From the tower lookout in the royal castle—highest tower in all the kingdom of Nym—Princess Rhis peered down through the misting rain at a messenger on the main road.
This rider slumped in the saddle of the long-legged lowlands race-horse plodding up the steep road, occasionally hidden by tall stands of deep green fir. The messenger had to be from the lowlands. Anyone raised in Nym’s mountains knew that the only animal for the steep roads was a pony. Their sturdy bodies and short legs fared better on steep slopes.
The rider’s cloak was crimson, a bright splash of color even in the gloom of a rainy afternoon. None of Nym’s royal messengers wore crimson cloaks. This one must be an equerry from the Queen of faraway Vesarja. Rhis turned away in disappointment and resumed pacing around the little room.
Once, many years ago, the old tower had been a lookout for Nym’s warriors, no longer necessary since the kingdom had established magical protection. Now the small, stone tower room had become Rhis’s private retreat.
Her parents considered themselves too elderly to climb all those stairs any more; her older brother, Crown Prince Gavan, was too busy, as was her older sister, Princess Sidal. And Gavan’s wife, Princess Elda, was too stout—even if she’d approved of frivolities such as spending time in tower rooms, which she didn’t. Something she mentioned rather often.
Rhis loved the lookout. It was cozy, and had a nice fireplace (with a magical firestick in it that burned evenly all winter long), a comfortable cushioned chair, a desk, a small case containing all her favorite books, and a tiranthe—the twenty-four-stringed instrument that Elda insisted only lowly minstrels played. Here Rhis could practice and not disturb, or disgust, anyone. Here she could sit and read and dream and watch the ever-changing weather and seasons over the tiny mountain kingdom. She could also write wonderful ballads.
At least … she hoped they were wonderful. Would be, some day. Maybe.
She stopped pacing and frowned down at the paper on the desk, close-written with many, many scribblings. She loved music, and stories, and ballads—especially the ones about people in history who had gone through terrible adventures but had succeeded in finding their True Love.
When she’d begun her first ballad, it had seemed easy. All she had to do was picture a forlorn princess, one who was tall with brown hair—someone a lot like herself. Only instead of having a cozy retreat, this princess was locked up in a tower room, she wasn’t quite sure why yet, but for some horrific reason, which would require her to escape secretly down all 538 steps, slip out into the treacherous snows of winter, and away—meeting a prince along the road.
Rhis frowned. She knew what kind of prince the princess had to meet. He had to be brave, and good at overcoming vast numbers of evil minions, but he also had to be kind. He absolutely must like music—especially ballads—but he had to be a good dancer. He had to look like… .
That was the part that she always got stuck at. Rhis dropped onto her chair and reread her verses about the mysterious prince. Every line began with “The best” or “The greatest” or “The finest”—he had the darkest hair, the bluest eyes, he was the best dancer, but still, somehow, he seemed so … um, boring.
With a heavy sigh she dipped her pen and struck out the latest words that just a while ago had seemed so wonderful. What were the bluest eyes, anyway? Were eyes the silver-blue of the morning sky bluer than the dark blue of evening?
Blue eyes were stupid anyway. Everyone in ballads either had eyes of emerald or sapphire or amber. How about something really unusual, like red eyes? Or yellow and purple stripe? But would those be handsome? Rhis frowned and tried to picture a fellow puckering up for a kiss … handsome lips, handsome nose … and right above, a pair of yellow and purple striped eyes? No. Well, how about red? But what kind of hair would look handsome with red eyes? Not red, certainly, though her favorite color was ‘hair of flame’, which sounded more romantic than anything. But crimson eyes and hair of flame? He’d look like a measle.
Not blond, either. She didn’t want a blond prince, for the people of Damatras far to the north were supposed to be mostly light haired and paler than normal people, and everyone knew they lived to make war.
A tinkling sound interrupted her musing. It was the summons bell that her mother had magically rigged so that the servants wouldn’t have to climb 538 tower stairs just to remind Rhis not to be late for dinner.
The summons couldn’t possible be about the messenger. No one ever sent her messages, except for dull letters from Elda’s younger sister, Princess Shera, and those always came with the green-cloaked messengers from the kingdom of Gensam.
Rhis wrinkled her nose. It could only mean that Elda wanted her—and always for some dreary task, or lesson, or duty, and if she dawdled too long she also incurred a lecture given in that sharp, annoyed tone of voice that never failed to send servants whisking about their business, and made Rhis feel two years old.
Rhis’s feet knew all 538 of the worn tower stairs. She skipped down and dashed onto the landing. A glimpse of pale blue caused her to veer, and she narrowly missed running down Sidal, who tottered, struggling with a stack of books in her arms.
Rhis reached up to steady her sister’s pile. “I’m sorry,” she said contritely.
Sidal recovered her balance, and peered over the topmost book. “A slower pace, perhaps?”
Rhis grimaced. Elda was forever lecturing her on always using a sedate step, as a princess ought. “I will,” she promised. “But I was in a hurry because someone rang the bell.” She looked around for one of Elda’s maids.
Sidal smiled. “I did. Papa just received a letter from Vesarja. It seems that Queen Briath Arvanosas has invited you to attend the ceremonies arranged for Prince Lios, who is officially being appointed Crown Prince.”
Rhis clapped her hands together. “Oh! Oh!”
Sidal tipped her head in the other direction. “They are in there discussing it now.”
“Oh, Sidal,” Rhis breathed, dancing in a circle around her sister. “I’ve never gone anywhere, done anything—”
“I think,” Sidal said in a quiet voice, her eyes just slightly crinkled, “you ought to go in and hear what they have to say.”
Rhis whirled around. Sidal was like Mama. She never raised her voice, or said anything unkind, but when either of them dropped a hint, it was always to the purpose.
Rhis knew at once what Sidal was hinting at: Elda was in the audience room.
