It has been sixteen months since Princess Esofi arrived in Ieflaria, and eight since her marriage to Crown Princess Adale. The princesses have a peaceful life together, preparing to become co-regents and raising their baby dragon, Carinth.
Their peace is shattered when Esofi’s mother, Queen Gaelle of Rhodia, arrives in Birsgen. She has heard about Carinth and believes that she deserves custody of him due to her greater devotion to Talcia, Goddess of Magic.
Adale and Esofi have no intention of giving up their son, but Gaelle is impossible to reason with—and there’s no telling what lengths she’ll go to in order to get what she wants.
|Publisher:||Ninestar Press, LLC|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.70(d)|
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Generally speaking, Ieflarian hair wasn't very good at holding a curl. But that wasn't stopping the ladies of Birsgen from trying. And it was not just the nobles or merchants. In the last month alone, at least three different servant girls had cut off their long braids and attempted to sear their hair into careful ringlets, the sort Princess Esofi wore.
Crown Princess Adale regarded the trend with a mixture of derision and pride. She had thought it would die down after the wedding, but now the alchemists were even selling some sort of potion that would turn dark Ieflarian hair blonde. Lady Brigit had nearly killed herself with one just a week ago, thinking she was meant to drink it instead of pouring it onto her hair.
Esofi, for her part, wasn't reacting to her many imitators. These days, she spent most of her time seeing to the construction of the university or caring for Carinth, the baby dragon that she had been given to raise a year and a half ago.
Carinth had done a great deal of growing since then. He stood just below Adale's knee when he was on all fours. If he balanced on his hind legs and stretched his neck out, he could almost reach her waist. His wings, when unfurled, were twice as wide as the length of his body, though he had made no real attempts to fly yet. Despite his length, he was rather thin, and not nearly as heavy as one might expect. Adale and Esofi supposed that this was because he would some day be able to fly.
He knew his own name and the meaning of "no," though he sometimes liked to pretend that he did not. He ate meat, raw or cooked, as well as sweets and pastries from the kitchens. He refused all vegetables and most fruits but would also go after moths, crickets, and frogs if they caught his eye. He had his own room, fully furnished (though Adale wasn't sure what he was meant to do with a writing desk) but preferred to sleep on a single blanket near the fireplace. Adale had learned to shake her boots out before putting them on every morning, because there was a good chance one of them would contain a silver fork or a jeweled necklace.
Adale's primary fear had been that the Ieflarian people would reject Carinth. After all, he was a member of the species that, until very recently, made it their goal to rid the world of Men. But she had not seen anyone react badly to him. In fact, he seemed to be quite popular. He was not at all afraid to accompany the royal huntsman on his rides, or help the maids with their washing, or join Knight-Commanders Glace and Livius in their morning meditation in the chapel. When he went missing, he was usually found hovering around the feet of the kitchen staff, waiting for something good to fall from the tables above.
The only real problem was that most people regarded Carinth as a very interesting dog, rather than an intelligent creature that would someday be able to speak.
Adale and Esofi's wedding had been eight months ago, in early spring, so early that traces of snow melted in weak sunlight and acolytes from the Temple of Eyvindr were hired to make the flowers bloom. All her life, Adale had always assumed that marrying would mean a loss of her own identity, somehow. She wasn't sure where or how she'd developed this notion, but she'd been expecting marriage to transform her into someone she did not recognize. And some things were different now, certainly. She was living with Esofi in the rooms traditionally reserved for the heir and their spouse, rooms she'd spent her entire life thinking would someday be Albion's. Alongside that, she was raising a baby dragon as her own son.
But at her core Adale was still herself.
Now it was autumn. The harvest was long past, and there was a chill in the air, though it was still a few months to midwinter and Esofi's nineteenth birthday. That day, she found Esofi and Carinth out in the garden, sitting in a patch of weak sunlight. They were accompanied by Mireille, one of Esofi's two remaining waiting ladies.
Esofi held a primer designed for very young children and was reading to Carinth in an authoritative voice. Carinth rested in her lap and gazed up at her with bright golden eyes. Esofi wore an Ieflarian dress today, for Carinth had a bad habit of pulling the jewels out of the bodices of Esofi's beautiful Rhodian gowns, as well as shredding the petal-soft silk with his claws as he climbed up onto her shoulders in the same way that a cat might. Still, Adale could see the tiny pockmarks all over the fabric. They were the same marks that now marred Adale's own dresses, and the clothing of many members of the castle staff.
Esofi smiled as Adale approached. Carinth lifted his head and ran over to greet her, standing up on his hind legs to check if she had anything interesting in her pockets.
"How are we?" asked Adale, rubbing her hand over the tiny nubs that would someday be curling horns on Carinth's head.
"He swallowed a lizard," sighed Esofi, setting the primer down. "That's practically cannibalism. Sometimes I swear he only does it to hear me scream."
