Crime Drama Fantasy
The snow came first. Then the flowers – a startling red.
“Their winter gardens look like war grounds”, she declares. The prince of Alparo is walking ahead of them, but she speaks loud enough for him to stiffen and look at his side. At her left, Clarissa flushes slightly.
She’s never seen war, but the Scorpion King had lived long enough with his hideous half face and glass eyes to tell her that war wasn’t a blind bard’s overly glorified song. The man had fought the gods with an army of outcasts and mercenaries and whores and the beautiful Usurper Queen. He’d been a green boy then, the only surviving child of his father’s fifteen children who had been either been slain or had gone missing by the time the Celestial Kingdom fell.
“You don’t speak of wars at a coronation, Kenna” Clarissa chides, pulling her sheepskin cloak tight around herself. The thick hood flaps against her cheeks because of the winds, and she adjusts a few strands of her soft dark hair under it. The gates were sealed when they got here, but the prince had the keys. “Father knows we’ve heard enough of them since Clio broke the dauphin of Vance’s nose, and I must admit, he had a rather beautiful nose.”
Kenna rolls her eyes. “At least I am not the one looking for a bud of Siren’s Song at a coronation,” she whispers, with just the hint of a smile. The prince doesn’t hear her this time, but her sister purses her lips.
She had snuck into Kenna’s chambers the night before, moments after Daemon left. She’d made a face as the princess, who lay breathless after an hour with crownless prince, pulling the sheets up over her bare breasts and pushing her dark, tangled hair back. Kenna had almost told Clarissa to leave, because her sister couldn’t just stand and judge her for letting the bastard of Alparo’s old king fuck her senseless after a single dance with him. After all, Clarissa had redefined scandal herself enough times. But then the princess had asked her if she would help her steal a bud of Siren’s song from the winter gardens of Alparo and she’d changed her mind.
“Siren’s Song is a rather beautiful name, no?”, Kenna teases.
“Quiet now,” Clarissa hisses, glaring.
Siren’s Song is what they call winter’s poppy here in the eastern lands. But she knows it’s a far more poisonous cousin of poppy, and it only grows here in the Kharvan valley, among the tiny red flowers that make the snow look blood splattered. She also knows that Clarissa wants to distract the young prince just long enough for her little sister to fetch the right flower, because Siren’s Song looks almost exactly like the harmless red flowers it grows with, but it has a petal or two less than them. What Clarissa wants it for, she does not know. She did ask why, only for her sister to tell her, “You’ll find out soon enough, little dove.”
So, they trudge along the frost covered rose bushes, their breaths coming out in puffs of white. The turrets of the great white castle behind them disappear into the fog. Three days ago, they arrived here in a stream of exquisite carriages, with their bannermen and the royal guard – the Queen, the Prince, her sisters, her brother and herself. Clio has been busy, she always is. Being next in line and nearly four and twenty, she is expected to find herself a future king consort soon, even though Draga is not short of allies. Her twin Clarissa has of late spent most of her time with Kenna, and their brother Maven sulks because, as Clarissa says, he wouldn’t wear their mother’s crown.
“Rahab,” Clarissa calls out to the prince. She’s always calling him by his name. The boy is nearly seventeen but he’s too scrawny for a prince. His black, snow damp hair falls over one of his ice blue eyes, and his leather jerkin is too big on him. He’s not sickly, he doesn’t even wear a cloak, and he doesn’t shiver but the cold seems to have filled him and burned him from the inside till his skin turned into a sickly, slightly bluish grey. His brother and his little sister are different, both red of hair and green of eye, with freckles dusted over their noses. Kenna heard a few ladies whisper about their bastard cousin being a god. Of course, it is only a metaphor. Her great grandfather ensured none of them got away alive. He is certainly beautiful though – skin like ivory, ash blond hair, and a body carved from stone, but he surprisingly smells like coffee beans and old paper; one eye like stormy skies, and the other like burnt gold. Dimples.
