubris. As a princess, she knew she fell solidly into his domain, but she had never felt that deep spiritual connection with the father of all Men that she ought to.
Perhaps Talcia was watching instead from her home in Dia Asteria? Perhaps. But it seemed infinitely more likely that she was being casually observed by some extremely specific minor deity from a tiny pocket of Asterium that nobody had even heard of before.
Each god, no matter how minor, had a place in Asterium where they brought their beloved followers after their deaths. The sole exception to this was Eran, God of Dreams, who brought the living into Ivoria on an almost nightly basis.
Esofi knew that her own deceased family members were almost certainly with Talcia. She wondered where Albion was. Solarium, most likely, surrounded by some of the bravest and wisest regents that Inthya had ever known, where they would discuss and debate into eternity.
The thought made her heart ache.
Esofi was weary from the journey, and the sheets had been warmed by heated stones placed by thoughtful servants. She fell asleep quickly, and if she was invited into Ivoria that night, she did not remember it when she awoke.
The next morning, Esofi opened her eyes and gave a little start at the sight of the unfamiliar stone ceiling above her head. It took her a moment to remember where she was. Ieflaria. Birsgen. The castle. Queen Saski would be summoning her that day.
At the thought, Esofi sat bolt upright and leapt from bed. Hurrying over to the nearest wardrobe, Esofi was greeted by the sight of a host of barely familiar dresses. She had forgotten just how many she’d commissioned and packed away before leaving home, with the strict orders that they be left untouched for the entire journey.
Unfortunately, none were suitable for mourning. Esofi knew that she was not expected to partake in the mourning period, being a foreigner, but felt that a too-grandiose display would seem insensitive, especially since Albion had been her betrothed.
The day before, all of the Ieflarian ladies had been dressed in simple but elegant gowns with skirts that fell naturally from the underbust. It was a stark contrast to the voluminous and many-layered dresses that were popular in Rhodia. Perhaps she could have some Ieflarian dresses made up for her.
Esofi sorted through the dresses, trying to pick the most subdued one. It was not long before there was a knock at her door.
“Enter,” called Esofi, and Lexandrie and Mireille hurried in. They were in their long, lacy nightdresses.
“We thought we heard you up,” explained Mireille. “Why did you not call us?”
“I only just woke.” Esofi did not turn away from her wardrobe. “Is Lisette gone?”
“Of course,” said Lexandrie, a bit of annoyance in her tone. “There’s work to be done, so naturally she’s missing.”
“That is to be expected,” murmured Esofi. “Her assignment here is different than ours, after all.”
“Still—” Lexandrie seemed to be trying not to let her annoyance show now that the princess had made her position clear. “She could at least try to act like a proper waiting lady.”
Esofi selected a gown of palest pink decorated with buttercream ruffles and little silk rosebuds. Her ladies helped her dress, lacing her into her corsets and lifting layer after layer of fabric over Esofi’s head until finally the dress looked suitable.
While Mireille pressed Esofi’s blonde hair into curls with a hot iron, Lexandrie set to the task of applying the princess’s powder and rouge. Once that was finished, they pinned silk flowers in her hair and stood back to admire their handiwork.
“It’s not too much, is it?” worried Esofi as Mireille retrieved a porcelain hand mirror.
“Too much?” Lexandrie had a touch of incredulity in her voice. “You’re meeting with the queen. There is no such thing as too much!” She cast a wistful look back at Esofi’s closet, her gaze settling on an elaborate crimson-and-gold gown. Esofi chose to ignore this.
Lexandrie and Mireille left to prepare themselves for the day, and Esofi found her embroidery bag inside her bedside table after a few minutes of searching. She wished she could have overseen the servants as they unpacked. It would probably take a great deal of effort to arrange everything the way that she liked it.
Esofi went into the parlor and was surprised by multiple baskets and packages waiting for her on the table. Pinned to the largest basket was a hastily scrawled note from Lisette.
The packages are all safe to handle. I know you would have liked to open them yourself, but it was better this way. I didn’t detect anything amiss, but I wouldn’t be displeased if you threw it all out anyway, especially the food.