Despite her promise to be more sedate, Rhis fled down the carpeted hall, her pearl-braided hair thumping her back at every step. She slowed at the corner just before the audience chamber, took in a deep breath, and with proper deportment walked around the corner.
A waiting servant—Ama, mother to the upstairs maid—saw her, bowed, reached to open the door, then paused. She pointed in silence over one of Rhis’s ears, and Rhis clapped her hands to her head. A strand of hair floated loose. How Elda would glower!
“Thank you.” She mouthed the words as she tucked the hair back.
Ama smiled just a little, and opened the door.
The first voice Rhis heard was Elda’s.
“… and she has, despite all my efforts, no better sense of duty than she had when she was five years old.”
Rhis stepped in, her slippered step soundless.
The audience chamber was not the most imposing room in the castle, but it was the most comfortable. It had rosewood furnishings and gilt lamps and the stone walls were covered by colorful tapestries. The king did most of his work there, often joined by Rhis’s mother, when she could.
King Armad was seated in his great carved chair, a fine table loaded with neat stacks of paper at his right hand. At his left side, in an equally great chair, sat the queen, a book on her lap, her pen busy on a writing board. She smiled at Rhis then returned to her work.
“Is there nothing you can attest to in my daughter’s favor?” the queen said in her calm voice. Rhis felt her face go hot. She was reassured to see the humor narrowing her mother’s wide-set gray eyes, though her mouth was serious. “You have had the training of her for ten years.”
Elda flushed, her round cheeks looking as red as Rhis’s felt. “I have tried my very best,” she said. “What she does well is what she wants to do well—singing, dancing, and reading histories. No one dances better, but a great kingdom like Vesarja will require more of a future queen than dancing, or knowledge of which clans fought which back in the dark days, before Nym became civilized!”
“This is true,” the king said.
Elda added, with her chin lifted, “As for what matters most, my own daughter—scarcely ten years old—knows her map better, and the rates of exchange, and can recite almost half the Common Laws. If Rhis knows twelve of them, it would surprise me.”
The king was still stroking his beard. “But your daughter knows that she will one day rule Nym, after my son. Is Rhis’s character bad? Or her disposition?”
Rhis bit her lip. She longed to point out that Elda’s disposition was none too amiable—and she’d married a prince. But she stayed silent, fuming to herself.
Elda gave one of her annoyed sighs, short and sharp. “Her habits are lazy. She would rather loll about in her tower room, piddling with her song books, than apply herself to appropriate studies. Her disposition is not bad, for she does not argue or stamp or shout. She simply disappears when she does not agree with what she ought to be doing.”
The king looked up at Rhis. “Is this summary true, child?”
Rhis gulped. She wanted so badly to shout that Elda was not being fair. Rhis was not lazy—she kept busy all the day long. She simply didn’t see the reason to study those dull laws and tables, since she wasn’t going to rule.
Yet Papa had not asked if Elda’s words were fair. Only if they were true.
“Yes, Papa,” she said in a subdued voice.
Her father stroked his long silver-white beard with one hand, and lifted the other toward Queen Hailen.
The queen said, “We will discuss it further.”
Everyone from high degree to low knew that Elda was a princess, born and raised in Gensam, and Rhis’s mother was just a magician whose family had been farmers. They knew equally well that when King Armad was gone, Rhis’s mother would sail east to the Summer Islands to teach magicians and Gavan and Elda would rule Nym. Still, no one—including Elda—ever argued with Queen Hailen.
“Very well,” Elda said, and walked out, scarcely giving Rhis a glance.
“Come, child.” The queen rose to her feet. “I have worked the morning away. Now I need to stir a bit.” As she passed the king she bent a little and laid her hand briefly on his old, gnarled hand.
The king smiled at them both, then returned to his work. Rhis glanced back doubtfully. She hadn’t really thought about how old her father was. She knew that after a long single life, refusing every match, he’d been nearly fifty when Queen Hailen was sent to replace the old Royal Magician, and he fell in love with her almost at once. Gavan and Sidal had been born each year following the marriage, but another fifteen years had passed before Rhis was born.
She seldom saw her father, except for formal occasions. Now, as she and her mother passed out onto the roofed terrace, she wondered how she could not have noticed how frail he looked.
The door closed behind them. Rhis turned to discover her mother studying her. She was now fully as tall as her mother. Who had aged, too. Rhis was eye to eye with her mother. For the first time she saw the tiny lines at the corners of the queen’s mouth and eyes, and her brown hair, so neat in its coronet, was streaked with gray.
“Is Papa all right?” she asked in a whisper.
“Your father’s health is good, and his mind is quite as strong as it was when he was young.” The queen smiled, but her eyes were serious. “I confess it would hearten him very much to see you well established.”
“Well, I do know what my duty is,” Rhis said, trying without success not to sound resentful. “I’ve always known that Gavan and Elda will one day rule, and after them Shera.” Rhis thought of her thin, small niece, named after Elda’s own sister. Princess Shera was so good and perfect. She studied all the time, and never smiled, or laughed, or made jokes. Despite the fact that Elda never failed to hold Shera up to Rhis as an example of what she ought to be, Rhis sometimes felt sorry for her niece. “Sidal will be Royal Magician. And since I did not want to go away and study magic, my duty is to marry to the benefit of Nym.” On impulse Rhis pleaded, “Oh, but is it so wicked to wish for adventure and romance first?”
“Wicked? No one could say it’s wicked.” The queen laughed softly. “Perhaps the wish for adventure is, oh, a rash one, as adventure is seldom comfortable for anyone undergoing it.”
Rhis smiled. She had embroidered the saying she thought so wise, taken from one of her ballads:
Adventure is tragedy triumphed.
“And romance, for those who wish it, is not unreasonable. It can also lead to disaster, if one makes it an end in itself.”
Rhis held in a sigh. How many lectures had she endured from the sharp-tongued Elda on the follies of young girls and love?