“Walk with me,” Clarissa says brightly, skipping forward to link her arm with the prince’s. Rahab looks bored, but he forces a small smile as Clarissa looks up at him. He looks like one of those people who take pleasure in a slow kill.
It is time, Kenna thinks. The prince and the princess pick up their pace as they walk down amongst the snowy, maze like bushes. She sees Rahab opening his mouth to answer Clarissa every once in a while, as she stands, frozen at a spot, her cloak flapping about her, till she can barely make out their forms in the white haze. The moment they disappear from her sight altogether, Kenna runs.
The flowers grow everywhere the snow hasn’t been trampled on. No leaves. Tiny brown stems. She counts the petals. There are so, so many of them- all clustered together, frozen cold. She weaves her hands through the lot, searching for one, just one that would look a little different, but they seem to blur and confuse her. Any moment now, she knows, the prince would turn back and notice her gone and Clarissa wouldn’t hesitate to come back and find her. She’d told Kenna she would do nothing to raise Rahab’s suspicion.
Breathless, she moves to another bed of flowers, then another, till she’s sure she has looked at every small bed growing near her. They’re all harmless little red flowers. She hears voices then, Clarissa’s laughter. She goes ramrod straight. They’re close.
There’s snow all over her purple cloak. I fell down, she tells herself, I fell down and that is why I’m covered in snow. She tries to brush off as much of it as she can, just in case her the prince sees through her lies, till she sees it.
A few buds Siren’s Song blooming amongst the flowers at her feet. Four tiny red petals on a bright green stem.
“Oh, but Rahab- “
She nearly snatches the flowers up instead of plucking them carefully, her hand filling with snow and a little mud as she does. She isn’t even standing up when she hears a voice and almost stumbles face first into the snow.
Gods damn you, Clarissa. Gods damn you to the deepest hell.
It’s a girl. She’s perhaps a year younger than Kenna, wearing a rough spun brown cloak and no gloves on her frostbitten hands. A servant, most likely. But she’s comely- her waist long, golden-brown is unbound, and her grey eyes are huge, shadowed with thick lashes.
“Your Highness, your brother, the prince, has sent for you. I thought you and the princess might be in the winter gardens- “
She speaks a different dialect of the common tongue than what they speak in Alparo. Kenna doesn’t move.
“Forgive me, your Highness, but I don’t see your sister around and the feast is about to begin,” the girl continues, oblivious to the flowers clutched in Kenna’s hand, or the fact that Kenna stuffs them into her cloak’s pocket right in front of her.
That surprises the princess. The garden has gone silent, but she could hear Clarissa only moments ago-
Kenna tries to find her voice. “My sister will return with Prince Rahab. I, uh, fell down.”
“Of course,” the girl says, without batting an eye. The princess keeps staring back. Then, as if breaking out of a trance, she picks up her skirts and brushes past the maid, and the fact that the girl smells of roses doesn’t escape her notice.
She must have stolen them, the roses, Kenna thinks, short of breath, maids like her don’t have the luxury of bathing in rose water.
The garden is so empty it is almost eerie, so she breaks into a run. When she pushes open the wrought iron gates, they groan like a dying beast, and the gargoyles on the garden walls watch her sprint away till she’s disappeared into the fog. Three days ago, they came here, and she’s loathed every minute of it. It never snows in the old Dragan court where she grew up and the woods behind their castle are always lush green, always alive. Alparo is beautiful too, she supposes, with the snow-capped Kharvan Mountains and the Saffron Shore behind them, where the sailors have built bright red houses and ships from the Isle of the Muses brings the most exquisite things, to the far south of which is the unending Singing Sea’s dark green waters and the pirates that sing of sea monsters. There is nothing like the old Dragan court, though, but that is perhaps because it was the capital of the gods once, and the Celestial kingdom thrived on magic till it fell to Kenna’s great grandfather, the mortal Scorpion King.
