Princess Esofi of Rhodia and Crown Prince Albion of Ieflaria have been betrothed since they were children but have never met. At age seventeen, Esofi’s journey to Ieflaria is not for the wedding she always expected but instead to offer condolences on the death of her would-be husband.
But Ieflaria is desperately in need of help from Rhodia for their dragon problem, so Esofi is offered a new betrothal to Prince Albion’s younger sister, the new Crown Princess Adale. But Adale has no plans of taking the throne, leaving Esofi with more to battle than fire-breathing beasts.
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The castle at Birsgen had been built from cold gray stone, but the rooms within were warm and bright. Intricate tapestries and carpets in rich shades of crimson, emerald, and sapphire decorated the throne room, and a roaring fire at the far end of the room kept the worst of the chill that dwelled in the ancient stone at bay.
Princess Esofi of Rhodia sank into a curtsy, her elaborate skirts rustling softly in the silence. Before her were the velvet thrones of King Dietrich and Queen Saski of Ieflaria. Just behind her were the waiting ladies and battlemages who had accompanied her on the four-month journey to a land that would be her new home.
With Esofi's entire retinue crowded inside, the throne room was not nearly as expansive as it ought to be. To make things even more uncomfortable, many of the residents of the Ieflarian court had gathered for the arrival of the princess, filling the room further.
Most of the Ieflarians Esofi had seen so far were dark-haired and fair- skinned with eyes of blue or gray, though in the larger cities she had encountered people who were clearly from far-off lands like Anora and Masim. The women usually wore their hair in braids, with younger girls allowing them to hang free and older women pinning them into coronets or coils. Esofi wished that she could take in their faces and study their reactions to her presence. But she knew she had to trust her ladies to do that for her while she devoted her attention to the regents.
"We welcome you to Ieflaria during this sad time," said King Dietrich. "We regret that your arrival has been under such unfortunate circumstances."
Esofi swallowed. Every Ieflarian they'd encountered since coming into the country had been dressed in gray or black or somber lavender. The queen herself was in a plain gray gown with only the simplest pearl circlet on her head, and the king wore a black velvet jacket over a gray tunic and breeches. Even the guards and servants wore black, instead of the crimson-and-gold livery that her books and tutors had told her to expect.
Esofi had worn her simplest dress out of respect, and her ladies had done the same. But Rhodian fashion was dramatically more opulent than the clothing found in Ieflaria, featuring lace accessories, layers of ruffled underskirts, and fabrics sewn with gemstones. Even the most subdued ensemble seemed disrespectfully lavish compared to the simple styles favored by the Ieflarians.
"Yes," said Esofi. "I am deeply sorry."
Three months. Crown Prince Albion, Esofi's husband-to-be and heir to the throne of Ieflaria, had been dead for three months. Esofi had never met him, but they'd been exchanging letters since they were old enough to write. The loss still felt unreal, as though it were all a terrible joke.
"We are no longer able to uphold the contract that was signed fifteen years ago," said Queen Saski. "You have the right to return home if you choose."
She was wrong. Esofi could no more return home than she could transform into a bird and fly away.
"Your Majesties," Esofi said. "Your lands have suffered greatly from dragon attacks in past years and will only continue to suffer if action is not taken. As the future queen, it was my intention to begin securing Ieflaria's borders immediately. To this end, I have brought with me a company of the finest battlemages that the University of Rho Dianae has to offer." She gestured to the back of the room where fifty mages stood in the midnight-blue robes that marked them as fully trained battlemages blessed by Talcia, Goddess of Magic. "But I believe this can still be accomplished, even now. I remain willing to marry your heir ... your new heir."
King Dietrich and Queen Saski both looked relieved, as if they had expected Esofi to pick up her skirts and flounce all the way back to Rho Dianae.
"For the sake of honoring the spirit of our agreement and protecting our homeland," said King Dietrich, "we are willing to grant you this."
Even though it had been her proposal, Esofi felt a soft pang in her heart at the words. Albion would have been gentle. Albion would have been kind. She had always considered herself lucky that her betrothed seemed to be noble in manner as well as blood and so near to her own age. Esofi had seen enough violent lords and vicious ladies to know that Iolar had smiled upon her when her parents had arranged her fate.
"Thank you, Your Majesty," said Esofi. "I think my parents would have little reason to object if the terms of the marriage were otherwise unchanged."
"Then in three days, we will formalize the new agreement." King Dietrich gestured to a servant who came hurrying to his side. Esofi could not hear what the king said to him, but the servant rushed from the room immediately.
Esofi tried to remember who exactly the heir to Ieflaria's throne was now that Albion was gone. Surely, someone had told her at some point. The winged courier who had brought the news of Albion's death might have mentioned it. But Esofi's grief-stricken mind offered no names. Her gaze found the statue of Iolar, Fourth of the Ten, where it loomed behind Their Majesties' thrones. She offered up a rapid prayer to him.