Esofi reached for the nearest basket and pulled out the card, which named an Ieflarian noble that she had never heard of as the benefactor. The other gifts were much the same, each bearing a card with an unfamiliar name and title. Not all were nobles, though. A canvas painting of the royal chase had been sent from the court painter, and the parcel from the Lacemaker’s Guild contained a pair of gloves, dyed lavender. There was also a bottle of wine from the Vesoldan Ambassador.
Esofi decided it would be more fun to explore the gifts if her ladies were there with her. She went over to open the window and let the cool morning sunlight in, and then sat herself on the sofa. During the journey, they had spent endless hours embroidering in the carriage while practicing their Ieflarian conversation. So great was the association in Esofi’s mind that she found herself murmuring verb conjugations as she took a pair of silver scissors from her bag and carefully cut out the awkward, crooked stitching from the corner of the tablecloth that had been Lisette’s responsibility.
Esofi had been betrothed to Albion at the age of three, and so much of her education had focused on the fact that she would someday become the queen of Ieflaria. Along with the ordinary tutor who had educated her entire family, Queen Gaelle had also hired an Ieflarian tutor especially for Esofi. He had taught her the nation’s history and language, and Esofi was confident that she knew as much about Ieflarian history and economics as she did about Rhodia’s, or at least as much as could be put into books.
Still, none of the reading she had done had prepared her for the beautiful sweeping farmlands that made up the majority of the Ieflarian countryside. She would never forget the first time she had laid eyes upon the land that stretched as far as the eye could see, hills beyond hills and fields beyond fields. In that moment, she could have believed that it all went on forever.
It was still early spring, and from her carriage window she had been able to watch the farmers at work, tilling the ebony soil in strict, even rows. The ones who were blessed by Eyvindr, God of the Harvest, had performed the rituals that would sink green magic into the earth and ensure a good harvest. Meanwhile, shepherds and milkmaids drove their animals to grassy green fields, stopping at shrines to Cyne to mutter prayers or leave small offerings or simply run their hands across the stones.
In Ieflaria, and indeed on the entire continent of Ioshora, Cyne was the Eleventh. The Eleventh was the god that served as a tiebreaker to the Ten, the most powerful gods in Asterium. The Ten were the same all the world over (or at least, all the parts of the world Esofi had read about), but the Eleventh differed across regions.
Back home in Rhodia, the Eleventh had been Nara, Goddess of the Sky. But here, with farmlands taking up so much of the geography, she could understand how Cyne, the God of Animals and son of Eyvindr, had become more powerful.
Overlooking the farms were always a few soldiers or, if the town was particularly fortunate, paladins from the Order of the Sun. Their attention would be not on the land but the skies above, ready to sound the alarm at the first sound of heavy wingbeats. Their presence was a grim reminder of the constant danger that hovered overhead.
Esofi’s understanding of the dragon situation was thus: At the height of its power, nearly a millennium ago, the Xytan Empire had driven every last dragon from the continent. The dragons had retreated to a small cluster of unclaimed islands that lay between the northeastern coast of modern-day Ieflaria and the southeastern coast of Veravin. From that day forward, they only occasionally troubled the lands of Men.
But centuries passed, and the Xytan Empire began to crumble. One by one, its outermost territories rallied their own armies and declared independence. Ieflaria’s own independence was a relatively bloodless transition, as most of the Xytan soldiers were well aware they were outmatched and chose to retreat home.
Under the new regime, the dragon attacks remained infrequent enough to be regarded nearer to legends than threats. Things had only started to change in the last few decades, when the strikes had grown in frequency.
Esofi had not realized anything was truly amiss until one day, about five years past, when Albion wrote to her that the dragons were no longer coming to Ieflaria simply to steal cattle. They had started burning towns and attacking soldiers all along the coastline. Esofi wrote back that she was sure the Ieflarian military could handle the problem, and suggested a hope that the attacks would die down once the dragons learned that venturing into Ieflaria would end badly.
But it seemed that things had only become worse in the interim years.
Esofi had met refugees during her journey to the capital. They were mostly from small coastal holdings, fishing towns that had been destroyed in a matter of moments. The refugees had traveled inland, seeking the protection of their lords. But these Ieflarians were unaccustomed to farm life and frequently expressed their desire to return to the seaside as soon as possible. Unfortunately for them, the nobility was refusing to rebuild until the danger had been dealt with.