A hesitation, a quick glance, then her mother said, “This invitation is a splendid opportunity. It will be a chance to practice courtly behavior among others your age, and to hear the wisdom of your elders in another kingdom. You could learn much.”
Rhis curtseyed. “Yes, Mama.” She peered out through the misting rain toward the green mountain slopes. In the distance a waterfall thundered. Now that she’d gotten over the surprise, this invitation was beginning to sound more like a duty—and not very romantic at all. The invitation sounded more like a summons.
“But … you wish that this unknown prince had come courting you here, am I right?”
Rhis stared at her mother.
“You remind me very much of my sister, who was even more romantic than you,” the queen said, still smiling. “At least you can be practical when it is necessary. Consider this: if you were to marry Prince Lios, you would be living in Vesarja. How else can you find out if you can adapt to their ways?”
Rhis exclaimed, “Oh! I see. But why are they inviting me? No one knows me—I’ve met no princes. In fact, I’ve hardly met any boys my age.”
Her mother made a quiet gesture of agreement. Nym’s rulers did not keep court. They met frequently with the guild council, and Elda and Gavan spent the summer and autumn months each year traveling about the country, the better to truly see what the various provincial governors were doing. Last year they had taken their daughter—as future queen, Elda explained, Shera ought to get to know her important subjects—but Rhis had been deemed unnecessary.
The Queen said, “Your father knows Queen Briath, for they are close to the same age. He thinks that she has invited every young lady she deems eligible so she can look them over at once.”
Rhis turned to her mother in silent dismay. “So it is a summons!”
The Queen’s eyes crinkled—just like Sidal’s. “What that really means is that there will be parties, picnics, ridings, dances, and all manner of wonderful festivities planned for the young people. You can be sure that if there are princesses and girls of suitable high rank invited, there will also be boys who very much want to meet those princesses. Even if you and Prince Lios do not take to one another, there will be many opportunities to find another boy you might like better—and you’ll have the time to get to know one another. And meanwhile, you will be an ambassador for our own kingdom. Good relations with our neighbors is important.”
Rhis laughed. “Being an ambassador might not be romantic, but the parties and dances sound like fun!”
Queen Hailen patted her cheek. “I think it will be. Flirt all you like, but remember you cannot marry until you are at least twenty. That might be a comfort.”
Comfort, Rhis thought indignantly.
Her mother went on with a smile, “At sixteen we often make vows about the rest of our life, but the truth is, the rest of our life usually looks very different at seventeen, and even more different by eighteen. Enough talk! You have a long journey ahead, so you must prepare. And part of that preparation is to listen to Elda. She knows a great deal about the etiquette of court life. This is something I know nothing of, which is why she undertook to teach you, and not I.”
Rhis bit her lip. She did not want to complain about Elda, but she did not look forward to extra lessons.
Her mother took both her hands in her cool, strong fingers. “Part of being a ruler is to recognize that everyone has something of value to offer. What isn’t as valuable can be … overlooked.”
Overlooked. Did that mean that the queen knew as well as Rhis did that Elda was a sour-pie?
The queen gently squeezed Rhis’s hands. “I see you understand what I mean.”
It was all she said, but suddenly Rhis felt a lot more grown up. “All right, Mama,” she promised. “I’ll learn as much as I can.”
Once the decision had been made that Rhis should go, Elda took over the organization of her journey. With her customary brisk and indefatigable energy, she not only insisted on doubling Rhis’s lessons in proper royal etiquette, she also made certain that Rhis would travel with an entourage fit for a princess of Nym—complete to a new wardrobe.
This last item made all the tedious lessons, and lectures, worthwhile for Rhis. For the first time, she realized what being rich meant.
Though no one would know it to look at them all in their sturdy castle that had for several centuries held off ferocious winter winds, and equally ferocious warriors, Nym’s royal family was wealthy. Queen Hailen only had a single jeweled and embroidered velvet gown not because they couldn’t afford any others, but because she only wore it once or twice a year, and thought it impractical to order more. She was more proud of her mage’s robes anyway—those she’d earned, she’d told Rhis once.
Nym was small, mountainous, wealthy—and not the least romantic any more.
Rhis could recite Nym’s history without much thinking about it. Its gemstones were world famous, and its mines—most of them made by magic centuries ago by the mysterious Snow Folk, whose descendents lived in the fog-shrouded Summer Islands to the east—difficult for anyone but the people of Nym to find and exploit. Many had been the attempts over the years to conquer Nym, and failing that, to raid the caravans that left twice a year to sell gems. For ages they had been protected by the tough mountain fighters who had honed their abilities in Nym’s interminable clan feuds, but after the country was united, the king had chosen to protect his interests through magic rather than bloodshed.
Rhis had learned her history, but until now the only part of it that had interested her were the old romances. Not that there were many, but those few had been fairly spectacular—night-time raids, escapes, abductions (planned by the princess in question herself, so it would go right)—and most of them happy. She didn’t like the ones that had come out tragically.
Finally the last day arrived. Everything was packed, and loaded, and guards picked, and all the servants that Elda thought appropriate for a Princess of Nym were also ready. This included a lady’s maid, something Rhis had never before had. Elda had declared that she would choose a proper lady’s maid, but unexpectedly Queen Hailen had intervened, and saw to the selection herself.
Rhis did not say anything, but she was secretly glad. Elda’s own lady’s maid was a prim, sour-mouthed woman who spied on servants and royalty alike, reporting wrong-doings—real or assumed—to Elda. Instead of getting another such person (who would, no doubt, write awful reports back to Elda on every mistake Rhis made) she was introduced by her mother to a quiet, calm-faced woman named Keris, with a sweet voice and quiet ways.