She wants to return to the half-ruined castle where she was born and be forgotten amongst its crumbling walls and thousand storey towers for good. But the old king of Alparo has abdicated to marry his beloved mistress at last, and his younger, tactless brother, Kobal son of Kobal, is about to be crowned on the next full moon, which thankfully, is tonight.
“You’d be a fool to think mother wants to ally herself with the lackwit. Every clam vendor on the Saffron Shore knows it’s his adulterous wife who will run Alparo and rule it,” Maven had said to her when they had stopped at a tavern on the way. “The royal bitch will have the king dead as soon as she sees fit and put the Purple Demon on the throne. It’s the son our mother wants. If she can secure an alliance with Alparo, dearest Clio will be fucking their prince and whelping more of those insolent little shits of Alparo into our beautiful home.”
Maven was always talking, and more now that he’d filled his fat belly with the spiced wine bought from Barmak. Outside, the torrential rain washed the great oak trees, while the floorboards finally stopped creaking inside as the others retreated to their beds. Kenna was waiting for the hunchback crone who worked at the tavern to come and snuff out all the candles, because she had overheard Brom, her father’s dresser, say that the crone had sylph eyes. There were no more than a handful of sylph eyed witches left in the entire continent and she’d never seen one before. Maven couldn’t know, of course, because he was a twat and these witches were dangerous. But then, he’d never spoken to her like this before, and the roaring fireplace had turned the room toasty enough to make her not want to leave.
“Or by some miracle, you could get rid of Clio and Clarissa and fuck their princess. I’ve heard she’s beautiful – all curves and a mouth that looks like a rosebud,” Kenna had answered.
Maven had laughed. “I don’t want the Princess of Alparo, however tempting the picture of her mouth on my cock may be. If I could, by some miracle, kill the twins, I’d – ah, there are so many to choose from, but none civilised enough to marry a king.” He paused, thinking. Then he grinned slyly and spoke. “Besides, sister, why do you think I’d let you live after I’ve rid myself of the twins?”
Kenna laughed this time, thankful the hall was empty save for the two of them. “You wouldn’t have the pleasure of killing me, Maven. You’ll be dead as soon as the twins die.”
“Really? Which of the princes do you want? Jude? Or his brother, the prince of whispers? Or do you want both, sister – one taking you from the behind while you suck his brother’s cock?”
“Maybe I’ll take the princess, Maven. How does it matter?”
“Dearest sister, you’ll have my blood on your hands while you fuck one of those pigs, or all three, perhaps. So, I want to know – which one will it be for my little Kenna, the second of her name, Empress of Draga and Vulkreah of Old?”
She had got up, grinning. “I’d never harm you, sweet brother, you’ll draw a blade on yourself. But since you asked, I think I’ll fuck the Crownless Prince, their cousin, and perhaps give him a crown after all.”
Maven will never be king, she knows. Their mother would sooner have the stable boy as her heir than let her crown pass onto her son. She had said it once, too, when Maven had forced a twelve-year-old page to be his mound for targets while he fired arrows. The boy would have ended up being a cripple if he had lived, but the fever from his wounds took him to an early grave. It is going to be Clio, it has to be Clio. Clarissa will run her empire on secrets and lies. Kenna – Kenna can never be the Empress; her sisters and her brother are too shrewd to let that happen.
Her sisters and her brother are monsters, she knows. Clio would have someone flayed without a second through, and she has – the kennel master’s son once laughed at her when she tripped and fell, and she told their mother that he tried to be forward with her, and even went so far as kissing her. Clarissa is worse, perhaps. The girl is like a snake whose venom kills you slowly. She’s done terrible things, forced men and women into her bed because she had the power, threatened, betrayed without a second thought. She knows all of it – everything they have done. But she also knows that her mother and her father wouldn’t live to protect her forever. Kenna shakes her head, grimacing because she is thinking of these things again.
