Marilia, bastard daughter of a prostitute and a deceased war hero, fled her mother’s brothel in the kingdom of Tyrace, along with her twin brother, Annuweth, in order to escape a life of slavery. She made her way to Karthtag-Kal Sandaros, Prefect of the Order of Jade, the elite knights who serve the Emperor of Navessea. Due to his friendship with Marilia’s father, Karthtag-Kal adopted the twin children as his own and brought them to his home, where he raised them and trained them; under his care, Marilia studied his books of history and warfare and impressed her father with her skill at Sharavayn, a strategy game that young Navessea noblemen play. Karthtag-Kal’s growing affection for Marilia created a rift between her and Annuweth, as her brother became jealous of her abilities.
After she turned sixteen, Marilia was married to Kanediel Paetos, a lord of an island province of Navessea named Svartennos. She lived with him and his sister, Camilline (for whom she began to develop strong feelings) until the island was invaded by the army of Tyrace. Svartennos’ leader, Ben Espeleos, was taken prisoner in a surprise attack, leaving the island’s army under Kanediel’s command. After Kanediel was killed in a duel, Marilia convinced Svartennos’ Elders that she was the answer to an ancient prophecy that stated that the spirit of a long-deceased warrior queen would return in the form of another young woman when the island stood in danger. The Elders put Marilia in command of the defense of Svartennos, and she achieved an incredible victory against overwhelming odds, crushing the Tyracian army.
Marilia and the army of Svartennos joined with the rest of the Navessean army (including her brother, Annuweth) and sailed south to attack the capitol city of Tyrace, hoping to end the war. Though the attack was a success, many soldiers in Marilia’s army—encouraged by the Graver, commander of the legion of a nearby imperial province and the man who killed Marilia’s father, long ago—pillaged the city and slaughtered many civilians before Marilia could restrain them, including most of Marilia’s childhood friends from her mother’s brothel. In order to save one of those friends from murder at the Graver’s hands, Marilia and Annuweth engaged the Graver in a duel. Marilia was victorious, leaving the Graver badly wounded, but Annuweth was also sorely wounded in the exchange.
With its capitol city conquered, Tyrace surrendered. Impressed by Marilia’s victories and her role in ending the war, Karthtag-Kal offered to ask the Emperor of Navessea to name her the new Prefect of the Order of Jade upon his retirement. However, Marilia declined, sick of war and the empire’s habit of venerating conquerors and warriors. Plagued with guilt for her brother’s suffering, she also lied to Karthtag-Kal and to the Chronicler who had come to write the story of the war, telling them that Annuweth had helped her create the strategy that led to Tyrace’s defeat.
Watching her mother die was like watching a flower fade and crumple in the summer’s heat.
Once she had been beautiful. Bright-eyed, smooth-faced—the only mark upon her the little crinkles at the corners of her eyes that deepened when she smiled—as she had often, in those early days.
Now her dress hung limply off her shoulders. Her hair was lank and thin, some color halfway between black and gray, frail strands clinging to skin stretched too tightly across her skull. Petrea could count the blue veins in her mother’s temple, and when she did, she felt a shiver creep through her gut—fear, disgust, and sorrow, all at once. It was as if a wicked dremmakin had perched inside her mother’s chest and was slowly consuming her from the inside, pulling her back into herself until all that was left was a shell.
Then there were the wounds—places where her skin simply died before its time. Her body turned into a patch-work quilt. One side of her face had the slightly-wrinkled skin of a forty-year old woman; the other, the sagging, ash-thin flesh of someone twice that age. And when, in a fit of despair, she clawed at it with her fingers, it ripped away like paper to show what was underneath—a physick’s anatomy lesson, the first and most essential lesson of all: when all was said and done, all people were meat.
Petrea’s mother wept, and, despite her horror, Petrea wanted nothing more than to run to her and hold her tight—but she didn’t dare. Her mother had forbidden anyone to touch her, for even one brush with Grumio’s Curse could mean death.