Esofi could see both sides of the issue. There was no sense in expending the resources to rebuild a town only to see it destroyed again. But crowding refugees into small farming communities or minor southern cities was not a viable long-term solution either.
Despite their misfortunes, it did not seem that the Ieflarian people were using the death of the crown prince or the threat of dragon attacks as an excuse to forsake their work. They had been working in the fields or caring for their animals as Esofi’s carriage passed by along her journey. Sometimes, they had raised their heads, their mild curiosity turning to fevered excitement when they caught a glimpse of blonde curls instead of ebony braids.
Esofi had been afraid that the people of Ieflaria would have no interest in her, the foreign bride rendered useless by the loss of her groom. But they still turned out to line the streets whenever she passed through, even in the smallest farming communities. Children had given her messy bouquets of wildflowers and called her Solviga, the Ieflarian name that sounded closest to her own. Old grandparents had clasped her hands (something shockingly disrespectful in Rhodia, but apparently as common as rain in Ieflaria) and prayed with her.
“She’s so beautiful. They’ll find someone to marry her in no time,” the Ieflarians had proclaimed to one another when they knew Esofi was in earshot. “No need for her to turn around and go back home—that would be a tragedy, would it not?”
Their motives had been transparent but no less heartwarming.
The outer door opened, returning Esofi to the present. She set down her embroidery as Lisette slipped inside like a cat or perhaps the shadow of a cat. When she saw Esofi sitting there, she froze momentarily.
“Lady Lisette,” greeted Esofi in a neutral tone. “I trust you are well.”
Lisette said nothing. She never seemed to know exactly how to reply to pleasantries.
“Have you anything to report?” asked Esofi.
“Only gossip and speculation,” said Lisette in that dry voice of hers. She crossed her arms. “But if you are truly able to handle the dragons, I think they will have little reason to complain.”
“You know perfectly well that I can,” said Esofi, focusing on her embroidery. “What else have they been saying?”
“There is also the question of heirs,” said Lisette. “The Ieflarians worry that neither of you will be able to hold a Change long enough to produce one.”
“Mm,” said Esofi. “Well, we shall handle that situation when it arises. And what do they say of the Crown Princess Adale?”
“It would seem Her Highness is ill-suited to be her parents’ heir or anyone’s betrothed.” Lisette’s eyes narrowed. “She spends her days hunting, riding, or drinking, disrespects the gods, and takes no interest in state matters.”
Esofi pressed her lips together.
“But,” added Lisette with a touch of reluctance in her voice, “it seems the castle staff is genuinely fond of her. Several servants tried to convince me that she is of good character.”
“Has she said anything of me?” asked Esofi.
“A servant was sent to her with the news yesterday,” explained Lisette. “But he says she may have been too drunk to understand the message.”
Esofi found herself wondering which purse her prayer beads were in. “Very well. Thank you for your service.”
Lisette disappeared into the ladies’ suite, and Esofi went on embroidering, admiring the way her hands did not tremble.
Next to arrive was Captain Henris. He was dressed in his familiar formal battlemage attire, and Esofi called for Mireille and Lexandrie to attend her for the meeting.
“The Ieflarian military is requesting we station our battlemages at every port, city, and town,” he reported. “And they are eager to ship them out as quickly as possible.”
Beside her, Lexandrie clicked her teeth together in agitation, and Esofi knew why. Ieflaria was a large country, and the plan struck her as overly ambitious. “We haven’t enough mages for that. They would be spread too thinly.”
“I fear the same,” said Captain Henris. “The Ieflarians are overly excited at the prospect of easier victories against the dragons. I have explained to them that sending only one mage will do little good in most circumstances, but I feel they do not believe me. These Ieflarians are so unfamiliar with Talcia’s magic, they earnestly believe a single ordinary battlemage can take down a dragon.”
“If we order only a single battlemage to defend an entire holding, we are sentencing them to death the moment a dragon arrives,” said Esofi. “I will not throw away their lives like that. But I will speak to Her Majesty today, and perhaps I can persuade her.”