The castle grounds open up in front of her, and she heads straight for the keep. The gust of warmth she welcomes, but the keep always smells strange, and more so now because of the magical herbs, at least the people of Alparo think they still retain magic, and they have filled every vase, it burns in every pot. The smell makes her nauseous. They’d put some in the coal filled braziers if they could.
A sage from the valleys of Quaryr had brought this practice with him and his followers when they were driven out of their homeland and forced to seek refuge in the lesser Kharvan mountains, where they taught the art of growing herbs to the Alparons. This was thousands of years ago, but the Alparons still worship him, they call him Holy Rigo of Kharvan.
“He would have given them his shit, and they would have worshipped it,” a voice hisses in her ear, making gooseflesh rise on her skin.
“Maven,” she breathes out, turning around sharply.
Her brother stands scowling, looking like a stuffed pheasant in his elaborate robes, his dark hair slicked back. He could be slightly less depressing to look at if he smiled more. But the only time Maven smiles is when he wins through deceit, or when he sees something awful happen to others – like the time when he was seven and the hounds torn open a stray cat that had accidently wandered into the royal kennels. He had held a four-year-old, shrieking and wailing Kenna by her hair and had made her watch from the kennel’s gates.
“As a token of my utmost generosity,” he says, “I will kill only one by next light.”
Kenna rolls her eyes, and crossing the long, bare hallway, she turns to the staircase, with Maven shadowing her. It’s a strange keep, she thinks, with no painting, no carpets, just burning sconces and dusty, cobweb filled amphorae leading the way to musty smelling chambers. Giant, wooden chandeliers hang overhead, with hundreds of beeswax candles burning in glass globes on them. Yet the castle is so, so noisy. Even in the dead of the night, you’d hear the chatter of maidservants and guests; the song of the wind, and the howling of wolves. She remembers the crownless prince telling her that he liked hearing her scream every single time he brought her over the edge. She knows she wouldn’t have dared to do that had she been at the Old Dragan court. But here, in this constant noise, she knows no one will pay a moaning girl much attention.
She’s certain half the guests are getting fucked here, anyway, as a courtesy of the soon-to-be queen.
“Kenna, are you listening?”, Maven calls, shoving aside a chamber maid as he tries to catch up with her. He’s started to resemble a fat rat since the past few months. The arse biscuit can’t even run anymore. And he wants to be king. She pities him sometimes.
“I suppose so,” she answers, frowning as her hand closes over the wet doorknob of her chamber. She pulls her hand back to examine it, gasping when she finds it covered in blood.
“Raven’s blood. They believe that it wards off evil spirits of the old kings who would want their place on the throne back,” the prince tells her, nonchalant, clearly pleased at himself for knowing so much.
She turns the owl headed doorknob with disgust. “What a brilliant precaution,” she murmurs, shaking her head. Maven follows her inside, laughing like a wheezing old man. He throws himself over the couch at the foot of her bed, still grinning.
“So, sister,” he begins, “Blade or poison?”
She snaps her head up, suddenly all too aware of the buds of Siren’s Song in her pocket.
“I think it should be poison. It is much easier to kill with poisons,” Maven answers himself.
“Poison is too big of a risk,” Kenna puts in. “Unless, of course, you poison your victim through someone else who does not know you poisoned your victim through them.”
“Now, Kenna, where is the honour in that?”
She chuckles, ringing the bell for a maid to be sent. “Strange to think there is any honour at all in killing because someone disappointed you a little.”
“Are you saying that there is some honour in murdering someone for some other reason, a bigger reason?” Maven asks.
She shrugs. “I think you’d better leave before you hear me saying something I do mean, brother.”
A chamber maid knocks at the door. Kenna calls her in; the maid scurries to the dresser as Maven ogles at her hips. He gets up then, still staring unabashedly, and the girl cowers, moving slightly deeper into the shadowy bedchamber.
“Leave, now,” Kenna tells him. You piece of shit.
“And you,” she tells the maid, “draw a bath.”