The disease itself was responsible for only that last, most gruesome symptom—the dead flesh. The rest—the shrunken visage, the lost hair, the frailty—was the result of the cures a long line of physicks prescribed for her. She starved herself in the hope of starving the dremmakin inside her, she drank poisons in an attempt to drive it out. In the end, all she succeeded in doing was hastening her own demise. It was one of her medicines that finally killed her, not the sickness. Whether it was an accidental overdose or an act of intent, no one would ever know for sure.
When she finally died, Petrea sobbed. Her brother Rufyllys cried with her, alone in the quiet privacy of Petrea’s room, his arm around her shoulders. His arm was thin and frail—he had always been frail, ever since the early hour of his birth—and when Petrea closed her eyes she could almost imagine it was her mother’s arm around her instead—that her mother wasn’t really dead at all.
Afterwards, Rufyllys walked with her out into the Jade Keep’s garden, where their mother had liked to walk. He sat with her on the moss beside the pool of water where the lilies grew. He plucked one and placed it on the surface of the water, watching as the wind took it, as it traveled slowly away from them.
“Don’t cry, little sister,” he said, though his own eyes were still red and swollen. “She’s in the House of White Sands now, with the rest of our ancestors’ spirits. When you light candles, she’ll come to you.”
“I miss her,” Petrea said.
“I know. But her spirit will be happy now.”
“What is it like there?” Petrea asked, as if he could know the answer.
She was only a child, and he was her older brother, and she would have believed whatever he told her. But he didn’t answer right away. He chewed his lip, considering the question. Slow and careful, as was his way.
“You know how she always loved to watch the races? Remember the time she said she wished she could feel what it was like to go so fast, only without the danger of crashing?”
Petrea nodded. “I remember.”
“Well, that’s what it’s like to be a spirit.” He pointed to the sky. “The sun and the clouds are her chariot now. And she can go anywhere she likes.” On the surface of the pond, the lily spun slowly, revolving again and again like the sun around the heart of the earth. Rufyllys spoke in a soft voice.
My world flies past,
A ribbon of blue and white,
In this moment, I am of the wind
I am forever.
Even if it wasn’t the best piece of poetry Rufyllys would ever write, it was the one Petrea would most cherish.
They burned her outside the walls of Ulvannis, on a hill speckled with gold clariline flowers. Rufyllys stood beside her, his thin shoulders shaking with silent sobs.
Ilruyn was there, too, standing beside Father, eyes glassy as he stared at the flames.
At the end, when the time came to say a few words, Rufyllys choked up and couldn’t speak. But Ilruyn—you’d have thought he was the poet in the family. The words came pouring out of him—so many words, about how her spirit was like a candle-flame in a dark room that kept burning in front of your eyes even after you closed them, how the House of White Sands would shine even brighter now that she was part of it. You’d have thought he’d really known her, not that he’d only met her properly a few months before she died.
It enraged Petrea. She said nothing, even though she wanted to. She longed to yell at him, to tell him what she really thought. You’re not one of us. Don’t think you can stand there and share in our grief. It’s ours, not yours. Your real mother is still alive. Ilruyn had stolen the preciousness of the moment, the private, exquisite pain of it.
After that there could never be forgiveness.
Petrea’s mother once told her a frightening story, one that gave her such a nightmare that she ran into her brother’s room in the middle of the night, wide-eyed and frantic.
The story went like this: there was a certain kind of bird called the hiathaw that made its nest in the mist-shrouded mountains to the west of Ulvannis. Most birds, of course, build nests to look after their eggs until they hatch. The hiathaw bird was different. It was lazy and had no interest in waiting around for its young to emerge.
It just so happened that the hiathaw’s eggs were silver-blue, the same color as dragon eggs. That meant it was a simple trick for the bird, under cover of darkness, to roll its egg into a dragon’s burrow. The mother dragon would awake the next day, none the wiser, and wrap her coils around the hiathaw egg, sheltering it with her warmth.
One by one, all the dragon eggs would hatch—all except one. That one would continue to grow, swelling like something diseased, like a tumor ripening inside the chest of a man doomed to die. And one day, when the mother dragon was out hunting, the baby hiathaw would at last burst from its shell. A full-grown dragon was a match for any bird, but a baby dragon was a much frailer creature.
