“Marriage for reasons of state is the usual fate of monarchs. Matrimonial union is symbolic of political union; as your marriage flourishes, so too will your countries’ alliance. And do not forget that true love, or at least mutual esteem and affection, may follow if you enter such a marriage with the determination to make it succeed.”
-The Flower of Royalty Blossom’d; or A Manual for the Instruction of Future Monarchs, with Especial Emphasis on the Moral and Spiritual Development of their Intellects as well as the Nurture of their Practical and Political Instincts by Count V. Ebroian, Regent of Mauburni
“You’re going to wear that book out, you know. The ink will rub off from being read so much.”
Saraid jumped and clapped The Book closed. “Pox it, Nin, don’t do that to me. And I wasn’t really reading. Just…thinking.” She casually slipped it behind the cushions on the window seat where she was curled. It was true, really—she had been thinking more than reading. Thinking about the fact that in just a matter of days, it might be years before she’d see this room again. Or anything in Thekla, ever. She pushed that thought hastily aside.
“Hmm.” Nin leaned past her and fished her book out of the cushions. “Ah, The Flower of Royalty. Just as I thought. Do you ever read anything else? I’ll grant you that it’s fairly good, but we studied a lot of other good books too.”
“Careful!” Saraid snatched it back. “That’s Mama’s copy.”
“I wasn’t going to hurt it, silly.” Nin sat down next to her. “You’ve been coming in here a lot, haven’t you?” she asked in a gentler tone.
Saraid glanced around the large bedchamber with its faded green silk hangings and cushions and delicately carved furniture. Father had left the room as it always had been, though he hadn’t gone to the silly lengths a king of Nolor once had, having clothes laid out and a bath drawn for his late wife every evening. It was comforting to retreat here amidst the quiet and memories.
“When I was little, Mama would call me in here sometimes when you were busy with Father,” she said slowly. That was how they’d always been: Nin was Father’s favorite, and she’d been Mama’s. “We used to talk about how one day I would go away to marry in a foreign land because that’s what kings’ younger daughters did. Mama said they became living bridges to link countries together. We would look at maps and talk about where I might go some day.”
Nin patted her arm. “I understand.”
Saraid turned away so that Nin wouldn’t see her face. No. She didn’t understand. She couldn’t. Nin would stay in Thekla and become queen when Father someday went to rest with Mama in the Fields of the Dead. She would never have to leave Thekla, never have to learn to call another place home.
“Don’t you have something you’re supposed to be doing? Ambassadors to receive or some such thing?” she asked. The Book said that “Deflecting unwanted conversation is an art well to be cultivated in any situation, but especially in the confines of a royal court.” She thought it might be on page 77, somewhere near the bottom.
Unfortunately, tactics like that didn’t often work on Nin. After all, she’d read The Book too. She put an arm around Saraid’s shoulders. “No. Don’t turn away and go all stiff on me. You’ve been an utter pincushion lately—pointy and prickly all over. In a little while we’ll have to dress for the dinner with the council, and then there’s the ball, and then later you’ll be packing all your last-minute necessities—” She tugged on The Book. “We won’t have any time to just talk. C’mon, Sardy. I’m your big sister, remember?”
The childhood nickname wormed its way through Saraid’s carefully constructed defenses. She looked down at her hands, where faceted rose-pink tourmalines sparkled on the bracelets Varian Mutrand, Lord Protector of Mauburni, had sent her. Be a queen! they seemed to signal up to her blurring eyes. In a few weeks’ time, she’d no longer be a Theklan princess but the wife of the ruler of Mauburni. Revealing any of her doubt and anxiety was not queen-worthy behavior.
But this was Nin.
“I…I’m afraid,” she mumbled.
Nin reached out and touched one of her bracelets. “What are you afraid of? The Lord Protector? That he’ll be horrible or something?”
Saraid thought of the portrait miniature the Mauburnian ambassador had given her. As far as she could tell, the Lord Protector of Mauburni was as handsome as any prospective bride could wish. She wore it on a chain under her tunic, next to her heart, but Nin didn’t need to know that. “No, not really. But—” She took a deep breath. “Mama may have talked about living bridges and all that, which was fine when I was little. But she didn’t talk about what it was like to be married.”
Nin shifted uneasily. “You, um, do know what happens on your wedding night, yes?”
As a matter of fact, she did know. A couple of the older ladies of the court had taken her aside to talk about it. That part of being married didn’t scare her, though it sounded somewhat improbable. Still, they’d said it could be very pleasant if done correctly. Both had been married for a long time and ought to know.
“That’s not what I’m talking about.” She looked down at her bracelets again, then back at Nin. It wasn’t queen-worthy to worry about anything so trivial as her feelings, either. Thekla needed her to make this alliance with Mauburni. But still… “What if he doesn’t like me? What if we don’t have anything to talk about? I know that’s not what’s important…”
“You’ve been writing to each other for months now, haven’t you?” Nin asked.
“Y—es. He seems nice enough. At least, I like the letters that I’ve actually gotten from him. Keranieth knows how many might have disappeared on their way across the Adaiha.”
Ninieth cleared her throat. Saraid followed her glance out the window that overlooked the gardens drowsing in the late afternoon sun. Bees hummed busily above the last of the summer flowers, soon to be felled by the first frost. That was another thing she would miss: the gardens of Thekla, where everyone had a green thumb. But maybe the gardens in Mauburni would be as lovely—
Nin cleared her throat a second time. “Ah, yes. The Adaiha.”
Saraid turned from the window. Nin always saved that exaggeratedly casual tone for cajoling her into doing something she wouldn’t like. “What about the Adaiha? Is there something wrong? I mean, something more wrong than usual?”
That was the only drawback to marrying a Mauburnian: in order to get there she would have to cross the wide, desolate desert of the Adaiha. When the last king of Mauburni had been deposed twenty years ago the Adaiha had declared itself free of Mauburnian rule. Now it was held by feuding warlords who could only agree on one thing: that anyone traveling through their land was fair game. Months had been spent negotiating the preparations for her crossing the Adaiha safely.
“No-o-o…” Nin hesitated. “Not wrong, exactly.”
“Which means that something is not quite right, either. Stop being mysterious.”
“I’ll tell you the good part first, shall I? I know you’ll like it.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“Don’t interrupt. What would you say if I told you that you won’t have to travel to Mauburni in the horse-litter after all?”
That was good, if surprising. Since a coach or wagon of any sort would be useless in the sand of the Adaiha, Father had taken it into his head that she should journey as befitted a royal princess of Thekla in an elegantly upholstered and curtained horse-borne litter all the way to Madariv, capital of Mauburni. Saraid had ridden in it for a circuit around the courtyard in front of the stables and had nearly thrown up all over the lovely silk interior. She’d asked, then demanded, then finally begged to ride horseback instead, but Father had been adamant.
“Very well. So what’s the ‘not exactly wrong’ part?” she asked warily.
Nin didn’t answer. Instead she regarded the toes of her kidskin slippers with a sudden deep interest.
Saraid sat up and pulled her round to face her. “Nin, what don’t you want to tell me?”
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