Captain Henris nodded. “I trust that you can. And will you tell her your plans for the university?”
“Yes,” said Esofi. “And more of those battlemages will be needed here to teach what I cannot. Their Majesties’ generals will not like it, but hopefully, they will come to see that a slower solution will protect us for generations to come.”
“I believe in your tongue, Princess,” said Henris, managing to coax a smile from Esofi. “Are you well otherwise?”
“Of course,” said Esofi. “Our rooms are adequate, and we’ve come upon no great trouble so far. I look forward to meeting the crown princess today.”
“Ah,” said Henris. “Hm. Yes.”
Esofi had a feeling that he’d heard the same stories that Lisette had, but merely smiled pleasantly. “If that is all, Captain?”
Henris bowed and showed himself out. Esofi allowed herself a little sigh and settled back onto the couch.
“Mireille, I would like to check the Ieflarian peerage again,” she said. Mireille was up like an arrow loosed from a bow and returned quickly with a parchment folio. Esofi accepted it and flipped open to the page of the royal family tree.
She felt a soft little pang when her gaze fell upon Albion’s name, but quickly forced her attentions elsewhere. There, beside him, was the name Adalheidis Verheicht.
She also knew that the crown passed through Dietrich’s side of the family, and checked his siblings. He had a younger brother, Prince Radulfr, who was married to a Duchess Theudelinda and therefore not a marriageable candidate. They had two children, who were—Esofi did some quick counting—third and fourth in line for the throne, assuming nobody else had died in the last few months. She supposed that she ought to set her sights on them, if the crown princess turned out to be serious about abandoning her responsibilities.
But Esofi knew little of romance except what she had heard in stories and seen firsthand at Rho Dianae. She had been grateful for her arrangement with Albion, because it meant that she wouldn’t have to play those confusing games that everyone at court was so fond of. She had never understood people who bemoaned marriage contracts that they’d had no say in. To Esofi’s practical mind, marriage contracts represented certainty and security.
What chance did she have without one? Esofi knew she couldn’t compete with the tall and elegant nobles of the Ieflarian court who would all have their attention on the throne now that Albion was gone. The thought filled her with dread. Esofi knew how to run a household, how to plan a defense, how to secure an alliance. But she did not know how to beguile. No, she would need a contract to be drawn up and signed immediately.
A servant arrived to escort them to breakfast. Esofi was still becoming accustomed to the large and heavy breakfasts that the Ieflarians preferred, and felt a little queasy when she sat down at the table and saw the rich meats and strangely prepared eggs that had been spread out across it. Back home in Rhodia, people ate little in the morning beyond a light piece of fruit or a small pastry.
Breakfast passed without incident, and eventually, Their Majesties dismissed everyone. With nothing else to do but await the queen’s summons, Esofi returned to her rooms and decided to see if she could try to rearrange her things more to her taste.
She found her marble statuette of Talcia tucked away in one of the drawers, wrapped in the blue square of velvet that served as Esofi’s altar cloth. Esofi immediately set both out on a table by the window. Her prayer beads and books quickly joined the display.
Talcia, Fifth of the Ten, was the Goddess of Magic. But she seemed to be less popular in Ieflaria than she was in Rhodia. Esofi had seen no shrines or temples to her since they’d come into the country. Perhaps that was why Ieflaria was so lacking in battlemages. Their blessing came from her, after all.
Talcia was also the wife of Iolar, the God of Law and Civilization to whom all regents looked for guidance. Together, they represented the duality of the known and unknown, fine ideals versus unpredictable reality.
If Esofi was allowed to set up her university, she would dedicate it to Talcia. Perhaps that would cause the goddess’s attention to finally turn back to Ieflaria. It would take some time, but once Talcia began granting her magic to the Ieflarians, they would be able to hold their own against the dragons.
Esofi looked out the window at the gardens below. If she was lucky, she might be able to find some night-blooming flowers to leave as a fresh offering at her small altar. Of course, there was also the large offering she planned to make at the Great Temple of Iolar in gratitude for their safe journey, but that was more of a business transaction, akin to the large sum she had paid to the Mer for their protection when she sailed from Rho Dianae to Gennelet. Iolar was the patron of regents and lawmakers everywhere, and so Esofi knew she must make the appropriate offerings to him. But Esofi’s family had always been closer to Talcia.