"We have prepared rooms for you," said Queen Saski. "The servants will lead you to them. If they are not to your liking, you may arrange them however you wish." Her smile was warm and possibly even genuine.
"Thank you," said Esofi with another curtsy. "The journey has been long. It will be good to rest in a proper bed again."
"You will have plenty of time to recover from your journey," said Queen Saski. "We cannot begin wedding arrangements until one hundred days of mourning have passed. Tomorrow, you will join me for tea and meet my daughter, the Crown Princess Adale."
"Of course, Your Majesty," began Esofi. "I ..." But the rest of her words died in her throat as her mind caught up with her ears. Princess Adale. She had heard that name before. She was Albion's younger sister and the only other child of King Dietrich and Queen Saski. Albion had mentioned her in his letters, spinning tales of their adventures and mischief.
But ... a princess? Like most people, Esofi did not have a strong preference regarding the gender of the one she married. But marrying the same sex was a privilege that royalty was seldom able to indulge in, since the production of heirs usually took priority over all else. Two women could still manage it if one of them could hold a Changed shape long enough, but men had to be content with surrogates. Most of the nobility back home did not care to take such risks with their bloodlines. Perhaps it was different in Ieflaria. Or perhaps Their Majesties were merely desperate.
Fortunately, Queen Gaelle of Rhodia had instilled iron willpower in her children, and so Esofi was able to successfully fight back her urge to turn around and look to her ladies for their reactions. She realized the king and queen were still waiting for her to finish her sentence.
"I ... think that will be lovely," she completed. Then she pressed the back of her hand to her forehead as delicately as she could manage. "Goodness, how the journey has wearied me."
"Then go, rest," said Queen Saski. "We will speak again tomorrow."
Dismissed at last, Esofi gave one last curtsy before turning and leading the procession from the room. Once they were out in the halls, Captain Henris approached her. He wore the same midnight robes as the other battlemages, but his were trimmed in silver embroidery. Captain Henris was not a young man any longer but had served Esofi well during the long journey, and she found that she trusted him implicitly.
"Your orders, Princess?" he asked.
"You may send the mages to the barracks," Esofi said. "Tell them that I thank them for their service. And find me tomorrow morning, before I meet with Her Majesty."
"Of course, Princess," he said.
With the departure of the mages, the hall became significantly less crowded. Esofi turned her attention to her ladies. There were three of them, and all had come with her by choice. The first was Lady Lexandrie, the second daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Fialia and Esofi's second cousin, who had been her waiting lady since they were thirteen. She was a tall woman with a cascade of golden hair and a regal demeanor. If Lexandrie had any faults, the foremost one was stubbornness, followed closely by an innate belief that no person in the world had ever worked as hard or suffered as desperately as she had in her eighteen years of life at the marble palace of Rho Dianae.
Next was Lady Mireille, daughter of the Baron and Baroness of Aelora. With six older siblings, her prospects in Rhodia had not been high — but her ambitions were. Esofi was still not entirely certain how the young woman had managed to win herself a place on the royal procession, but that didn't matter now. Mireille's traveling papers had proclaimed that she was sixteen years old, but her youthful face could have passed for twelve.
Mireille's presence had been welcome on the long journey. She was a bright, cheerful young woman, desperately eager to please and only occasionally prone to simpering. She would rush eagerly to complete any task Esofi set them to, and Lexandrie was always happy to let her work in solitude until the assignment was minutes from being complete.
In some small way, Esofi felt that she and Mireille had a sort of kinship between them. While Lexandrie was certain to return to Rhodia someday, Mireille and Esofi never would. There was nothing left for them back there. Ieflaria would become their world now.
And last was Lady Lisette of Diativa, who was in actuality not a Lady, nor of Diativa, nor even named Lisette. She was a tiny woman with black eyes and hair the color of moonlight who could go days at a time without uttering a word. Esofi did not know for certain how many blades, lockpicks, and poisons Lisette had on her person, but she felt quite sure that the number was absurdly high. She was an unnerving girl until one became accustomed to her, but Esofi's mother had insisted upon her presence in the royal carriage.
"Such a lovely welcome," said Lexandrie in a bright and vapid tone. "Didn't you think so, Princess?"
"Yes, of course," said Esofi in an equally cheerful tone — she knew perfectly well that there could be any number of people listening in, waiting for some word against the co-regents or a sign of weakness. The fact that they spoke in the language of Rhodia was no protection against that. "I will be glad to rest my feet at last, though, and for a cup of tea."
"Princess Esofi," said a woman, emerging from the throne room behind them. She looked to be around the same age as Queen Saski and wore a lavender gown decorated with pearls. In keeping with the Ieflarian fashion, her long hair was in coiled braids. "I am Countess Amala of Eiben, waiting lady to Queen Saski. Her Majesty has asked me to show you to your new rooms."