And so, at last, night fell. A terrific storm raged outside the castle. Rhis lay in her bed listening to the wind howl and rain and hail clatter against the windows. The rain itself didn’t disturb her. Anyone who grew up in Nym knew that mountain weather, though fierce, seldom lasted long. But she was so excited she couldn’t sleep—and even if the night had been balmy and silent, she suspected she’d still be lying awake.
Finally, when the distant bell rang the pattern for midnight, she gave up trying and clapped on her glowglobe. She could at least read for a while, and daydream.
She was just reaching for a book when she heard a soft tapping at her door.
She dashed across the cold stone floor. “Who’s there?”
The door opened, and to her surprise a tall silhouette in pale blue emerged from the dark hallway and walked into the light room—her sister Sidal.
“I came to wish you a safe and happy journey.” Sidal sat on the bed beside Rhis.
As long as she could remember Sidal had been tall and competent and a little remote, busy with her magic studies. At an early age she had showed magical talent, and had trained hard in order to take Mama’s place when it became necessary. Rhis had also shown magical talent—but she’d never had her sister’s interest in the hard work of becoming a mage.
“Sidal,” Rhis asked doubtfully. “Do you think I’m silly to wish for romance?”
The silvery light of the glowglobe glinted in her coronet of soft brown hair. Sidal was not pretty—no one in the family was considered pretty. They all had long faces and strongly marked bones—but right then, while she was looking out at the rain-washed window, Rhis thought privately that Sidal was beautiful. “I think,” the princess-mage said slowly, “that it depends on what you mean by romance.”
“Oh, like the ballads. Overcoming great odds to find your true love, or doing great deeds to save him. ‘Adventure is tragedy triumphed!’ Or he does great deeds to win you. Something dashing and heroic,” Rhis explained. “For love.”
“Not great deeds.” Sidal gave a tiny shake of her head. “Too many great deeds translate out to be great pain for those who lost.”
“Except it’s always villains who lose,” Rhis said quickly. “They deserve to lose. When the heroes lose, then it’s a tragedy, and I hate tragedies.”
“The villains would think their losses tragedy,” Sidal said with a rueful smile. “Of course there are truly evil people in the world. The emperor of Sveran Djur is reputed to be one, and I believe it, for he has done terrible things with his magic. But there are so many others who set out with the best intentions, or what they believe to be the best intentions, and find themselves on the opposing side of others who also have the best intentions. The people on each side, in their own ballads, appear as heroes, and the other side as villains.”
“I know. And Elda’s told me many times how rulers agree that no one can rule a kingdom and be a mage. That Mama had to sign a certain type of treaty, and cannot rule after Papa dies. All just because of that emperor.” Rhis sighed. “That doesn’t sound romantic. It sounds nasty.”
“Wars and fighting and using magic for coercion are always nasty.”
“Well, I don’t want that. Since I have to marry anyway, I just want, oh, to fall in love, or have a wonderful prince fall in love with me. And no terrible fighting,” she added hastily. “Just something exciting! Like in a ballad. Maybe a duel or two, or some chases, but nobody gets hurt.”
Sidal laughed, a soft and sympathetic sound. “Sounds like you want a stage play sort of life! And there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you remember what I’m sure Mama told you as many times as she told me when I first went away to magic school—”
“I know.” Rhis recited:
“Fall in love
with heart, not head,
to trouble you’re led.
Fall in love
with heart and mind,
then true love you’ll find.”
She couldn’t help but feel a little impatient, for she’d already endured last-lectures from Elda all during supper, and even afterward.
Sidal got to her feet. “Then I’m sure you’ll have a wonderful time, and that’s what I want most for you. But …” She twisted a fine opal ring off her finger, and slid it onto one of Rhis’s. “Just in case. No one need ever know. If you do find yourself in trouble, and need me, then touch this stone and say my name three times.”
Rhis glanced down at the ring, and closed her other hand over it. “Thank you, Sidal,” she said. “Do you foresee trouble?”
The tall princess-mage bent down and kissed Rhis on the forehead. “No one ever foresees trouble, unless she is looking for it,” she said. “So if you don’t use the ring-magic, I will know that you are having a wonderful visit and that you don’t need it. It would be terrible if trouble found you, and you had no one to help you. Never mind. Just wear it and think of me when you are dancing. She caressed Rhis’s cheek, then left.
Rhis clapped off her glowglobe and snuggled under her quilts, thinking about the ring, and about Sidal. Did her serious sister have a romantic side after all?
Feeling very confused, Rhis let her thoughts drift into her own dreams, and then into sleep.
She woke up to streaming sunshine and a promising new day. Remembering her trip, she raced out of bed and into her dressing room where Keris, the new maid, had her new traveling gown all laid out and ready for her. The rest of the room looked empty, with all her trunks packed and gone downstairs to the stable.
After a hasty breakfast, she danced into the audience room to kiss her father good-bye, for he was already at work. The rest of the family accompanied her to the courtyard to see her off. She embraced them all, winning a smile from her mother when she gave Elda a spontaneous hug. “Thank you for bearing with me, Elda,” she said happily. “I’ll do my best to make you proud.”
Elda’s cheeks flushed red, but she smiled a little. “Dignity, Rhis. Remember, a worthy prince looks for dignity and dedication to duty above all in his future queen.”
That sounds just like my boring brother, Rhis thought, but all she said was, “I’ll remember!”
Then Rhis climbed into the coach, waved from the window, and they were off.
Rhis watched her home until the road down the mountain took them around a great slope and the mighty stone castle slid from sight. It was not a handsome castle, Rhis thought, watching the last tower disappear from view. In fact, most would probably consider it gloomy, for it had been built to withstand weather and marauders. Elda, who had grown up in the more peaceable Gensam, had once said, “A palace is quite different, child. Built not just for beauty but for comfort.”
Rhis grimaced, for the first time thinking about what those words meant. She’d grown up with all those narrow stairways and stone rooms and cold slate floors, so she was used to them. Would a visitor think them barbaric? Maybe it was better that no prince had shown up to court her!