After shaking off the gluey remains of its fractured egg, the hiathaw bird would ruffle its feathers, stretch its wings, and turn and swallow all the baby dragons, one by one. For a while they’d thrash inside the hiathaw’s belly, but there was no way out. Eventually they’d settle down, accept their fate, and wait as they were dissolved...until they shriveled away down to their bones, which the hiathaw would spit back out.
That, my girl, her mother said, tweaking her nose, is how you kill a dragon.
At least the mother dragon had an excuse; it had been deceived, outwitted by an opponent whose cunning it could not match. Petrea’s father had no such excuse. No one had snuck Ilruyn into their family; they had invited him in with open arms.
Ilruyn’s adoption into the family had been the result of a tense negotiation between Petrea’s father, Moroweth Vergana, and Senecal Ikaryn, former Prefect of the Order of Jade.
Once, Moroweth Vergana had been in line to take the throne; he was wealthy, and well-regarded, and, as a result, had been chosen by Emperor Secundyn to marry the emperor’s eldest daughter.
But things soon soured between Secundyn and Vergana. While Vergana spent his days battling Kanadrak, trying his best to protect the empire from the enemies who wanted nothing more than to reduce it to ashes, Secundyn contented himself with reading eulogies for the dead and presiding over games in their honor. When Vergana marched north into the mountains, struggling through wind and rain while his men dropped dead around him and his hair grew thin with plague, Secundyn was enjoying the finest soaps and scented oils the Jade Keep had to offer. When Vergana watched not one, but two of his brothers die in his arms, Secundyn was cradling his young wife in his, safe and warm in the comfort of the Jade Keep.
Vergana returned from the war filled with resentment towards his father-by-marriage, resentment which a more cunning and less honest man might have tried to hide. Vergana didn’t; he carried his disdain like a drawn sword.
Next to Vergana, war hero, conqueror of the northlands, shield of the empire, Emperor Secundyn looked a wretched excuse for a man indeed. And if there was one thing Emperor Secundyn could not abide, it was living in another man’s shadow.
Moroweth Vergana quickly fell out of favor. Instead, Secundyn began to lavish more and more honor on his prefect, Senecal Ikaryn—a man similar to Vergana in that he was a skilled general and a fierce warrior, but markedly unlike him in that he had no reservations about licking Secundyn’s sandals. It had always been flattery that Secundyn sought, and Senecal flattered him like no other. He made an art of it.
One year, as a nameday present, Vergana sent Senecal Ikaryn a bar of the finest soap imported all the way from the Sunset Isles, along with a pair of forceps. When Senecal appeared confused, Vergana informed him that the soap was to be used after he first had a servant use the forceps to assist him in extricating his tongue from his emperor’s posterior.
It was a remark that cost Vergana dearly. In the end, as a final insult—one last twist of the knife in Vergana’s side—Secundyn named Senecal his heir.
For many nobles of Navessea, it was a step too far. One more impropriety on top of a long heap of them—the questionable imprisonment or disappearances of the emperor’s friends’ rivals (as well as the husbands of a few women his majesty had taken a fancy to), the callous disregard for the provinces, the executions of perceived critics in the temple and the endless flouting of Navessean tradition. It was the final spark added to the fire that was slowly turning Ulvannis into a simmering cauldron of rage.
Within a few months, the city turned on Secundyn. In another few weeks, he was dead.
By the terms of his will, the crown should have passed to Senecal. But many of Navessea’s senators—Vergana included—revolted at the notion. Under ancient Navessean law, the right of a tyrant to name a successor was forfeit, and the Senate almost unanimously declared Secundyn a tyrant.
Senecal’s close ties to Secundyn had once been his blessing, seeing him elevated to the heights of power. Now, with his benefactor gone, they proved to be his curse. It wasn’t clear whether the Senate persuaded Vergana to claim the throne in Senecal’s stead, or whether Vergana persuaded the Senate; but in any case, both parties were persuaded, and they moved to act before Secundyn’s body had finished turning stiff.
In order to prevent Senecal from starting a civil war, Suryn, Harbormaster of Osurris, delivered Senecal’s son Ilruyn and his wife, Sulpicia, into Moroweth Vergana’s hands.