"Oh! Of course," said Esofi, stepping aside so Amala could take the lead.
Amala walked down the lamp-lit hallway with rapid, purposeful footsteps, speaking candidly as she went, naming each room as they passed it. Esofi glanced back at her ladies, and Lisette had a particularly intense expression upon her face. Esofi knew she could trust her to remember everything they were being told and was glad for her presence.
They continued through a maze of stone halls, servants and nobility alike stepping aside to stare at the foreigners in their castle. Esofi kept a practiced smile at her lips the entire time, until finally Amala came to a stop in front of a large door, ornately carved with a depiction of a unicorn in a meadow.
Amala withdrew a key from the purse at her belt and unlocked the door. "These will be your rooms, Princess. You will find adjoining rooms for your ladies, and Her Majesty has already assigned servants to see to your needs."
Amala gestured to her, and Esofi stepped inside. The first room was an elaborate parlor, furnished in the Ieflarian style, all intricately carved dark woods and jewel-toned carpets and tapestries. Glass oil lamps cast the room in a golden glow, and a small fire burned in the stone hearth.
At the center of the room stood a middle-aged woman, large-boned and silver-haired with a nose like an eagle's beak. She wore the uniform of the castle staff, but Esofi could tell from just a moment's glance that the woman was not a maid.
"Mistress Abbing is the palace housekeeper," explained Amala, and the woman curtsied. Esofi nodded at her.
"If there is anything you require, Princess," said Mistress Abbing, "tell any of my girls. If you catch them lazing about, send them directly to me and I'll sort them out. We'll come in to clean once a week while you're at the sunrise service."
Esofi nodded again. There was never a day that the Temple of Iolar did not perform a sunrise service or the corresponding sundown service in the evening. But most people only attended on the first day of the week. In some circles, that first service was considered mandatory.
"That room will be yours, Princess," Amala explained, gesturing to a door on one side of the room. "You will find the servants are already unpacking your things. They should be gone within the hour. And for your ladies, their rooms are through that other door. If there is anything you require, Her Majesty has ordered it will be given to you."
And with that, Amala excused herself. Mistress Abbing went into Esofi's room to yell at the servants, and Esofi immediately sank down onto the nearest sofa, only to pause in wonderment at the softness — after three months at sea and another in a carriage, she had almost forgotten what proper furniture felt like.
"Well —" began Lexandrie, only to be cut off by Lisette raising one thin, pale finger into the air.
"Not yet," said Lisette, and embarked on a rapid search of the entire room. Esofi sat very still as Lisette examined everything and anything, turning over cushions and pulling books off the shelves and even tapping at the stones on the walls. After a few moments, Lisette seemed satisfied.
"Nothing in here, at least," she said.
"May I speak now, then?" asked Lexandrie. Then, without waiting for a reply, she went on. "Esofi, have you realized — ?"
"That they mean for me to marry Princess Adale? Yes," said Esofi.
"And you will agree to it?"
"It makes no difference to me, does it?" asked Esofi. "I shall marry someone at the end of the mourning period. Or would you have me return home and tell my parents that I rejected the heir to the throne of Ieflaria?"
"Of course not," said Lexandrie. "But you're not a peasant. You need heirs. And I know you can't hold on to a Changed body long enough to —"
"But maybe the Crown Princess Adale can!" interrupted Mireille.
"Perhaps she can," Esofi agreed. "Or perhaps there is a sizable list of heirs already, and so Their Majesties are not concerned. Until I speak with Queen Saski tomorrow, we will not know, and I will not spend any more time worrying about it, not while there's a fresh bed and a warm fire waiting in the next room."
Fortunately, none of her ladies seemed to be in the mood to argue, and the four sat in exhausted silence until the servants were herded out by Mistress Abbing, who bid them a good night and reminded them to only ask if they required something, no matter the hour.
The ladies went into Esofi's room, which was furnished in a similar fashion to the outer parlor. It featured an area with a bookcase and writing desk, and a table set with a bowl of unfamiliar fruit, which Lisette ordered them all not to touch. The far wall had a large window that overlooked the dusky gardens.
Esofi's ladies set to the task of unlacing her complicated dress and corsets. After some brief but frantic searching, Mireille found her nightgowns in the dresser.
Once in bed, Esofi tried to keep her thoughts clear of speculation, but it was easier said than done. She turned her thoughts to the gods, as she had been instructed in her childhood.
There were as many gods in Asterium as there were stars in the sky, though Esofi only really concerned herself with the Ten. She wondered if Iolar was watching her from Solarium but immediately dismissed the thought as hubris. As a princess, she knew she fell solidly into his domain, but she had never felt that deep spiritual connection with the father of all Men that she ought to.
Excerpted from "The Queen of Ieflaria"
Copyright © 2018 Effie Calvin.
Excerpted by permission of NineStar Press, LLC.
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