Anyway, now she’d see a real palace. Impatience gnawed at her as she realized just how long a trip lay ahead of her. Though Nym was small on the map, it would take several days to wind down through the treacherous mountains—if the weather held. If the weather turned truly severe, as it sometimes did, she could be held up a week or more.
She wished that she could travel about by magic, as Sidal and her mother did. But people other than mages seldom traveled by magic, because apparently it was dangerous, and sometimes had nasty effects. And you could only go one at a time, to specially designated destinations—either a place, or, more rarely, a person.
Rhis looked down at her ring. Would it be dangerous for Sidal to transfer directly to Rhis, wherever she might be? Rhis considered her sister, who had professed not to like dangerous circumstances—but who was obviously ready to face them if necessary.
People are surprising, she thought, settling back in the cold coach, and pulling a soft woolen quilt up around her chin. Even the ones you think you know.
A long series of days followed, each much alike, as the coach made its way steadily northward. The journey out of Nym did not take weeks, for the weather stayed relatively mild. They descended steadily through the fir-dotted heights, down into pine forest, then at last reached the Common Road along the coast of Arpalon. They sped along the rolling hills, under a variety of trees Rhis had only seen pictures of. The roads were paved and smooth, and the journey seemed less arduous. Though still quite long.
The inns they stayed at were comfortable, but after the first exciting night of sleeping away from home, they blended into a series of big wooden buildings with nice beds and fine meals, supervised by the quiet, efficient staff that Elda had sent to protect Rhis. These servants also kept her from talking to anybody on the road, nor did they tell anyone who she was. The days when Nym’s royalty were routinely kidnapped for fabulous ransoms if they left the protection of the mountains were not all that long in the past.
Rhis knew these things, but she still found traveling to be very dull. She caught glimpses of people who looked interesting, from far-away places, as she was conducted straight to her room at night—and then to her carriage in the morning, after her lonely breakfast.
She had begun the journey resenting the fact that Elda had arranged for her to meet her younger sister, Princess Shera of Gensam, at the border. By the time Rhis had made her way north without speaking to a single person except the quiet Keris, she was looking forward to Shera, in spite of how boring her letters had been.
Shera was a year older than Rhis. When Rhis turned six, not long after Elda married Gavan, Elda had insisted that it would be seemly for the two princesses to start a correspondence. She had supervised each of Rhis’s letters, saying, “It’s as well you learn early how royalty carry on a correspondence, for you never know when you might need it.”
So Rhis had had to write, in her very best handwriting, formally phrased letters describing her studies—and not much else. Just once she’d said something about her favorite ballads, but Elda had been horrified. “You have to remember that to the rest of the world, Nym is a country full of wild people. No one in those old songs was the least bit civilized.” So Rhis had had to recopy the letter, leaving out her favorite subject.
The letters she received back were neatly written, and very, very uninteresting. Elda had obviously told the truth: civilized princesses really did just brag about their studies, and proper interests, like growing flowers. Rhis was always glad when winter came, preventing messengers from getting through too often, which slowed down the tedious exchange.
When at last they neared the border of Arpalon and Gensam, Rhis was so looking forward to seeing Shera she felt she could talk about roses and starflowers all day, if only she could talk.
They were to meet at the ancient Royal Inn on the border, where many treaties and royal marriages had been negotiated in the turbulent past.
The word ‘inn’ was misleading, Rhis decided when she saw the huge building with its numerous windows and fine columned archways. A great many well-dressed people strolled about, and for the first time she was glad of her entourage when they rolled up the carriageway to the splendid courtyard. Nothing in Nym was this fine! People stared so when she emerged from her carriage, but no one smiled.
She walked inside quickly, glad to follow Mistress Ranla, her father’s courier, who was the leader of the entourage. A brief glimpse of a spacious area full of fine furnishings and handsomely dressed folk strolling about was all she got before she was conducted up a grand, sweeping stairway to another storey, and then to a suite of huge rooms where nothing was made of stone. The walls were smooth wood painted a warm cream color.
She sank down onto the nearest chair, as servants and retainers curtseyed and moved about arranging things. A few moments later a girl her own age approached with a cautious, uncertain step. She was much shorter than Rhis. She had a round figure, a moon-shaped face, and the honey-brown skin common to their end of the continent, with a rosebud of a mouth. Her hair was a rich chestnut brown, glinting with red highlights, and it had natural wave that made long bouncy curls that Rhis envied at once. Her gown, light green trimmed with pearls and dark green ribbons, was at least as fine as the finest of the gowns in Rhis’s trunks, and it made her brown eyes look greenish, contrasting delightfully with her reddish hair.
She gave a correct nod as Rhis rose to her feet. “Princess Rhis?” Her voice was high, with a slight lisp.
“Princess Shera?” Rhis said, giving the same nod.
“My parents bid me welcome you to Gensam,” Shera said in a carefully modulated voice. “I trust our journey together will be pleasant.”
Rhis knew what to say to that. “Thank you. In my turn, I am to convey greetings and thanks from my parents to yours, and from your honored sister, Princess Elda, as well.”
The conversation proceeded like that for a short time, each girl admirably formal and dignified and very, very proper. Rhis was glad of her lessons with Elda. At least she wasn’t making a fool of herself. But by the time a quiet servant had brought in hot chocolate and biscuits, Rhis was feeling the strain of so much dignified, formal conversation. At the thought of two more weeks of it, she found herself wishing that she would be alone after all.
When next Shera spoke, it was to praise the inn’s garden. Rhis half-listened to the slow, lisping voice enumerate the fine early blooms and important plants that she had found in her five days’ stay while waiting for Rhis’s arrival. Since very few flowers grew in cold, high Nym, Rhis didn’t recognize half the names she heard, and she couldn’t help her mind wandering.
She was choosing her fourth biscuit—she wasn’t hungry, but at least it gave her something to do with her hands—when she happened to look up, just as Shera started to yawn.
