“I know it has always chafed at Mama. That Papa would not have been the one she chose. But I've never resented this betrothal—I can't imagine ever choosing another.”
Aurelia, 6th Grace
A breeze sighed through the great trees of the Everwood, warm and relentless.
It made a nuisance of itself, as if, sensing it wasn’t welcome, it was determined to make itself noticed. It knocked over table settings, dislodged bright bunting from the trees and set skirts soaring indecently.
From the top of the forest canopy, in the highest apartments, in the biggest hearthome, Elle echoed it.
Then—in case she had been too subtle—she huffed out a bigger, lengthier sigh. Jesna, her mouth full of pins, rolled her eyes. She refused to be distracted from her self-imposed chore of attaching a glittering whisper of fabric to the arms of Elle’s betrothal gown.
“If you move, I will stab you,” threatened Jesna around her pins.
“But then you’ll get blood on my betrothal gown, and Annaria will stab you,” said Elle brightly, “Which would make the whole thing counterproductive.”
“Stars save me from your mother-in-law.” Jesna gave a little shudder and switched to Elle’s left arm. She’d been tweaking the betrothal gown for weeks. There was so much crystal beading on the sheer white fabric, Elle worried the whole thing might just slip off her from the weight. But there was no denying the effect.
Elle gleamed like the Godstars she represented. The crystals clustered thickly around the hemline, fading up to a few artful and well-placed swirls that accented Elle’s generous curves.
Now Jesna was adding a whisper-thin cape that attached along the arm seams and trailed far, far behind her. The white was the perfect counterpoint to Elle’s copper curls—the distinctive hair that marked her station.
A gown fit for a queen.
Or a Grace.
Elle’s mood soured, which, on a day like today, was not a hard thing to achieve.
“She’s not my mother-in-law yet.”
Jesna stopped working long enough to squeeze Elle’s arm, and then continued her pinning. Jesna had never been the type for false words of comfort—what was there to say when the man you were promised to marry was the wrong one?
What was there to say when duty outweighed desire?
Even the wind knew something was wrong today.
It was ill-omened. Hot and dusty in the chill of early spring, it stoked tempers, slammed windows, and caused early spring buds to blossom too early—all the better to be killed off in the next cold snap.
It was a foul, disapproving breath from the wrong gods.
But it hadn’t stopped the town from preparing.
Today’s betrothal party was the start of a month-long celebration that would culminate in Elle’s wedding. The tree city of Ystellia was the shimmering capital of the Vale of Astyria and the center of their small world.
No self-respecting citizen would let the betrothal celebrations be anything other than outstanding. Several committees had formed, and it seemed like every one of them was in the clearing below, decorating everything that didn’t move, and few things that did.
The bustle was a stark contrast to the tense quiet in the Grace’s apartments. Jesna was doing her best to keep up a volley of light-hearted banter, but the wrongness of the day ran too deeply in both of them to lift the mood.
The creak of the door echoed loudly through the apartments, and Elle and Jesna froze, sharing a horrified look. The unannounced visitor could only be one person, and they’d both hoped to avoid her until the ceremony began.
And there was no time to change out of the dress.
Elle twisted to see Annaria framed in the doorway. The tall, dark-haired woman kicked the heavy door shut behind her with a wickedly-heeled foot. She looked like a flame in her deep red, high-necked, conservative dress. Dangerously mesmerizing.
But it wasn’t the dress that caught Elle’s eye, it was what Annaria was holding. A small pile of brightly wrapped and beribboned boxes.
A trickle of dread made its way down Elle’s spine at the incongruous sight. Annaria never normally sullied her hands doing the work of servants, and Elle couldn’t remember ever seeing her carry anything heavier than a wine glass.
Annaria’s eyes flickered briefly over Elle’s shimmering gown, so different from the conservative gowns the Synod normally forced on her. But her fashion rebellion barely gave Annaria pause as she strode into the light-filled receiving room, her heels somehow managing to sound vicious even against the soft white carpet.
She set down the gift boxes gently on the coffee table and speared Elle with a sickly sweet smile.
Jesna frowned, but said nothing, eyeing Annaria the way she would a shadowcat. She too was aware that a cheerful Annaria was a dangerous creature.
“Ariella,” Annaria cooed, arms spread wide, “Ellentyre would be so proud of you. Finally fulfilling your destiny.”
Elle gritted her teeth at the mention of her mother, pretending the words didn’t hit home. Annaria’s satisfied smirk let her know she’d failed. The arrogant smile of someone who thought they’d won.