Adale and Esofi had only a rough idea of what normal dragon development was like, informed by old, half-forgotten books kept by the Temple of Talcia. They knew it would be a while before Carinth learned to breathe fire, but they had no idea when to expect speech from him or if he was the correct size for his age. Their books had also said that he wouldn't begin attempting to fly until he was about a year old, but his first birthday had passed, and he was still showing no real signs of trying, no matter how often Adale tossed him up into the air.
Esofi worried about this constantly, and she wasn't reassured by Adale's claim that Talcia, Goddess of Magic and creator of all dragonkind, would probably let them know if something was seriously wrong. Talcia was the one who had given Carinth to them in the first place, so Adale did not think such a thing was unreasonable to expect. Fortunately, Esofi also had the new university to distract herself. And Carinth was unquestionably happy.
"My parents have summoned us," reported Adale.
"Apparently there's important news they want to discuss."
Esofi stood and brushed off her skirts. "Do you know what it's about?"
"I have no idea. They only said they wanted both of us there."
Esofi nodded. "Mireille, can you take Carinth while I see to this?"
"Of course!" Mireille crouched down so he could easily climb on to her shoulders. "Oh, when did you get so heavy?" she asked, struggling to right herself. As she walked away, Adale heard her informing Carinth that she expected him to give her rides in return once he was large enough.
"You really don't know what this is about, then?" asked Esofi, once they were out of Mireille's hearing range.
"No, they wouldn't say."
"Did they seem angry?" Esofi looked a little worried, and Adale felt herself smile at the absurd notion that her parents might ever find fault with anything Esofi did.
"I don't think so. Why? Have you done something scandalous lately?" teased Adale. "Something I ought to know about?"
Esofi smiled faintly. "No, nothing like that. I just hate to think I've disappointed them somehow."
"I'd find that unsettling as well," said Adale. "Disappointing my parents is my responsibility. I'd thank you not to steal it from me."
Esofi's weak smile turned into a soft laugh. Nevertheless, she said, "Must you always speak so harshly about yourself?" "I'm only saying what everyone else is thinking."
"That is not true."
Adale would never believe that, but it warmed her to know that Esofi thought so highly of her. So many members of the court could not see Adale as anything other than the wild young woman she had been for the first eighteen years of her life. She expected they never would.
When Adale and Esofi arrived at King Dietrich's study, they found both of Adale's parents waiting for them, as well as both of the Order of the Sun's resident knight-commanders: Commander Glace, who led the Ieflarian paladins, and the exiled Commander Livius who had done the same in Xytae until Emperor Ionnes expelled the entire Order several years ago. Standing just beside Knight-Commander Livius was another paladin, a young woman in chainmail that Adale did not recognize.
Paladins, with their rigid adherence to law and order, were never Adale's favorite people, but they had been instrumental in helping defend Ieflaria from the dragon attacks before Esofi's arrival. There had been no further attacks since the Emperor's death, but everyone knew that could change at any moment, and so Adale was grateful for their continued presence.
"What has happened?" asked Esofi. Adale found herself equally taken aback by the size of the gathering.
"Today I have received a letter from Princess Ioanna of Xytae," explained Livius. "It is ... unexpected, to say the least."
"Princess Ioanna?" Adale frowned. "Isn't she ... what, four years old?"
"Seven, actually," said Livius. "She will be eight this coming winter."
"What does she want?" asked Esofi.
"You may see for yourself." Livius passed the letter over to her. Adale and Esofi both leaned in to read it. The handwriting was a little awkward but still legible.
I do not know if you remember me, but my name is Ioanna Isinthi. My father is Ionnes of Xytae. I have been wanting to write to you for a long time but did not know how to find you.
I will probably not become Empress for a very long time, but when it happens, I want to bring the Order of the Sun back to Xytae. I also want to end my father's war with Masim. We do not have any right to their lands. But the Temple of Reygmadra is already telling my father that my sister would make a better Empress.
I think something bad is going to happen. If it does, I hope that the Order of the Sun will help me. I am not asking for a promise from you right now because I know it is too early for that. But I want the same things for Xytae that you do. We will be stronger together than we are alone.
I am sorry this letter is not longer, but I am in the middle of being rescued from a cult.
Ioanna Enessa Isinthi
"What's this about a cult?" asked Adale.
"Never mind that part," said Livius. "That matter has been handled."
"She is trying to secure a political alliance with the Order, then?" asked Esofi. "I have to admit ... at her age, I would not expect such a thing."
Adale was inclined to agree. At seven years old, her only concern had been stealing extra desserts from the kitchens. She wasn't even sure if she'd been literate yet, let alone coherent enough to ask a stranger for help securing her place in the succession.
"The Xytan court is significantly more cutthroat than the court at Birsgen," said Queen Saski. "I would be more surprised if she was not seeking allies. She may very well reach out to Ieflaria next."
"I'm inclined to call this a ruse," said Esofi. "Ionnes may be searching for an excuse to attack Ieflaria. If it looks like we are harboring paladins who would oppose his reign ..."
"But Ioanna is his rightful heir," pointed out Adale. "He should be happy to have paladins supporting her, even if he doesn't care much for them personally."