The princess closed her jaw at once, her eyes watering slightly.
“If you are tired, Princess Shera, it will not discommode me if you wish to retire to rest,” Rhis said politely, hoping to get rid of her for a time.
Shera’s round face went bright pink. “I’m not tired—” she said quickly, then she turned even redder.
Rhis stared. Was it possible that Shera was as bored as she was? How to find out, without making some terrible mistake in etiquette that would disgrace her family—her entire kingdom?
“Not tired?” she repeated in her most polite voice.
“Well, a little, maybe. There was music last night, and perhaps I stayed awake too long to hear it,” Shera said, just as politely.
“Do you, ah, like music?” Rhis asked, even more politely.
Shera’s eyes widened slightly, an expression of surprise and delight, but then her face smoothed into blankness, and she said very formally, “Fine music is a very appropriate diversion.”
Rhis almost choked on her biscuit. Elda had often said that, in just the same voice: Fine music is a very appropriate diversion—meaning, of course, that ballads and the like were most definitely not ‘fine music’ or ‘appropriate.’
“Princess Elda says that often,” Rhis said slowly, watching Shera’s face.
At the mention of Elda’s name, Shera’s little nose wrinkled slightly, then her face smoothed and she languidly picked up her hot chocolate cup, her fingers held precisely in the approved position.
Rhis took a deep breath. “I,” she said bravely, “happen to like ballads. And I know that those are not considered fine music.”
Shera hastily lowered her chocolate cup. She gulped once or twice, her eyes tearing again, and Rhis clapped her hand over her mouth in an effort not to laugh.
“Ballads?” Shera squeaked, her big greeny-brown eyes going wide and round.
Rhis nodded firmly. “Love them. All of them.”
“Do you … know … Prince Aroverd and the Snow Woman?” Shera asked, her voice high, and not at all modulated.
Again Rhis nodded firmly. “All twenty-seven verses. And I know the older version—”
“—The Snowlass and the Toadfield,” Shera breathed.
The girls stared at each other.
“My favorite part is when she turns the invading army into toads,” Shera said.
“I like that part, but my favorite is when she pushes the evil Red Mage into the swamp and stops the prince’s runaway coach before it sinks—”
“Oh, I love that part, too.” Shera gave a fervent sigh. “I used to pretend I was the Snow Lass, going on adventures, and having princes wanting to marry me.”
Rhis dared one more thing. “I can play it on the tiranthe,” she said quickly.
And again Shera’s eyes widened in delight, but this time she forgot to smooth out her face. Instead, she clasped her hands together. “Oh, I do envy you,” she said. “We could never learn to play anything.”
Rhis grinned. “Elda told me that only entertainers play. A princess might strum if a boy professes to like music, but only to look decorative, and that proper princesses summon entertainers when they want real music. But proper princesses don’t ever want ballads. So after I learned the chords from a tutor, and she sent him away, I learned in secret from the cook’s nephew, who comes home every winter from his group of traveling players. Of course I wasn’t allowed to pack my tiranthe for the trip.”
Shera grinned back. “Shall we call for one?”
“Let’s,” Rhis said, adding, “I’ll buy it for the trip, and teach you what I know!”
Within a very short time the girls had established a good understanding.
“My letters,” Rhis said apologetically. “Elda had to read them before she would let me put them in the courier bag.”
Shera grimaced. “And my governess had to read mine. But when Elda wrote to me, it was always to tell me how much you were learning, and how grateful you were for her lessons, and how I ought to work hard to be just like you.”
“That’s what she said to me about you,” Rhis exclaimed.
“Mama is always twitting me about my behavior.” Shera curled her legs beneath her in a fashion that would have caused gasps of dismay from Elda. “I guess I take after my Uncle Kordey, who Mama always calls that frivolous, dream-touched, undutiful brother of your father’s when no one else is around. Try as I might, I just couldn’t measure up to Mama and Elda.”
“In your letters, all you talked about was your garden,” Rhis said cautiously.
“It was the only place I could be alone,” Shera explained. “Planning elaborate gardens is now fashionable, so I could write about it. But actually I left all the planning to the head gardener, and I really spent as much time as I could there to dream and sing,” Shera admitted with a quick, merry grin.
“I have a tower,” Rhis confessed, liking her sister-by-marriage more with every exchange. “That’s where I keep my books, and my tiranthe. Elda’s too stout to go up there, and her awful maid Sazu refused to climb all 538 steps.”
“Sazu.” Shera wrinkled her nose. “How I remember her! She used to spy on me, and report every mistake to Elda and Mama. It’s her sister who I have as governess, and let me tell you, if nothing pleasant—besides meeting you at last—happens on this trip, at least I will have this time away from her.”
“Poor Elda.” Rhis’s conscience gave her a pang of regret. “Tried so hard to turn us into proper princesses. Well, at least we’ll know how to behave when we get to Hai Taresal and meet Queen Briath, because I’ll wager anything she doesn’t play a tiranthe or daydream in her garden.”
“No!” Shera clapped her hands. “But we won’t be going to the capital. Didn’t you get word? No, I guess you couldn’t, for the letter arrived just before I left home, and you would have already been traveling. We’re to go to Eskanda, which is Crown Prince Lios’s own place. The celebration will be there.”
“Is it? But we’ll still be meeting the queen, won’t we?”
Shera shook her head. “Papa says she never leaves Hai Taresal.”
Rhis tried to picture the map. Hai Taresal, the capital of Vesarja, lay right in the center of the kingdom where two great rivers met, a city whose beauty was legendary. She remembered vaguely that Eskanda lay in the north-western quarter of Vesarja. “I wonder why they changed it? We’ll have a lot farther to travel.”
Shera shrugged. “And we can enjoy every moment of it. As for why, who knows? But this I’m sure of: if the queen stays behind, all the older, stuffy courtiers will probably stay too, unless they have daughters to try to marry off, which means that things ought to be much more fun in Eskanda.”