If she hadn’t been waiting on Queen Saski’s invitation, Esofi might have gone in search of the chapel right then. She had always felt comforted in temples, so near to the gods.
Queen Saski’s summons came soon enough, though, delivered by Countess Amala herself. Esofi regretted that the invitation was for her alone. She would have liked to have her ladies nearby to assess Crown Princess Adale for themselves, though logic told her that Lisette would be in the garden somewhere.
Amala linked their elbows together in a shockingly familiar gesture—apparently the people of Ieflaria saw no shame in touching one another—as she led Esofi into the gardens. It was a lovely, bright day with the sun warming the grass and colorful springtime flowers in bloom. Gardeners were at work quietly, their fingertips occasionally shimmering with the green magic of Eyvindr as they coaxed open blossoms and rejuvenated dying plants.
Out on the grass, under a cloth pavilion, a table had been set for three. Queen Saski was already seated, talking to a servant. Esofi curtsied as she approached, and Saski smiled brightly.
“Sit, my dear,” she said, gesturing to the chair nearest to herself. Esofi passed her parasol to the servant and began the careful process of seating herself without harming her dress.
“I am sorry to say my daughter has yet to show herself today,” confided Queen Saski with a deep sigh. “I hope you do not take offense. She is… she has been having a bit of a difficult time since…”
“I understand,” said Esofi.
“Still, I expect her to make an appearance soon.” Queen Saski looked distinctly unhappy. “Perhaps you can tame her. Iolar knows I can’t.”
A servant filled Esofi’s teacup.
“I hope your journey here wasn’t too unpleasant,” Saski continued. “The dragons… they are a pestilence. Many of our couriers have left the country altogether, and the few that still consent to fly charge exorbitant prices.”
The couriers were operated by the Temple of Nara, and their blessing was one of the most enviable in all the world. Each had been born with a pair of enormous feathered wings emerging from their shoulder blades, large and powerful enough to allow flight. Couriers traveled across entire continents, carrying messages and enjoying unparalleled freedom. But despite their blessing, they were still Men, and stood little chance against a dragon. Esofi could not blame them for leaving.
“The dragons troubled our traveling caravan at first,” Esofi said. “I believe it is because they smelled my dowry. But we drove them back—it was not difficult, with so many battlemages.”
“So I have heard,” said Saski, her face lighting with a smile. “I cannot tell you what it has meant to our people to see your mages fighting against the dragons and winning so easily. We have had such tales from the south these past weeks.”
Esofi laughed. “I am sure most of them are wild exaggerations.”
“Maybe so, but if it gives my subjects hope, I will not ask you to correct them,” Saski said. Then she sighed. “I think this year alone has been worse than the past four combined. If this issue is not resolved soon, our people will begin to panic. The Order of the Sun does have a strong presence here, but their magic is primarily defensive. The battlemages you brought us will make all the difference, I am certain.”
“Regarding the battlemages,” said Esofi. “I wonder if I might make a proposal to you? I have had much time to think during the journey, and I believe I’ve come up with an idea that will protect us for many generations to come.”
But Queen Saski never had the chance to respond, because that was when a long shadow fell across the table and the Crown Princess Adale decided to put in an appearance.
Adale was a tall, lanky woman with an oval face and a thin nose. She wore her long, dark hair in a pair of braids that had been allowed to swing free, rather than being pinned up. Here and there, curls had escaped to cradle her face or occasionally stick straight up in the air. She was dressed in what had once been a lovely silver gown in the Ieflarian style but now was covered in grass stains.
Esofi’s fingers gave an involuntary little twitch. She’d left her prayer beads in her room.
“Adale!” Queen Saski sounded more exhausted than scandalized. “Where have you been? We’ve been waiting—”
“I’m here now, aren’t I?” retorted Adale.
Esofi rose from her seat abruptly and sank into a formal curtsy. “My lady, I am pleased to meet you at last.”