Senecal, defiant to the end, had been prepared to lead the Order of Jade against Vergana and the Senate. But with his family taken hostage, the fight went out of him; he sat down with Vergana inside his villa for hours, and by the time the two men emerged, a deal had been struck.
Senecal Ikaryn stepped down as prefect and formally renounced any claim to the throne; one of his lieutenants, Karthtag-Kal, was raised up to take his place at the head of the Order of Jade. Moroweth Vergana, with the Senate’s blessing, granted Senecal a unique, fifteen-year governorship of the Sunset Isles (a term of office three times as long as that enjoyed by Navessea’s other governors). It was a move that would placate Senecal (the Sunset Isles were, after all, Navessea’s richest province, and his share of the islands’ taxes would make him far wealthier than he had ever been while prefect) while keeping him far away from Ulvannis, where he might plot mischief.
In addition, Vergana would adopt Senecal’s sixteen-year-old son Ilruyn as his own foster-son, and when the boy reached twenty years of age, he would inherit most of the Vergana lands and wealth—all but their family’s ancestral home in Naxos. Normally, those lands would have gone to Rufyllys, but since Rufyllys was going to inherit the throne of Navessea, he could afford to part with them.
Ilruyn’s presence in Vergana’s home served another purpose, as well; so long as his only son lay within Vergana’s power, Senecal would not dare try to take the throne again.
Their first meal together was a terse, miserable affair. For most of the meal, Ilruyn stared down at his plate, hardly touching his food, his brows like two thunderclouds. For a long while, no one spoke; Petrea could hear the sound of her father’s teeth chewing followed by the soft, wet suck as he swallowed.
“Does the food not meet with your approval?” Vergana asked Ilruyn, after a time.
“It does. You keep a very good table, my lord.”
“My servants are some of the best. Do you not agree, Rufyllys?”
“My father has always been very selective about his servants,” Rufyllys said automatically.
“Forgive me, my lord. I find that I am not particularly hungry tonight,” Ilruyn said, still staring at his plate.
“No? I would have thought you to be a boy of keen appetite,” Vergana said. “You have a strong look about you.” He gave a tight smile. “I gather that you are displeased with me.”
“Why should I be displeased with you?”
“That is for you to tell me.”
Ilruyn looked up at last. “May I speak freely?”
“Have you not been speaking freely?”
“No, my lord, I have not.”
“I am honored that you have taken me under your roof. I am grateful for the meal you have given me. But—” He squared his shoulders. “I am having troubling reconciling a certain inconsistency.”
“Inconsistency can be troubling,” Vergana said.
“I had always heard that you were an honorable man,” Ilruyn said. “Even my father said so.”
“Even your father,” Vergana repeated. “Well, that is something, I suppose, considering how poorly we always got along.”
“That is my trouble,” Ilruyn said. “I am having reconciling what I’ve heard with what I’ve seen lately.”
“And what is that?” Vergana asked.
“Honorable men don’t usurp thrones.”
“He did not!” Petrea burst out. “It was his by right. The Senate chose him.”
“Quiet, girl,” Vergana said. His brow furrowed as he regarded Ilruyn. “Is that what you think of me? A usurper?”
“I think my father had the better claim,” Ilruyn said. He looked up and stared Vergana right in the eye. “Emperor Secundyn wanted my father as his successor. Everyone knows it.”
“What everyone knows is that Emperor Secundyn was a tyrant. All but five senators agreed. I’ve never seen the Senate so full of agreement.”
“The Senate was cowed by the thought of your army.”
“If you believe that, you’ve been listening too much to your father, boy.”
“I’ll thank you to not call me boy.” They faced each other down across the table. Overhead, the candle flickered, making the shadows on their faces dance. Petrea held her breath. In that silence, you could have heard a grain of rice fall to the floor. She was sure her father would do something terrible to Ilruyn; ever since Petrea’s mother took ill, his temper had been short and his anger fierce to behold. She held her breath. For the briefest moment, her eyes met Rufyllys’ and she saw the same concern written on her brother’s face.