The water is scalding hot. Flush spreads over her bronze skin, peaking her dark nipples. She shudders as she settles down, throwing her head back against the damp towels on the rim of the copper tub. But even the excessive warmth is welcome, and when the chamber maid pours in the bath salts and the musky oils Kenna brought from home, she half sighs, half moans.
“I’ll do that myself,” she tells the maid as the young woman picks up a small towel to scrub her skin clean. “You can leave. Also, ask Sparrow to come immediately.” The chamber maid bows, then retreats to pick up Kenna’s clothes.
“Leave the cloak,” she says, just in time.
She would have taken it and discovered the flowers, and it would’ve been over.
The thought is so sickening that all she can think of for several moments later is a war at their door again. She hopes she never has to see war, never has to flee, never has to fight to get her rights back. She doesn’t notice the water has gone cold till she’s pulled her knees up against her chest and wrapped her arms so tight around herself that her fingernails dig into her skin, with her teeth chattering. Then she climbs out of the tub and walks with the water dripping off of her body onto the carpet to pick up the cloak and takes out the wet, shrivelled flowers. They look darker than blood in the lights of her room. Shivering, she lays them onto a clean, stark white towel, separating petal by petal.
There’s something about them that makes her feel strangely powerful, at least against the people she fears most – her brother, her sisters. But then, the flowers belong to Clarissa.
This is enough poison to put half the castle to sleep, Kenna thinks.
“My sweet,” Sparrow says by a way of greeting.
“Hello, Sparrow,” she answers softly, not looking up from the flowers.
He clicks his tongue in disapproval. “You’ll freeze to death before this poison touches your victim’s lips, Kenna.”
She’s been sitting cross legged on the thick rug, with the towel and the flowers in her lap, stark naked. Sparrow stands, patient, waiting for her to turn around, and he smiles when she glances over her shoulder at her only friend, and an almost parent that she’s had for as long as she can remember. She knows he came to the court as a child from Aarf, an oasis town near the crossroad to the city of Miras. He would’ve been a slave, most likely, or the spawn of a whore, because he’d already been cut when one of the Warlords of Miras gifted him to her grandmother. She took a liking to the child, using him to do all her biddings from massaging her sore ankles to slitting the throats of half her husband’s mistresses but didn’t set him free until she was on her deathbed. It was atonement, perhaps. But Sparrow never speaks of her anymore.
Neither does the eunuch seem to age. He’s been the same for as long as Kenna can remember – kohl rimmed grey-green eyes, hair that has gone coarse from years of dying it purple which he now matts down with the most fragrant oils, brightly painted lips, perfectly manicured nails, and just the right amount of darkness. She loves him more than anyone else, her earliest memories are of her of hiding behind his beautiful brocade skirts when one of her older siblings chased after her with something nasty, of listening to him tell her about the warlords and the beautiful, barren desert that they rule; the colourful, jewel box like palaces of Miras, of him teaching her everything from how to sing to the most intricate ways of torturing a man to death.
“It’s Clarissa’s poison. I was only asked to steal it,” she answers, walking to one of the trunks to retrieve her robe. Sparrow crouches down to pick up a petal, rubbing it between his thumb and forefinger. Then he smells it.
“Freshly bloomed Siren’s Song. Your sister wants to do something worse than poison someone, my sweet.”
Kenna raises an eyebrow, pulling out the pins that hold her thick hair in place.
“She will smoke it,” Sparrow explains. “It causes rather magnificent illusions. But its dangerous. Most dangerous. There have been men and women who got stuck in their illusions perpetually, and were driven to madness, because time and thoughts and people change your illusions. After a time, with the madness, you see your worst nightmares coming true. And you can’t ever break out of it, you can’t ever run, my sweet.”
He is done brushing out her hair by the time he stops speaking. She hands him hair combs and pins in silence, her heart thudding in her chest with a strange sort of excitement to see Clarissa go through what he just described. Maven would follow her, she’s sure of it.
