Authors: Grace Draven
Amber Quill Press
My dearest friend,
It has been long months since I have felt the warmth of the sun. Many would envy my position—a queen, and one who will soon bear the heir to a throne. But this place ... it is desolate. The bairn leeches the strength from me. My consolation is I no longer must suffer the king's touch. You know my heart. I want to go home but cannot. I implore you, Castil, travel north. You are a sister to me, and now, more than ever, I need your laughter. Do not wait to reply. The last dye ships leave for Helenrisia at autumn's end. I have sent coin to speed your journey. I await you with hope.
The wind spun hard off the sea as the ship neared the jagged coastline, buffeting Castil il Veras as she huddled within the meager warmth of her cloak. In the distance, a small village could be seen, clinging like lichen to the sloping face of the cliffs. Beyond the quays lay the white lands and the fabled fortress of the snow kings. And there Kareena resided, a captive queen.
Sails flapped hard above Castil's head, giant wings beating restlessly with the gusts blowing off the water. It was much more comfortable in her tiny cabin, but with the first sighting of Helenrisia's far shores, she had tossed her cloak around her shoulders and ran up on deck. The weeks of seemingly endless sailing, its monotony broken only by periodic bouts of sea sickness, were at an end.
The letter, tattered at the corners from multiple readings, lay safely within the depths of her satchel. A messenger had given it and a sack of coins to her father, who frowned at the sight of the Helenese royal seal. Castil, fearing the worst, breathed a loud sigh of relief when she saw Kareena's stilted scrawl. That relief had quickly evaporated as she read the note, the desperation and loneliness in the words. There had been little to mull over. Kareena was her best friend, despite their difference in rank, and she needed her.
Devilos Veras had read the letter and turned a troubled gaze to his daughter. “If you go now, you will be trapped there for months, and they say Helenrisia is an inhospitable place in winter."
She shrugged. “I would stay that long, regardless, Father. ‘Tis a long trip, and Kareena will need me for more than a few days."
He had said no more about it, only made arrangements with the captain of the
to transport his daughter safely to the north.
The ship sailed ever closer, and it seemed to Castil as if the lay of the land remained obscured. Shore met sky in an endless expanse of snow-laden gray, the icy water reflecting the color of a dulled sword blade.
It was no wonder Kareena, always a lover of the long Caskadanian summers, called this place desolate.
She ached for her despondent friend, alone in a strange land and bound to a man many considered cursed. The marriage between Kareena il Marcam and Doranis of House Alisdane had been arranged since before Kareena was released from her nanny's lead strings.
Sons and daughters of the greater boyars were married off to royalty of other countries. Kareena was no exception. Marital ties to the Helenese royal family promised profitable returns in the trade of costly purple dye for dried goods and spices from the south.
Castil recalled the wedding and its subsequent celebrations. Kareena, raised to understand her duty as an only daughter in an influential family, had been stoic in her acceptance of her fate. Only as the time neared for the wedding and her first meeting with her future husband had she voiced any concerns to Castil.
"They say he is cursed. Marked by the Waste and its magic.” She shuddered. “What if he is a hideous, misshapen creature? And I will have to bed him."
Castil patted her on the arm, offering whatever comfort she could. “No one has seen him, Kareena. You know how rumor starts. And if he is unhandsome but kind, will it be so bad?” The words felt patronizing to her ears, for it was not she who would soon be sold into marriage. Yet her words seemed to soothe Kareena, who smiled weakly and nodded.
"No, not so bad. And I can always close my eyes and imagine that it is Farnoush Salbata who lays with me."
"Kareena!” Castil admonished her with a laugh, and soon they both forgot of the upcoming nuptials and the arrival of the mysterious king.
None of their conjectures could prepare them for the reality of Doranis of Helenrisia. When the Caskadanian court assembled to greet the Helenese delegation, no one knew what to expect. The Great Hall settled into a waiting hush as the visitors filed in to stand next to Caskadan's overlord. They were men of great height and slim stature, with long black hair and dark eyes. Castil thought them a handsome people with their refined features and graceful movements. While regal in their bearing, none bore the stamp of sovereignty on either their somber clothing or their faces.
Her assumption that Doranis had not yet entered the room was confirmed when his name was announced and all bowed in respectful greeting. Wedged between her father and the slightly sour smelling Dame Nibs, she was unable to move closer for a better look. What she did see caused the breath to die in her lungs, and her eyes widened at the sight of the magus king.
Astonishingly pale, with hair so white it gleamed in the torchlight, he surveyed the gaping crowd in a measured silence, his nearly colorless eyes narrowed with a faint, resigned amusement. He was tall, like his kinsmen, with the long, muscled thighs of an experienced horseman. Latent power radiated from him, an aura of stately grace that overshadowed his paleness, lending his sharp, elegant features a haughty cast.
Castil managed to drag her gaze away long enough to search out Kareena. Much closer to the king than she, there was no mistaking the ashen pallor of horror on her delicate features. No fantasy of the handsome Farnoush could possibly blot out the reality of the nuptial bed that awaited her with the Helenese king.
The silence in the hall was pregnant with shock, broken only by the sudden notes of music whipped up by the musicians who took their cue from a frantic minister. The crowd of boyars breathed a collective sigh, their surprise quickly transforming into a morbid curiosity as they jostled each other to present themselves to the visiting monarch.