Instead, Vergana chuckled. He leaned back on his cushion, a smile slowly creasing his face. “That’s bold, boy—Ilruyn. Very bold. Are you not afraid of me?”
“You told me I could speak freely,” Ilruyn said. “You gave me your word. An honorable man does not break his word.”
“Oh no,” Vergana said. “I meant what I said. I told you to speak freely, and you have. I thank you for it. I am of the opinion that you are wrong. As the husband of his late majesty’s daughter, the crown should pass to me. It seems most of the senators of Navessea share my opinion.”
“Most of the senators are cowards,” Ilruyn replied. “Afraid of your army.”
“Or maybe they chose my father because he had the integrity not to stoop to becoming one of his late majesty’s boot-lickers,” Rufyllys said defensively.
Ilruyn looked at him. The look in his eyes spoke volumes. “Maybe,” he said, in a tone of regal disdain.
Perhaps it was the disdain that won Vergana’s appreciation. Since Moroweth Vergana was a master of disdain, he was able to appreciate Ilruyn’s, the same way one skilled artist might appreciate another’s work. Within a few months they were on speaking terms with one another, albeit grudgingly. After another few months, their conversations were no longer grudging. Petrea saw them together often, Vergana sharing his old war stories, Ilruyn flattering the new emperor with comparisons to other famous generals of history. Within a year, they were close as father and son—Ilruyn’s real father, Senecal, quickly and conveniently forgotten. Senecal, the eccentric rumored to have taken up the heathen ways of the Sunset Isles where he had made his home; Senecal, the loser who had failed to take the throne—he was an embarrassment an ambitious young man like Ilruyn was happy to put out of his mind.
Petrea watched it happen—slowly, inevitably, just like the gradual unraveling of her mother’s body. Ilruyn was everything Rufyllys was not. Petrea had heard the stories; Rufyllys had been born before his time, shriveled and tiny like a newborn bird. During the first moments of his life, his lungs had stopped, and it had taken the physick’s best efforts to revive him. A bad curse, that—to be born half-dead. To have escaped the clutches of the dremmakin so narrowly that part of their shadow still clung to you all your life.
Rufyllys was fifteen years old, on the cusp of manhood, and still he refused to grow. His face was thin and pinched, like that of a clay statute pressed too hard between an over-eager sculptor’s hands. Though Mother often called him handsome, even Petrea, who was only nine, was old enough to understand that she only told him that because she was his mother and that was what mothers did. The truth was that Rufyllys would never be handsome. His eyes were weak, close-set and watery; his chin tapered to a jutting point like the tip of a spear. Most damning of all, he was thin and weak, and though the gods knew their father tried to change that—he must have spent the worth of a small town on the finest razorfish steaks and dragon’s milk that money could buy—nothing he did seemed to work. Because of his weakness, Rufyllys was no swordsman, and to Moroweth Vergana, Conqueror of Kanadrak, former Prime General of the Empire, that was a hard blow to bear.
Ilruyn was fit. Ilruyn was strong. Ilruyn was handsome. And Ilruyn was an excellent swordsman.
Petrea thought of the hiathaw bird, and she began to hate Ilruyn.
She laced his tea with salvia because she knew it made his tongue swell up. She broke the straps of his sandals, she put kwammakin jelly on his chair so that when he rose, the seat of his robes was died a bright, vivid shade of pink.
Her father warned her the first two times; the third, his temper broke and he punished her; he took her into her room and struck her harder than she’d ever been struck before.
Afterwards, so sore she could hardly sit down, she ran into her mother’s room, sobbing. “I hate him, I hate him,” she said, over and over, wishing her mother would stroke her hair—but by this time, the sickness had begun to spread, and no one knew if touching was safe. “I hate them both. Father and Ilruyn.”
“You mustn’t say such things,” her mother said.
“Why? It’s true; I hate them. I want them dead.”
“Oh, my child. Sit with me.”
Her mother offered her a cushion. It was soft enough that even with her savaged buttocks, she could sit without too much pain.
“Listen to me, girl,” Petrea’s mother said. “You can’t say such things. Whatever you feel, whatever you think you feel, you hide it, you understand?”