Adale did not respond immediately. She seemed to be at a loss. Then she slouched into a chair and pulled a tray of sandwiches toward herself. Esofi returned to her seat at a more sedate pace, wondering if it would be most advantageous to turn the conversation back to her proposal for the university or attempt to engage with Adale.
“Where have you been this morning, Adale?” asked Queen Saski.
Adale answered with a shrug.
“It must have been important, since you kept your new bride waiting for nearly half an hour.”
“I thought I’d give her a chance to run away,” said Adale.
Saski snatched the sandwich from her daughter’s hand. “Can you be serious for a moment? I realize I let you and your brother run wild, and now I’m paying the price for it. I’d hoped your role in Albion’s death would cause you to wake up—”
Adale slammed her hands down on the table, knocking over all the teacups. Esofi completely failed to bite back a scream at the suddenness of it. Servants were beside her immediately with a hand fan and towels.
“My role?” Adale cried. “Are you blaming me?”
“That is not what I said,” replied Queen Saski.
“But it’s what you meant, isn’t it?”
Nobody said anything for a long moment.
Queen Saski gritted her teeth together. “Adale,” she said in a very strained voice, “you’ve gone and spilled the tea.”
“I don’t care about your tea, I—” Adale glanced over at Esofi, who was still being desperately fanned by a servant, and seemed to come to her senses. Without another word, she began quietly righting the dishes she had knocked over.
“There is to be a hunt tomorrow on the castle hunting grounds,” said Adale at last. “You are welcome to join us, Princess.”
“Tomorrow?” Esofi hesitated as she thought of all that still needed to be done, weighing it against the prospect of making a good impression on Adale. “I apologize, but I cannot. I’ve still not visited the temple, and—”
“Don’t worry,” said Adale. “I know you just got here. Maybe next time.”
“Yes,” said Esofi. “Certainly the next time.”
Queen Saski made a soft noise of exasperation. “All the hunts you children go on, it’s a wonder there’s a single stag left in those woods. We’ll be shipping them in from the countryside soon enough.”
“Perhaps we can bring in a boar, then,” suggested Adale.
“By Iolar.” Queen Saski pressed one hand over her heart.
“Have you ever hunted boar?” Adale asked Esofi.
Esofi shook her head. She had been on many hunts, of course, but had left the baser aspects of it to those who were inclined.
“It is too bad that the dragons have made it so difficult to travel,” said Adale wistfully. “Theodoar and I were hoping to visit Vesolda—it’s said they hunt bear. Can you imagine?”
“I wouldn’t like to,” said Queen Saski.
“Oh, I’m sure it’s not so bad as that,” reassured Adale. “They wouldn’t do it if the danger were too great.”
Esofi breathed a small laugh. “You are as Albion described.”
“What?” Adale looked puzzled.
“Prince Albion often spoke of you in his letters,” Esofi explained. “We corresponded frequently for many years.”
“I had no idea.” Adale seemed stunned. “He wrote of me? What did he say?”
“I do not wish to do his words injustice,” murmured Esofi, “but perhaps we shall peruse them together someday. I have all but a few saved. I regret that I lost the early ones. I was young and careless.”
“I would like that.” Adale’s face went so oddly soft that she almost looked like a different person entirely. “Thank you.”
Esofi nodded and looked at her gloves.
“How are you liking Ieflaria so far?” asked Adale, who suddenly appeared to have a legitimate interest in her. “You came northward from Gennelet, didn’t you? You got to see some of our best farmland.”
“It’s all so large compared to Rhodia,” said Esofi. “And flat too—almost like the sea at rest. It feels strange to look to the distance and see no mountains.”
“Did you frequently go to the mountains?” asked Adale.
“If we tried to avoid them, the entire population would be confined to a rather small space,” explained Esofi. “Even Rho Dianae is built onto a mountainside. I shall miss being so near to the moon and stars.” She already missed the beautiful white marble palace that had been her home, even though she had spent her entire life preparing to leave it behind.
“I can’t imagine that’s very much fun to farm,” observed Adale.
“You must forgive my daughter,” Queen Saski interrupted. “She’s apparently learned nothing from her tutors.”