Rhis gave a sigh of pleasure. “So it will be all people our age? How wonderful!”
Shera wrinkled her nose again. “Well, don’t count on that, for I know that Iardith will be there, and probably we’ll find others like her.”
“Iardith?” Rhis remembered the name from her lessons. “Princess Iardith of Arpalon?”
“That’s the one.” Shera fluttered her fingers on either side of her head. “You’re lucky that your father and the king of Arpalon are mad at each other over some trade agreement, because you haven’t had to meet Iardith.”
“What’s wrong with her? Is she evil?”
“Oh, nothing so interesting,” Shera said with a laugh. “She really is a perfect princess—and if you don’t happen to notice all her perfections, she will tell you about them. But only in private. In public, she’s just as sweet and dignified and proper as Elda and the others could wish. We don’t have a hope of attracting Prince Lios’s attention while she’s there, which doesn’t matter to me—much—because I’ve been twoing with Rastian, the son of the Duke of the Northern March, for eight months and seventeen days—ever since I was formally introduced at Mama’s court.” She waved her hand vaguely northward.
“Is Iardith very beautiful, then?”
“Very.” Shera rolled her eyes. “Hair blacker than midnight with no moons, and glossy, and never messy, though it is quite long, and light brown eyes—the boys who like poetry call them topaz, how disgusting. She has long, dark lashes, and perfect features, and a perfect figure, and she dances perfectly, and uses her fan perfectly, she has perfect manners—when others are around. And she knows more than you do—as she will tell you, ever so nicely—about every fashionable subject, whether flowers or artists.” Shera sighed. “When she came to visit us for my mother’s birthday, every one of the fellows at court acted like puppies around her. Disgusting!” She grimaced. “Even Rastian got a little silly after she started looking at him over her fan and blinking those long and perfect eyelashes. I thought she looked like a cow, but the effect on Rastian was like he’d walked into a wall.”
“Did you get mad at him?”
“I certainly did. He pointed out that I haven’t yet met a prince who is quite that comely, and if I did, and I got silly, too, he’d forgive me, so I forgave him. But still, it was lowering because she did it on purpose. When he followed her right out of the room and into the garden, she looked back at me and gave me such a nasty smirk.”
“I suppose she’s already met and fascinated Prince Lios, then?” Rhis asked.
“She couldn’t have.” Shera poured out more chocolate for them both. “Didn’t you know? He’s only just returned from overseas, after years and years. Now that he’s the heir, he had to come home—and stay home.”
“I don’t hear anything,” Rhis admitted. “That is, about people. I can tell you what father thinks of every ruler’s trade policies, and I can also tell you a lot about what Mother thinks of the various royal mages in each kingdom, but they don’t talk about people as people, and Elda, of course, thinks mere gossip quite improper. A princess, she says—”
“—Needs only to behave with dignity and grace, and the worthy suitor will recognize her merit.” Shera pinched her nose. “Didn’t I hear that one a million times! But in a court there’s gossip, especially from those who travel, and so I hear things. Not much about Lios, but then,” she added triumphantly, “neither has Iardith, since he’s been so long gone.”
Nevertheless, Rhis felt the last of her dreams of attracting the unknown Prince Lios fade away. Who would possibly prefer a tall, angle-faced beanpole with hair the color of a wooden plank to such a paragon as Iardith? She shrugged, resolving not to let it bother her. “Well, as my sister said, quite rightly, at least there will be dancing, and picnics, and lots of fun.”
Shera nodded vigorously. “And lots and lots of music!”
While the girls chattered far into the night, ending with playing and singing of their favorite songs, their entourages made all the preparations for the long journey to the northwest.
They set out the next day. Rhis asked Keris to put the tiranthe into the carriage, and not pack it. Keris complied without betraying any shock or horror. Once again Rhis gave silent thanks to her mother for putting her into the care of this calm, kind-hearted woman.
The days stretched into a week, and then a second week, as the girls crossed the length of Vesarja, but they were happy in each another’s company. Rhis had never met an eligible young man in Nym’s isolated fastness, so she was fascinated by Shera’s descriptions of what her Rastian said and did—and of course Shera loved to talk about him.
When they weren’t talking they were singing, or playing the tiranthe. Shera learned rapidly. Rhis found out that Shera wasn’t really interested in history—or great deeds—only in great love matches, the more fraught with perils and sufferings, the better. Those made the best songs, she pointed out. Sometimes, when their fingers tired of playing and they tired of talking, Shera hummed absently under her breath as she stared out her window. She didn’t have a great singing voice—neither did Rhis—but Rhis discovered she liked listening to these little pieces of melody.
Twice heavy spring rainstorms caused them to halt for a day or two along the road. The last inn had hired musicians and promised nightly dances, and there were plenty of travelers also caught by the rain, so Rhis got her first chance to practice with real partners. The men were mostly older, and none were princes. Rhis was self-conscious, and spent most of her dances looking over at Shera and giggling. Shera did the same. At the end of her last dance, she dared to look up at her partner—a balding fellow with a pleasant face and a silvery beard. He had begun by complimenting her on her grace, but he’d gone quiet soon after. When she glanced up he suppressed a yawn as he stared over her head at the other dancers.
Annoyance flushed through her, but she just curtseyed politely when the dance came to an end, and the man bowed equally politely and then promptly moved away.
She thought about that after she and Shera parted to sleep. Dancing well really wasn’t enough, she realized, remembering what her tutor had said. Part of the art of dancing was to converse well with your partner. And—she had to admit—she hadn’t even tried to talk with him, but had spent her time peering at Shera and her partner, and laughing when their eyes met.
What will I talk about when I dance with Prince Lios? She burrowed into the pillow, sleepily wondering what he’d be like, and what she’d say, and what he’d say, until she slid into dreams.