Petrea bit her lip and said nothing. Her face was hot with passion. She wanted to throw things, to break things, and if in his anger her father struck her again, if he killed her, maybe it was better to die like that, to go out like a wildfire, all at once, in a bright billow of pure rage, like a mad empress in a piece of theater.
Of course, another, more rational part of her knew she was being ridiculous. She calmed herself and crossed her legs, waiting for her mother to speak.
“You can’t live your life fighting, girl. Not with Ilruyn and not with your father. You’ll wear yourself out that way. And you’ll never win.” She leaned in close. “Here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to apologize to Ilruyn. You’re going to smile, and be nice when he’s nice to you, and laugh when he makes a joke, and nod your head when father asks you to. You get along, and you smile until they think the smiles are real, and take from them what you can. And no matter what, no matter how much you want to, you never show them the truth of what’s in your heart.” Mother’s voice had faded to a soft whisper, a sound like snakes rustling in the grass. “That is how a lady fights.”
The way she said it, the way her eyes went distant, Petrea almost thought her mother wasn’t really talking about Petrea at all, but about someone else; about herself, maybe. She wondered about it, but she didn’t ask; her mind was too full, turning over her mother’s words, examining them the way a horse-merchant might admire a new stallion. There was something in those words—a possibility. A promise.
Within a month, Petrea’s mother was dead. Her last request was to have her ashes interred in the family shrine back in Naxos; she’d always loved its wide-open hills and beautiful rivers far more than she had Ulvannis with its politics, plotting, and sickness. Despite the friends she’d made in the capitol, Petrea sometimes wished she could go back to Naxos, too—or, more accurately, she wished she could go back to Naxos as it had been in the time before Grumio’s Curse…and before Ilruyn.
She took her mother’s advice to heart. She smiled when it was needed, laughed when it was proper. Of course, she was still only a girl, not yet ten years old, so inevitably there were slips; she dropped hints of her true feelings, she confessed to a couple of her friends a few small pranks she played on Ilruyn, such as the time she put kwammakin venom in his soup so that he lost his first tournament. But on the whole, she did an admirable job; she thought her mother would have been proud of her. She let her father and Ilruyn believe her anger had been a passing thing, the petulant wrath of a child, hot to burn, but quick to burn out.
She had thought that to smile and play nice was an act of weakness and surrender. She realized now she’d had it exactly backwards; her mother had opened her eyes. Her secrets were her strength, her hidden knowledge a warm glow that heated her from the inside like the light of a prayer candle.
When Ilruyn turned seventeen years old (it was five months after the death of Petrea’s mother) Vergana bought him a luck-dragon to be his pet. It was a magnificent creature. Since the animal was still young, its beard was not yet full, but already the colors were eye-catching; when the dragon was fully-grown, it would be a glorious mix of red and white like fire and sea foam. Its scales were sapphire blue but shone with a green hue when they caught the light just right. Ilruyn loved it.
It was no difficult task for Petrea to get her hands on it. One day she stole into her brother’s room and pulled the dragon from its cage.
She lifted the animal in her arms. Her skin prickled as its sinuous body coiled around her wrists. She had petted dragons before, but never held one.
She hurried out into the royal gardens, to the edge of the parapet of the Jade Keep. Far below, the waters of Almaria’s River rushed along, the foam the same color as the tips of the hairs in the dragon’s beard.
The dragon looked up at her with wide, guileless eyes. Its tongue flickered out, brushing her arm like a kiss. She could have sworn she heard it purr.
Petrea threw the dragon over the edge and watched it fall into the river far below. It thrashed in the air, looking up at her with an expression of complete confusion. It hit the water hard and was swallowed by the foam.
Almost immediately, the thought of what she had done struck her like a blow. She felt herself shake. She bit her hand to stop herself from wailing. She made her way back into her room in the Jade Keep and lay in her bed, shivering and weeping. The dragon’s dark eyes seemed to hang in the air before her. She saw them everywhere she looked; even when she closed her eyes, there was no escape.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
But what she was most sorry for wasn’t that she had killed Ilruyn’s dragon. What she was most sorry for was that she suspected that if she could have gone back to that moment when she stood atop the garden parapet, she would have done it all over again.