Sparrow goes all too still for a moment, then undoes her hair. “The diadem,” he tells her when she asks him why. “We don’t need too much ornamentation. Not when I know you wouldn’t bother keeping your old Sparrow company for the coronation.” He winks.
“You can’t be too sure,” Kathy chuckles.
Sparrow shakes his head, smiling down upon her. “Is the prince to your liking?”
“Daemon is hardly a prince. He’s the bastard of the old king.”
“He’s the well-loved son of a man who thinks with his heart, but that is not it, is it?”, he pauses to examine Kenna’s kohl rimmed eyes, then wipes some smudged kohl with the pad of his ringed, little finger. “His mother, Alayane, comes from a long line of the old rulers of Vulkreah – not directly descended, but her ancestry goes back to the Titan King. Of course, she was born in a godforsaken little shack just outside of Moonlore and is the only survivor of her line. But if someone were to bring back Vulkreah, and let us pray that never happens, your Daemon would be the heir to the Celestial Kingdom’s throne, at least until his mother gives birth to a legitimate child. But until then, he is heir apparent. Never underestimate a man who woos you his bed, and tells you sweet things as he fucks you, because the man always does it for a reason, and that reason is anything but you being a beautiful woman.”
She lets him paint her lips a dark red, like the petals of Siren’s Song. Then she speaks, “you do know everything there is to know, don’t you?”
Sparrow sighs dramatically, a hand over his heart. “This is common knowledge, my sweet. But of course, I am fond of knowing things. You’ll realise you have a lot of time on your hands when you are as old as me, and with no one to fuck, though I doubt if that will ever happen.”
She rolls her eyes as she dresses slowly, pulling on a gown, blue as frost. It was a gift to Clarissa from one of her lovers, but it was too small on her. Besides, Kenna fell in love with it before Clarissa even saw it herself. She sits down on the carved chair before the large mirror, gathering up the froth of tulle that falls down to her ankles from the edge of the tight bodice that is embroidered in small sapphires. He must have been the son of a wealthy lord, Clarissa’s lover.
“Oh, you look exquisite.” Sparrow claps his hands together in delight, his voice a little thick with emotion. He always does this when he dresses her up. She likes it, too. Her own mother never bothered to look twice at what she wears. Ever.
A powder blue cloak, embroidered in swirling silver designs of the thorny vines of her house, and lined with white fur goes over her dress. On her loose, wavy brown hair, rests a diamond diadem. She does look exquisite.
“Kenna,” Sparrow says after a while, “I don’t ever want to see you near these flowers again. Is that understood?”
She looks into the eyes of the man who has almost been a father to her all her life, and they’re grave. She nods.
“Was your sister with you when you stole them?”
“She, uh, was in the garden with me, yes. But I doubt if she saw me, because she and the prince wandered off, and there was too much fog, besides with the sun setting…”
“I see, my sweet,” he gives her a pat on her shoulder, “You should be glad, then. Remember what I told you about poising someone though another without that person knowing until it is too late? It is indeed a good thing she did not see you. Don’t return the flowers. I shall see to their disposal.”
Kenna laughs, though the hairs at the back of her neck rise up. “Who would Clarissa make me poison?”
Sparrow is not amused. He’s looking at the flowers. “Get rid of them,” he says, and tosses the towel with its contents right into the roaring fireplace. “If the princess asks you anything, tell her you were called back and so you could not do as she bid. Decline any, any proposal to go and fetch more of these flowers.”
“She wouldn’t, we leave before first light,” she interrupts.
“Alparons disgust me sometimes, they make murder so easy. There is no joy in killing people without a little struggle, my sweet,” Sparrow goes on. He gives a soft kiss on her cheek when he is done, eyes sad.