“Yes, she’d be so proud that I agreed to marry your son.” Elle turned slightly away from the infuriating woman, under the pretense of letting Jesna finish the sleeves. “That I’m following through with the Synod’s charmingly antiquated ritual of selecting husbands for Graces.”
Jesna reflexively pulled a face. Her people had never sanctioned the ritual, and she’d never been able to hide her distaste for Elle’s arranged marriage.
Annaria sniffed, “You know that keeping the Bloodline fresh is crucial—as is the order of suitors. Tainn is, by right of his Blood, the next father of Graces.”
Elle snorted in disgust. She couldn’t help it. She wasn’t even betrothed yet, and the woman was already trying to breed her like a prize cow.
“So delicate! But then you don’t have a mother to explain what to expect on the wedding night.” Annaria smirked at her, “Even so, you must see that what the Vale of Astyria needs more than ever is stability.” She had begun pulling the extravagant bows off the gift boxes. Elle eyed them with dread-filled fascination. What was important enough for Annaria to bring up herself? “Ever since your mother’s tragic death, the unrest has increased. These frightful murders, Adron’s mystery diseases. This Vale needs a strong hand. And a certain succession.”
“What you mean is the Vale needs your hand.” Elle snapped. The last thing she needed was another conversation about her mother’s death. She found it increasingly hard to play the grieving daughter. “You’re fooling no one, Annaria—it’s clear you think marrying me to your son will give you the leverage you need to finally control the Synod and, in turn, the Vale.”
The Synod of Light was a thorn in her side. The ruling council of nine was supposed to support her in the day-to-day running of the Vale, but instead they spent most of their time trying to undermine her, squabbling over scraps of power while the whole Vale suffered.
“Don’t be absurd, Ariella.” Annaria was now pulling small, tissue wrapped objects out the boxes. “You know full well that the Synod of Light was set up only to serve the Grace by being a balance and a complement to her power. The entire point is to stop one person from having too much power—even Graces. Our history speaks for itself.”
A spasm of pain spiderwebbed through Elle’s chest, but she schooled her face to stillness—her soon-to-be mother-in-law would leap on any perceived weakness.
Jesna, however, noticed her tiny flinch, and turned to get some water—no doubt laced with some heal-all.
The pain was already gone, but it left a dull ache in its place. Elle was ready to bite someone, and she was not in the mood to debate the history of her ancestors and the varying success of their rules with this harpy.
“Why are you really here, Annaria? It can’t be just to lecture me.”
“I came to ensure that you weren’t getting cold feet.”
“Graces never have cold feet.”
“And to remind you to personally thank Terit for the gifts.” A small smile played across Annaria’s face as she pulled a small object out of its fine tissue wrapping. She watched Elle carefully as she placed a golden dragonfly on the table. She steadily worked through the rest of the tissue-wrapped items, uncovering a tall, thin candle, a small, fat squirrel and a teacup.
All crafted from gold, and all with a tiny protruding golden key, not quite hidden in the ornate decorations that covered each piece.
“Is that what those are?” asked Elle, unable to hide her anger at the clockwork items.
Annaria’s small smile spread at Elle’s tone, lighting up her face with devious glee.
She turned the key that nestled between the dragonfly’s wings. The hair-thin metal began to move, and the small creature took off from Annaria’s palm and flew across the room toward Elle.
Jesna, her Cythian reflexes as sharp as ever, snapped it out of the air and dropped it into a decorative jar, slamming the lid shut.
For a few long seconds, the only sound in the room was the tinny clink of metal against glass as the dragonfly battered itself against the side.
Annaria responded by simply picking up another of the clockwork objects. “Oh, Ariella,” she sighed loudly, clearly enjoying her role as long-suffering mother-in-law, as she twisted the small key on the side of the metal candle. “This hatred for the Guild is so very childish. You should feel honored that Terit thought you worthy of the expense.”
So that’s what Annaria’s visit was about. A very unsubtle reminder from the Synod that even now, after two years of playing their game, they held all the power.
A small, very real flame popped out of the top of the candle and shone merrily. Someone unfamiliar with the Guild’s work would assume that the candle held a well of oil, but Elle knew differently. The candle should not work, nor the dragonfly. What the guild made was neither clockwork nor magic, but an unholy mixing of the two. And Annaria—the entire Synod—knew how she felt about them.
“The Clockworkers are trying to undercut our very way of life, and instead of doing your duty, you are their strongest supporter.”