“It’s quite all right,” Esofi reassured them both. Then for Adale’s benefit, she added, “Rhodia does very little planting—our soil is weak, and only the hardiest of plants will grow in it. We do have our herdsmen and our hunters and our fishermen, but most of our crops are imported from Xytae.”
“Ah, to have an ocean between ourselves and Emperor Ionnes,” murmured Queen Saski. Though the Xytan Empire was no longer the unstoppable force that it had been so many centuries ago, it still maintained a formidable army. They had never made any indication that they planned to march upon Ieflaria, and they were currently occupied with a campaign in Masim, but Esofi knew that could change at a moment’s notice.
“Our primary exports come from our mines and quarries,” Esofi explained to Adale. “Emperor Ionnes does so love our white marble, and we are fond of his granaries. Still, I am glad for the distance between our lands.”
The sandwiches were ruined, so the meeting came to a premature end. And perhaps it was Esofi’s imagination, but Adale seemed not quite so unhappy as she’d been before as they said their farewells.
As Esofi was leaving the gardens, Lisette came to meet her. She had a large, unnervingly artificial smile upon her face.
“There is a man watching you,” she managed to say through her smile. “He has been standing behind the rose bushes the entire time.”
“How lovely that sounds,” Esofi responded warmly.
“He is Theodoar of Leikr, the son of the Marquis of Leikr.” Lisette’s voice was nearly inaudible, but the long journey together had taught Esofi how to listen for it. “The crown princess entered the garden with him, and he waits for her now.”
“It is to be expected,” Esofi said loudly, waving her hand as though they were discussing nothing more important than dresses. “Overall, I am not displeased.”
Lisette said no more, and so Esofi started off in the direction of her room. Lexandrie was nowhere to be found, but Mireille was waiting in the sitting room and leapt to her feet eagerly when Esofi entered.
“This came for you, Princess!” said Mireille, holding out a stack of parchment. Esofi went to accept it, but Lisette intercepted her, snatching the pages from Mireille’s hands and examining each one individually for poisons or powders before passing them on to Esofi.
Esofi scanned the text. It was a marriage contract, nearly identical to the one her parents had signed for her when she was three years old. The only difference seemed to be the name of her groom, but Esofi knew she had to read it carefully to be certain.
“His Majesty’s squire came and delivered it while you were gone,” explained Mireille. “If you are amenable to the terms, there will be an official signing in two days’ time.”
“I see,” said Esofi. “And where is Lexandrie?”
“She went to speak with Mistress Abbing, that housekeeper,” said Mireille. “She dislikes the layout of our room. I think she’s going to make those poor servants move our furniture around!”
Esofi gave a little sigh. “Very well. Mireille, will you please send a servant to tell Captain Henris that I require a chest with five thousand pieces of Rhodian gold to be fitted to my carriage and a formal escort to the Great Temple of Iolar? I believe the offering should be made today. If you should happen upon Lexandrie along the way, tell her that I would appreciate her company.”
Mireille was off in a flash, and Esofi went into her room to check that she had not become too disheveled during her meeting with the crown princess. She applied a new coat of paint to her lips and then sat down to review the contract His Majesty had sent.
Mireille was the first to return, and Lexandrie shortly thereafter. While Mireille was capable of restraining herself for fear of asking impertinent questions, Lexandrie had no such qualms.
“You met the crown princess, didn’t you?” asked Lexandrie, pushing the papers down out of Esofi’s face. “What was she like?”
“Tall,” said Esofi, turning her body away from her cousin so that she couldn’t damage the parchment. “Loud.”
“That’s what I’ve heard. They say she’s an inebriate.” Lexandrie looked pleased with herself for sharing this gossip. “And she has openly declared she does not wish to rule Ieflaria.”
“Then it is fortunate that the gods seldom grant wishes,” said Esofi, not taking her gaze off the contract.
“Esofi, I’m serious!” huffed Lexandrie. “What if she refuses to take the throne after her parents die? Where will that leave you?”
“There is time enough for that,” said Esofi. “Their Majesties are in excellent health. I understand your concerns, Lexandrie, but right now, there is little I can do about Adale’s poor ambitions.”