Slowly the great forests of the east changed to rolling farmland. The air smelled much different than mountain air—like grass and herbs—and Rhis liked it very much. There were lots of gardens along their route, and Shera, who had learned much from the gardener in Gensam, gave Rhis names and properties of different plants. Rhis found herself gradually taking an interest as they compared size and hues of various blossoms. Reading about plants you’ve never seen is boring, but seeing gardens in all their brightness and variety was like discovering surprise after surprise. Beautiful surprises.
Finally they turned north, heading toward a more mountainous region. It did not make Rhis homesick—she was enjoying herself too much for that—but she loved the broad trees with their complicated leaves, so different than the ever-present pines of home.
The two days before they reached Eskanda caused the girls much excitement. By then they had gone through each other’s wardrobe to determine which gown ought to be worn for their first appearance in company. In Rhis’s mind was that mental image of the perfect princess Iardith. She did not really expect to make a stir (much as it was fun to imagine universal gasps of admiration when she first walked into the grand parlor), but she did want to do credit to Nym, so she tirelessly discussed the pros and cons of each outfit with Shera, who had the better knowledge of what was the very latest fad, and what wasn’t.
At last their carriage rolled through the gates of Eskanda Palace, a vast structure built of a warm gold-veined marble that glowed in the westering sunlight. The sun reflected off hundreds of arched windows, which made the palace look like it was decorated with firestones. A magnificent garden of grand proportions made Shera draw in her breath in admiration. This kind of garden, she pointed out, was only achieved after at least a hundred years of being constantly tended.
The garden was pretty, but Rhis saved her attention for the people. Not that many were in view, except for liveried servants moving back and forth. The courtyard was quite empty when their carriage clattered to a stop. The girls stepped out onto a mosaic pattern made of a variety of bricks of different shades. As they shook out their gowns they were approached by an impressive man who wore the blue and white of Vesarja’s royal family. Otherwise, Rhis thought to herself, she would have thought him some royal relative.
He stopped to briefly address the girls’ outrider, then came forward with stately step and bowed low. In a sonorous voice he said, “Prince Lios bids me welcome you to his home, Your Highnesses. If you will consent to follow me, I will show you to the quarters prepared for you.”
“Thank you,” Shera said in a small voice.
Gensam might be a lot more sophisticated than Nym, Rhis thought, but Vesarja and its royalty were even moreso. She kept resolutely silent as she followed behind the dignified steward.
Once inside, she stared in silent amazement. She’d thought the Royal Inn at Gensam’s border fine, but it was nothing compared to this palace.
No stone was in evidence, except in carved columns supporting stairways, each of which was wide and curving. Those were all marble. The ceilings far overhead were splendidly painted with graceful decorative figures of intertwined plants and birds.
They progressed down several very long halls, up three flights of stairs, and at last the steward threw wide two carved doors and they walked into a large circular parlor with four great windows that looked out over the garden. The ceiling here was made of inlaid wood, in complicated geometric patterns. On the walls hung painted still lifes, and the furnishings were all carved and polished darkwood, with pale blue satin coverings.
“When you are ready to join the company, Your Highnesses,” the steward said with another low bow, “here is the bell pull. A runner will conduct you.”
He soon withdrew, and Shera said, “At least we don’t have to disgrace ourselves stumbling about getting lost.” She dashed to the window. “Oh, it’s fabulous!” She whirled and clasped her hands. “I don’t think I ever want to leave!”
“But we haven’t met the people yet,” Rhis said, feeling a tight sensation in her middle.
“Let’s do it quickly,” Shera said. “Before we lose our courage.”
They found that the adjoining rooms were bedrooms, each with its own little bath chamber and dressing room. Keris was already in the one that had been selected for Rhis, laying out the gown she’d chosen for her first appearance.
Rhis’s heart thumped as she got ready. She forced herself to sit patiently as Keris brushed out her long, straight hair and wove into it white ribbons embroidered with silver.
At last she was ready. Her gown was a very deep midnight blue, edged at neck and sleeves with silver-embroidered white lace. Shera appeared, wearing yellow, white, and gold, all trimmed with contrasting ribbons. Her rich curls hung down charmingly, only decorated with two tiny bows, one holding a lock just above one eye, the other at the back of her head. The girls admired each other, and then Shera reached for the bell pull.
The liveried runner, a very young girl, knocked a short time later. With a solemn face she bowed and silently indicated that they follow her.
Another long walk through increasingly splendid surroundings brought them at last to another set of high, carved doors. This time another liveried steward threw open the doors, and after a quick whisper from the runner (Shera didn’t seem to notice, she was so busy peeking through the doors, but Rhis did) he announced the girls: “Their Highnesses Princess Rhis Lanvred of Nym, and Princess Shera Tevoriac of Gensam!”
Rhis stepped inside first. Her eyes were dazzled by what seemed to be thousands of crystal chandeliers. She realized that one wall in the chamber was mirrored, throwing back light and glitter, then she dared a glance at the assembled people.
Young faces stared back at her, some with smiles, some blank, some curious. Jewels gleamed in hair and on clothes, and here and there a fan waved slowly. She didn’t have time to look any longer, for first she had to proceed down the length of the room toward an elegant chair higher than the others.
From this distance all she could see of Prince Lios was dark hair and a tunic of silver brocade.
“Oh,” Shera breathed softly next to Rhis.
The girls walked toward the dais. Rhis looked at her toes, feeling intensely shy. But when they reached the end of the room, she forced her chin up, spreading her skirts and making the curtsey proper to a royal heir who was also her host.
Then she looked into dark-lashed eyes the color of chocolate, framed by glossy dark hair. Prince Lios smiled, a dashing smile in a face so devastatingly attractive that by the time Rhis had straightened up from her curtsey, she had fallen happily and quite painlessly in love.
by Sherwood Smith
$2.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-027-9