She remembers this as she walks down to the brightly lit, cobble stoned courtyard where the ceremony is to take place. Sparrow follows her, but he says nothing. He’s like her shadow, she thinks; he stops in the darkened corridor that opens in the courtyard. The Alparons do not take kindly to eunuchs, especially since Rigo of Kharvan himself ordered the manhood of the heretics to be cut off and had the eunuchs store them in glass jars full of alcohol, to remind them of their great sin. Women had punishments much worse – they were said to sin inherently, and so any opposition to the sage’s sermons was punished by hanging them in the frozen wastes of the Upper Kharvan by their thumbs, and tying their feet to heavy rocks, to inflict as much pain as possible.
So many people, she thinks, not all of them can really be allies.
Minor houses, influential men, famous merchants, daughters of rich dead fathers, royals of the south, royals of the west, nobles, wardens of the isles, important bastards, a handful of warlords, her own family. The Elvish royalty. She’s never seen them, but merely heard of her own family’s mortal enemy. The king is an old man, older than her father, but he’s beautiful in an odd sort of way. So is his Queen. They’re both light haired, almost silver blonde, with lithe bodies despite their old age, and bejewelled pointed ears. Kenna stared at them unabashedly, unblinking. It’s almost like a soft, golden glow radiates off them, making the rest of the world around them slow and come to a halt, and the noises muffle till they fade if you stare at them for too long. They’re majestic. She’s never seen anything like it. Beautiful. Beautiful. Beautiful.
But then they catch her staring. Two things happen at once. A slow, almost lazy smile spreads over the king’s lips. The Queen tilts her head to a side, disgusted.
Kenna blinks, and the mirage breaks. Heat floods her cheeks, and she finds herself shuffling away as quickly as possible to where her own family stands. What was she even thinking?
“Would you look at our little slut of a sister?” Maven says as she comes to stand beside him. Their mother and father stand a few strides away, and with the murmurs rising in the courtyard, they are well out of ear-shot. “Come back from a good fucking?”
He laughs when Clio turns, raising her eyebrows at her, her mouth open wide. Clarissa sniggers too but turns it into a coughing fit.
“Shut up,” she answers, glaring.
“What?”, her brother says, appalled. “You’re all flushed and out of breath. I bet if I lifted your skirts up right now, I’d see the remnants of whatever bastard you were with sliding down your leg. Little slut.”
“I said shut up,” she snaps.
“And just so you know, I fucked your little chamber maid after you ordered me to get out,” Maven goes on, and he leans forward so he’s whispering in her ear, “ordered me – like you think you will be my queen someday. She was lucky, that chamber maid. I only fucked her till she cried. I prefer punishing only those who offend me. So, sister, speak like that to me again, and I’ll fuck you till you’re dead.” He leans back, not taking his eyes off her.
She keeps a straight face as the trumpets begin to blow, and a frail old priest begins to fill the stone bath in front of them with water that he pours from gold pitchers. The bath is huge with broken stone steps leading to it, and it has been filled already, but is customary for the priest to add in a little more water. And the threats, she supposes they are customary too. Her brother has said these things to her all her life.
The new king of Alparo is a squat man. He follows the priest up the steps, looking more pleased than solemn. He is a fool. The queen stands with her three children. Kenna spies his older brother and five younger sisters too, all standing behind his wife with their children, parallel to Kenna’s own family. She wonders if they are grimacing inside, or if they are hopeful fools, appreciative of the lackwit that will soon rule them. The all stand looking up at their new king, all except the bastard.
He’s staring at her. When she catches his eye, he smiles and bows his head slightly. What Maven said to her has sickened her too much to even smile back properly. She would have even winked, perhaps, if her brother had shut his mouth. But all she does is give Daemon a tight, small smile. That makes her think about what Sparrow had said about his parentage. The man is half god. But she, a mortal, has more power than he could ever dream of. Irony is a wicked thing.