Castil knew there was no way she could reach Kareena in the milling crowd. She did manage to catch her eye briefly, offering what encouragement she could with a smile. Kareena nodded, her features set in grim lines of acceptance before she turned away.
The evening passed in an endless line of presentations. As lesser boyars, Castil and her father were nearly the last of the families to be presented. She tried to still the butterflies that fluttered madly in her belly. Like everyone else, she had been unable to take her eyes away from the king. Unlike them, she didn't find him ugly or terrifying. He was, in all ways, a striking individual, the air of leadership resting heavily on his wide shoulders.
There was no mistaking the polite, bored expression in his eyes when she and her father were presented. “Devilos Veras and his daughter, Castil il Veras."
Doranis made to offer the customary greeting but paused when he noticed Castil staring at an embroidered insignia on his tunic. “Blood of fey kings,” she translated and immediately clapped a hand over her mouth, mortified at speaking out of turn.
Devilos's fingers dug into her arm as light blue eyes settled on her with piercing interest. Castil's knees nearly buckled when the king spoke, his deep voice flowing over her skin like a caress. “You read
She made to answer, but was halted by the increasing tightness of her father's grip on her arm. He spoke for her. “Yes, your Majesty. My daughter and I are scribes."
Castil's lips thinned with anger as she heard scornful mutters behind them. Aristocracy engaged in trade was a thing viewed with contempt. Judging by Doranis's intrigued gaze, he did not hold the same opinion. He straightened in his seat, leaning forward to encompass them both in his regard. Castil found herself admiring the flawless alabaster face with its long thin nose and prominent cheekbones.
"Fascinating. I have in my possession a set of scrolls written in
They are accounts of the last days of the Elder cities before the advent of the Waste. I have translated some of the writing. Perhaps I will send copies to you.” His gaze slid to Castil, curious and watchful. “Not only a woman who can read, but one who is well-read. My compliments, Madam il Veras."
Castil blushed, surprised at his remark. She could hear the restless murmurings of the boyars behind them and bowed with her father before passing through the line and into the crowd. That brief meeting irrevocably changed her, for in the days that he and his delegation resided in Caskadan, Doranis sought her out numerous times. It was the cause of raised eyebrows and speculation among the boyars, and warning glares from the Marcam family.
Their concerns were baseless. Castil posed no threat to Kareena or her family. When she spoke with the king, it was of scholarly things; ancient scrolls, and books they both read. Dowerless and low ranking, she should have been far beneath the notice of a monarch, and most treated Doranis's interest in her as an amusing foible—one odd creature's fascination for another.
The union between the Marcams and House Alisdane commenced without incident, though Kareena looked pale and ill as she held Doranis's hand and spoke her vows before overlord and country. Castil watched the exchange with a mixture of pity and envy—pity for her friend who had been sold into marriage to a man she found repulsive, envy because Castil would have gladly traded places with her.
Kareena refused to look beyond the white mark of the Waste, seeing only a man disfigured by the old magic. She didn't know of the remarkable mind and dry wit that lay behind that severe visage. But Castil did, had watched, enthralled as the days passed in celebration, and Doranis revealed aspects of himself that would have surprised his new wife.
On the day the king and new queen were to return to Helenrisia, Castil made her way to the docks, waiting amidst a crowd of onlookers, as the Helenese royal family and its retainers gathered at the pier. Tears clogged her throat. She and Kareena had said their goodbyes the previous night, crying as they hugged a final time. She could not help but be here for a last glimpse at her friend.
Doranis was unmistakable among his escort. Mounted on a big bay stallion, he was robed and hooded against the bright light of the summer sun and sat tall in the saddle, long-limbed and graceful. Despite the shroud of concealing clothing, she immediately recognized him. As if sensing her eyes upon him, he maneuvered the horse in her direction, the slow turn of his head revealing his search for the watcher.
Castil's eyes widened as the bay suddenly trotted toward her, sending bystanders scattering out of the way. She froze in place, squinting as she stared upward into the shadows of the king's hood. The light eyes, ringed in heavy smears of protective black kohl, narrowed in a faint smile. They were alone on the small section of pier, despite the many eyes that watched them with avid curiosity.
She stared hard at him, memorizing each detail of his finely etched features. He was, in her eyes, the most beautiful creature she'd ever beheld. Distracted by her fascination with him, she almost forgot to bow, and he laughed gently as she blushed and bent at the waist.
"There is no need for ceremony here, scribes woman.” That low, silky voice slid over her skin like scented oil, deep and rich with the promise of decadence. Her thighs clenched in reaction, and she crossed her arms over her chest to hide the pinpoints her nipples made against her tunic.
"Fair journey, your Majesty,” she murmured, just loud enough for him to hear.
He seemed to still for a moment before bending down close enough that she became ensnared in the glitter of his eyes. “All men wish to be gods, madam, even fey kings. Were I granted such power, this would not be farewell.” He straightened again, his sharp face drawn with an emotion that made her stomach flip. “You would have made a worthy queen, Castil il Veras."
She stared as he wheeled the bay around and trotted back toward the ship. He dismounted and crossed the gangplank, following Kareena as she descended into the hold. Soon after, the retainers followed suit, leading the horses onto the boat. The sun dipped low on the horizon as the ship took sail, easing out of the harbor toward the open sea, and it was a lonely woman who made the lonely walk home that evening.