“Are you telling me that you can do better than this?” Annaria brandished the candle at Elle, closing the distance between them. Jesna hurriedly scooped Elle’s train out of the way, as far from the flame as she could. She didn’t like these perverse objects any more than Elle did.
Right now the Guild just made trinkets for the Blood, but Elle saw the potential behind the seemingly innocuous items. Trinkets were their foot in the door, a way to return some of the convenience that the Vale had lost when the magic had started fading.
“I’m saying we don’t need it. If you and the Synod would just hear me out on this—” She gritted her teeth, clamping down on the words that threatened to rush out of her. This was neither the time nor the place.
Annaria had brought these gifts here to taunt her, a reminder that even following the rules—even marrying a man she didn’t love—wouldn’t get Elle what she wanted. And Elle was playing right into her hands—the flustered, foolish girl not fit to lead.
She took a deep breath, ignoring the dull ache in her chest and said, “Yes, magic is fading, but we’re coping well enough without it. And this comes very close to betraying the prescripts against forbidden magic.”
Annaria rolled her eyes. “So precious about magic,” The heat from the candle was extending further than it should, and Elle could feel sweat pricking on her brow. Unnatural. “One would think given your own limited ability to provide what this Vale needs, you would rejoice at the successes of others.”
The candle was close enough to touch now, so Elle did.
Annaria wanted her angry and desperate? She’d give her the opposite.
Just the brush of a fingertip was enough to transfer the starmarks she’d drawn behind her back. Marks for ice, for freezing. The tiny golden symbols crawled up the side of the device, invisible against the detailed body of the candle, but their progress was clear from the layer of frost they left as they crept toward the flame.
Annaria hadn’t noticed them yet. She went on, “These gifts from Terit are a mark of good will. A gesture of peace from the Guild to the Synod of Light—and to you.” Any vestige of a smile had slipped off her face and her deep brown eyes gleamed red as they reflected the candle’s flame. “Today is a new beginning for all of us.”
The flame froze over.
Elle couldn’t help her smirk. Annaria’s shock quickly gave way to rage. The woman had never seen her do magic before—Elle had been careful to keep her powers from the Synod.
“Today isn’t about you,” she said brightly, as if she couldn’t see the angry confusion on her soon-to-be mother-in-law’s face. “And it’s not about your alliances with the Clockworker’s Guild, so unless you plan to wield a needle and help Jesna with the sewing, I suggest you get out of my apartments.”
“These apartments are only yours by the grace of the Synod—”
“No,” snapped Elle, turning to look at Annaria straight on.
Jesna helpfully dropped the sleeve she’d been sewing and stepped back. She was radiating glee.
“These are my apartments because I was born to be Grace. This is my destiny, as you yourself point out. And the Vale needs stability.”
She was enjoying this now. Throwing Annaria’s words back in her face. She had tiptoed around the woman for so long that Annaria thought her a snarling puppy, unruly, but ultimately toothless.
Elle should be glad that her charade had paid off, that her act of the reluctantly dutiful—but powerless—girl had brought her mere hours away from achieving her goal. Not the betrothal, no, that was an unfortunate side effect—but everything that the betrothal would bring with it.
But she couldn’t deny how the act had chafed. It felt so good to finally let her power loose—limited though it was—to show Annaria that she had teeth after all.
“You,” she continued as calmly as she could, “Are the one who is here by my grace. You are the elected official. A servant to the office.” She plucked the dreadful clockwork candle away from Annaria. “And you have worn out your welcome.”
Annaria’s hands clenched in her skirts but she made no response except the flaring of her nostrils.
Jesna was grinning so broadly that Elle thought she might just break into applause. Her people had suffered at the increasingly hostile dictates set by the Synod, and her every move was watched, her Talent as a seamstress not quite enough to win out against the Synod’s determination to undercut her—and any other Cythian’s—business.
But luckily Annaria only had eyes for Elle. Jesna’s joy wouldn’t be held against her today.
“I always knew you were more like your mother than you liked to admit.”
Elle couldn’t help but flinch at that, and Annaria smiled at seeing her barb hit home. She picked her way to the door with a few sharp clicks of her heels. “Be careful little Grace,” she said softly, her dark eyes shining with venom, “No one is so powerful that they cannot fall. And we live in difficult times.”
She paused and turned to look at Elle over her shoulder, “And remember,” she said brightly, her voice back to its light, casual councilwoman’s tone, “It’s bad luck to be late to your own betrothal.”