Beautiful and Free

The streets of Epentar are deserted this early in the morning. Normally some Yason would be up and about, going about their daily business, but it seems that everyone is sleeping off the effects of the wine from yesterday. Orha strides quickly through the empty streets, ignoring the bits of tattered confetti that dance in pathetic whirlwinds near his boots. The sun is barely peeking between the buildings to the east, but Princess Amila—no, she is Queen Amila now—has already been up and working, to judge by the summons that arrived with the first tendrils of dawn's light.

The palace is quiet, but here at least there are signs of life. The guards challenge him, as they rightfully should, but Amila—the Queen, he reminds himself fiercely, no longer the princess with whom he played rough-and-tumble games—seems to have left orders that he be conducted to her immediately.

Her father's office ill suits her; the furniture is too big and heavy for her slight frame, and for all that she is twenty-one and fully an adult, in the massive carven chair she looks like a small child playing at office, delighted to sit in Papa's chair and scribble upon bits of parchment with old quills.

He pauses two strides inside the door and bows deeply. "Your Majesty," he says.

She glances up from the parchments in front of her, and nods. The guards close the door behind him.

He knows she has not been herself since her father died, but in the pure light of early morning, she looks half-dead. Her skin is chalky, and her cosmetics do an imperfect job of concealing the dark circles beneath her eyes. For all that, she sits sword-straight in the chair, and folds her hands on the desk in front of her.

"You are one of my oldest and most trusted friends," she says, "and I have a task that I would entrust to no other."

He is unsure if she requires a response, so he bows to her once again.

"There has been a tradition in Yason-Roven for generations, regarding the disposition of the monarch's remaining heirs after the coronation of a new monarch," the Queen says—and yes, she is every inch the Queen in this moment, nothing left of the girl who ran and shouted and laughed in the palace gardens. Yet in her precision and avoidance of specific words, he sees how little she likes this.

Orha was not yet born when Amila's father took the throne, but he knows the custom to which she refers. Now that she is Queen, according to tradition, her siblings would be put to the sword. But Amila has only one, she has just Serina—

No. She cannot think to put this on him, cannot be so cruel as to make him kill the one person in Efferia more dear to him than Amila herself—

He half starts forward, a protest on his lips, and Amila raises a hand to indicate he should hold. He forces himself to stop, hands clenched into fists. She asks too much of him.

"Find me a girl who looks enough like my sister to pass at a distance," Amila says, "and find me a place where I may keep Serina in peace. Our father saw fit to name me his heir, and I will serve Yason-Roven to the best of my capacity. You, in turn, will serve by keeping Serina far away from any who might reveal her existence. I will not have it said that I have no respect for tradition, nor that I am too weak to eliminate potential threats. Yet neither will I kill her for the crime of mere existence."

He cannot find the words. It is mercy, to be sure, not to strike Serina's head off regardless; yet to take Serina, who so loves the sky and open spaces, who enjoys the company of others, and put her in a cage from which there can never be any escape lest it undermine Amila's throne...this, perhaps, is crueler still.

He does not trust his voice, so he bows to her. She nods. "You have your orders," she says. "I do not wish to know the details of the arrangement. Find me a substitute, arrange the execution. Make it public but distant, that none may know our ruse. And, Orha, if word of this should come to light, ever, I will know by whose lips, and not even our friendship will save you."

"Your Majesty." One last bow and he is free of that terrible chamber, free of the ghosts of their childhood laughing in the orchards, and this strange cold mannequin that uses Amila's voice but not her manner, her mind but not her spirit.

It is a small house, tucked into a remote corner of Epentar; safe enough if none know where to look for Serina, and despite the Queen's injunction, Orha cannot bear to have Serina so far away that he cannot see her. Serina, for her part, is entirely subdued as he conducts her there, and more so as he shows her around. There are pleasant gardens, for he knows how Serina loves flowers, and high stone walls twice her height, to hide her from prying eyes. He has contracted a mute for her serving girl, for he cannot take chances with her.

Amila piles duties on him, for she trusts him and knows him to be capable. It is his sword that slays the slum girl he found to stand in for Serina, and his signature on the papers for her interment. It is he she turns to for help in organizing her armies.

Yet when he has a spare moment, he slips away to that house, to sit with Serina and bring her such small gifts as he may: books, new plants for her garden, a small grey kitten he found in the stables. He feels more and more her captor, every time he visits; she smiles, and chatters with him about her garden and her reading, but she grows paler and thinner without her freedom.

He never touches her except as required by his duties, because he does not think he would be able to stop himself if he did.

"Tell me something beautiful," she says, some six months after Amila's coronation. She is curled up on the rug before the fireplace, and the firelight shimmers over her hair like sunlight on water.

He is seated in a nearby chair, and when she looks up at him he sees a trace of his childhood friend in the curve of her smile. He casts his mind back to find something to tell her; there is little enough of beauty in the provisioning of an army or the murdering of slum girls in place of princesses.

"The geese have flown to the fens for the winter," he says, and she nods. "The first snow was today. I suppose you will have seen it." He is no poet, to craft words into images, but he will do the best he can for her. "Your mother's garden is all white, like a blanket thrown over the plants. It almost hurts the eyes to look upon it. I went there this afternoon, and I thought of when we were younger. Do you remember? It was, oh, five years ago now."

She nods. "Amila wanted to build a snowman," she says. "Or rather, she wanted to make an army of snowmen."

"And then she got bored halfway through," Orha said, "and left them all headless. I thought of it today because the rosebushes looked like headless snowmen, draped in white. I wanted to bring you, let you see it for yourself."

Serina's head is bowed, and he can see the glittering track of tears on her cheek. This isn't kindness, what Amila has done to her; it's like caging a songbird and never letting it sing. It would have been kinder to have killed her.

Yet he is almost pathetically grateful not to have been the hand that struck that blow.

"I'm sorry," he says awkwardly, rising to his feet. "I did not mean to cause you distress." Formal words, to hide behind. He has been doing it with Amila these many months, biting back the urge to shout at her, to demand what the hells she thought she was doing when she locked Serina away to appease her own conscience.

She rises quickly, holding out her hands to him, and despite her proximity to the fire they are icy cold when he takes them in his. "No," she says, "I am glad that you told me. Glad that you remember."

"Serina," he begins, and does not know quite what to say.

She leans forward and kisses his cheek softly, so soft he thinks he might have fancied it. "Thank you," she says, "for bringing me the snow."

He has no words, so he bows to her. When he leaves, trudging through snow nearly to his knees, he glances back and sees her standing in the window, silhouetted by the bright golden glow of the lamps.

He tries not to think about how her life will ever be unfinished, like Amila's snowman army.