Eventually, a servant arrived with the news that Esofi’s carriage was ready, and so they all went down to the stables. A combination of royal Ieflarian guards and Rhodian battlemages stood in formation around the carriage, and Captain Henris was talking to another uniformed man. His breastplate was inscribed with the image of a dagger, marking him as a soldier of Reygmadra and the crown.
“Princess,” said Captain Henris, turning toward her. “Are you ready?”
“I am,” said Esofi. She glanced over at the other man. “Sir.”
“This is Captain Lehmann of the royal guard,” said Henris. “He has insisted upon adding his own guards to the procession.”
Esofi didn’t particularly care which soldiers accompanied her to the temple. It was less than two streets away, and she sincerely doubted anyone would be foolish enough to attack a royal carriage in broad daylight on a public street in the most expensive district of Birsgen. But it seemed Captain Henris was interpreting the offer to mean that Lehmann felt the battlemages would not be adequate protection.
Esofi decided not to press the issue. Henris’s pride would mend, and she wanted to get to the temple before it filled for evening prayer. She climbed into the carriage, ladies behind her. Resting on the floor was a small wooden chest that held the offering for Iolar.
The gold, jewels, and assorted luxury items that Esofi had brought from Rhodia had been stored in the Birsgenan vaults immediately after their arrival. These vaults were located deep beneath the castle, and everything Esofi had brought would remain there until it was needed, safe and secure, though some would be withdrawn and given to the Temple of Pemele on the day of Esofi’s wedding.
The carriage ride was barely fifteen minutes long, and Mireille spent the entire time peeking out the curtains to see how many Birsgeners were gawking.
“Someone needs to sew a dress onto that statue,” grumbled Lexandrie. Esofi followed her gaze to the Temple of Dayluue and immediately understood what her cousin meant. Dayluue was the Goddess of Romantic Love, and her iconography reflected that. Dayluue had not been highly regarded back in Rhodia, despite her status as Seventh of the Ten, and sometimes, it seemed like the Rhodian nobility wanted to forget she even existed. But in Ieflaria, the Temple of Dayluue was far more popular. The priestesses even conducted weddings for those who did not feel comfortable in the Temple of Pemele.
When the carriage came to a halt, Esofi waited for a footman to open the door before climbing out onto the front steps of the temple.
The Great Temple of Iolar was the largest religious building in all Ieflaria, but Esofi had only caught a glimpse of it when they’d initially come into the city. Now, with the walkways far less busy, Esofi could appreciate its beauty.
Unlike the majority of the city, which had been built in gray stone and dark wood, the temple was made of gleaming white marble. The sight of it made Esofi momentarily long for the palace that she had grown up in. The outer walls were covered in multiple raised carvings of the sun, the symbol of Iolar, gilded in gold. Two guards had been posted at each golden sun.
Henris came to stand beside Esofi while she waited for the servants to withdraw the offering chest from the carriage. When two of the footmen had it balanced between themselves, she unfurled her parasol and led the procession up the smooth steps into the temple’s main courtyard. The temple guards bowed as she passed.
Inside the courtyard was a well-maintained grassy lawn, with a curving path of marble cutting through it. The inner walls were even more ornate than the outer, depicting scenes of caravans traveling on roads, farmers working at their fields, and judges presiding over their courtrooms.
The large doors at the end of the path that led into the interior of the temple opened, and a graying man wearing the garments of an archpriest stepped out. He walked with great purpose, shoulders back and chin held high as his yellow robe fluttered behind him. Sunlight caught the rings on his fingers, casting orbs of multicolored light against the walls. He was not without his own attendants, either. Behind him was an entourage of priests and temple acolytes.
“I have come to pay tribute to Iolar in gratitude for my safe journey from Rhodia,” announced Esofi, inching aside so that the footmen could come forward with the chest, which the acolytes were happy to take off their hands. “You will find exactly five thousand gold Rhodian pieces within. Captain?”
Captain Henris withdrew a key from the pocket of his long coat and passed it over to the archpriest.
“Iolar’s eyes are upon you, Princess,” said the archpriest. “Your devotion has not gone unnoticed.”
“I would also like to spend a few moments in the temple in prayer,” said Esofi. From behind her, she heard Lexandrie give a quiet groan.
Esofi elected to ignore it.