Kobal begins to disrobe until he is naked. He’s even uglier that way, she thinks. He resembles a goblin, just a very hairy one. A swath of red hair covers his sagging chest, and it trails down to his navel. His arms and legs and his balls are covered with it, even his back is. To their surprise, he grunts loudly as he steps into the water. She knows it must be freezing cold, and king does not hesitate to show her that she is right. He shivers violently as he takes a dip. Like some child, he inhales with a loud gasp and pinches his nose as he goes below. But no one dare laugh. The priest holds his head under, reading out a verse from a small old book in a language she does not know. He’s an old man, and his voice trembles, he speaks too slowly. In no time, the lackwit starts fighting to come above water for a gasp of air. But he is surprisingly strong, the priest. He goes on speaking, holding the Kobal’s head firmly below.
Kenna is certain he will drown. But then the priest lets go, and the king emerges coughing and gasping, eyes so wide that she’s afraid that they will pop out of their sockets. He’s afraid, he’s so, so afraid in front of all these people who have lusted after the ports at the Saffron Shore for the longest time. He might have even wet himself, but with the water sloshing around him, it’s hard to tell. Fool. A throne is no place for a craven.
They cover him with a beautiful golden robe. It will be his shroud when he dies. Every king is given one in Alparo. The priest smears his neck with ochre, another practice that they borrowed from the Holy Rigo of Kharvan. It’s boring. It’s like these people know nothing of who they were before a wretched foreigner came and taught them his ways.
She turns her attention to the bastard. He’s watching his uncle. His face gives nothing away. No jealously. No hatred. She’s sure it’s all there inside him. She has it. They all have it. His eyes flicker in her direction for a moment. But they don’t really return her gaze. He’s looking at something else at her side. He looks rapt. The others keep on looking at Kobal and the priest.
“I present to you this crown – “
Daemon’s lips part in a noiseless gasp.
“No. No...no...no – “
It happens too fast, all at once. She sees the priest place the crown on the king’s head. Hears her mother scream. But Daemon stays. He looks like he’s frozen.
One moment she’s looking at the bastard, the next moment she’s swivelling to her side so fast her head spins.
Her sister is on the floor in Clarissa’s arms, struggling, her face grey. She vomits blood all over her silk dress, over her twin’s hands. The whites of her eyes are red. Her nose and her ears begin to bleed. The little maggot like insects come, then. In her spit. Out of her ears and nose. The crowd falls into pandemonium.
“C-riisaaah,” Clio breathes out. No. No, it’s a cry of pain.
Someone is shouting something. Clarissa is wailing. Too many people. There are so, so many faces –
Its Sparrow. His long fingernails dig into her arm. He’s dragging her away. It takes her too long to realise what he is doing. But when she does, she screams and tries to claw her way back to her family. But Sparrow is too strong for her.
“Kenna, listen. For the sake of all gods, child, listen – “
“Let go of me,” she screams into his face, spit flying.
The king is forgotten. They swarm around the princess like flies. But Sparrow doesn’t let go.
“Listen to me,” he snaps, losing his patience. But then his face softens. He looks afraid, as afraid as the new king. “Your sister is dead, Kenna.”
“Dead,” she repeats. Her heart is thudding in her throat. But then suddenly, she starts feeling calm. Numb, almost.
“I’ve seen far too many people poisoned to not know that Clio was poisoned with Siren’s Song.”
“Poisoned,” she whispers. Calmly.
“Now, my sweet,” Sparrow whispered back, swallowing. “What will you tell them if they ask you what you were doing in the winter gardens?”
She stares at him for a moment too long. He doesn’t blink. Doesn’t loosen his grip on her arm.
“What winter gardens, Sparrow?”
She jerks up from the nightmare, from the screams and the howls and the soft daylight of her very dark dream. It's dark in her rooms, and someone has left the shutters of the windows open. The wind bites her bare skin, while snowflakes have turned the moonlit window sill damp.
"My sweet," he says silkily.
She turns to her side, only to find Sparrow standing, holding up a piece of vellum in his hands. Shadows lap against his powdered skin. A snow white raven is perched on his shoulder.
"Nostradamus said that you'd know, probably," he speaks, forlorn. "Dreams often lie, especially yours. But Clio is dead."
Her heartbeat is even now. She even smiles a little. "I killed her. I finally did."