Knight-Commander Livius crossed his arms and glanced over at the lady paladin, who still had not uttered a word. "Perhaps," he said slowly. "But then, perhaps not. The situation is ... unique."
"How so?" asked Dietrich.
"Your majesty," said Livius, "you know it is not in my nature to gossip idly. But I met Princess Ioanna on several occasions before my exile. And it is my suspicion that, if she were examined by the Justices, she would be declared a truthsayer."
"What?" demanded Adale's parents in unison.
"You have never mentioned this before, Livius," said Saski.
"I am not authorized to make a formal assessment of Ioanna's blessing. And for a time, I doubted myself. But Dame Orsina —" He gestured to the young woman. "— has come to the same conclusion. She encountered Princess Ioanna several months ago and states that her blessing is what has alienated her from much of the Xytan court."
Everyone turned to stare at the paladin. She clasped her hands behind her back and shifted uncomfortably.
"Is this true?" demanded Dietrich.
"Dame Orsina does not speak the Ieflarian language, Your Majesty. She has come to us from southern Vesolda," explained Livius. "But I have no reason to doubt her word."
"Will you respond to Ioanna's letter?" asked Adale.
"I fear it may be dangerous to do so," said Livius. "If it is intercepted, the consequences could be disastrous. Nevertheless, I expect this is not the last we will hear from Princess Ioanna. And I think everyone in this room has an interest in seeing her take the throne."
"But that may not happen for decades," said Adale.
"That is why you and Esofi are here today, Adale," said Saski. "If a civil war breaks out in Xytae upon Ionnes's death, you may be the ones to decide whether or not Ieflaria will support Ioanna."
"We can't take a risk like that," said Esofi immediately. "Our army is no match for the Xytan legion. If Ioanna is deposed, her replacement will immediately seek to punish those who allied with her."
Adale wasn't surprised to hear this. Esofi usually erred on the side of caution, especially when it came to political machinations. Personally, though, she thought supporting Ioanna might be a risk worth taking if it meant having a reasonable ruler on the Xytan throne.
But Adale was much newer to meetings of politics and strategy, and she lived in constant fear of saying something foolish and discrediting herself. She decided that she'd raise the point with Esofi later, when they were alone. Esofi's judgment would be much softer than her parents'.
But Ionnes was young and healthy. He might live for another fifty years. And in that case, Adale and Esofi would not need to decide on the matter until they were old women. The thought was a little cheering. Surely fifty years would be long enough for Adale to accumulate the wisdom to make the correct choice?
Or maybe Ionnes would be shot in the forehead by a Masimi bowman tomorrow and the choice would be her parents'. That would be even better.
"There is no need to make a decision today," said Saski. "We only wish for you two to be aware of the situation as it unfolds. Do not discuss this matter with anyone except each other. We must be discreet until we know more."
The meeting came to an end, and everyone was dismissed. Adale sighed in relief, knowing they'd been lucky today. Meetings such as this could go on for hours, if the situation was urgent or if people felt like bickering over details.
"Was Ioanna at our wedding?" asked Adale as she and Esofi began the walk back to their room. "I think I remember a girl around her age. Hovering around the cake."
"No, none of the Isinthi family was in attendance. You are thinking of Princess Vitaliya of Vesolda. She was at our betrothal celebration as well. The one you missed."
"I heard you left early anyway," teased Adale.
"Only because I was so dreadfully bored." Esofi pressed a fleeting kiss to Adale's cheek. "Or something like that. I'm sure I had a good reason."
Esofi wasn't very demonstrative in public, but apparently this was typical of Rhodian people. She frequently hid her kisses behind fans or parasols, which Adale found adorable and silly in equal measure. She also jumped when someone grabbed her hands or hugged her too quickly, but the Ieflarians at Birsgen were learning not to do that.
Adale tried her best to respect Esofi's preferences by letting her initiate contact when she was comfortable with it. She did not want Esofi to dread going out in public with her, nor did she want to embarrass her more than she already did.
Unfortunately, this had prompted well-meaning priestesses of Dayluue to start approaching Adale with questions. How was her relationship with Esofi? Were they happy? Were they communicating? Was there anything the temple could do to help?
Adale found herself repeatedly reassuring them that Esofi was just shy. But since several hundred people had watched Esofi fling herself into the mouth of a dragon, Adale's words did not carry much weight.
Adale had learned to disappear whenever she caught sight of a red-violet robe, and not just because of that. Since she and Esofi were both women, it would be the Temple of Dayluue's responsibility to aid them in the creation of heirs. Only Dayluue's priestesses knew how to perform the Change.
The Change was a magical ritual most frequently used by those who had been born into bodies that did not align with their souls. It wasn't uncommon for young people to try it out, even if they were content with their bodies. Most reverted to their original forms within a few hours. Some never did and had to pay for a second ritual to undo the first, if they were inclined.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Queen of Rhodia"
Copyright © 2019 Effie Calvin.
Excerpted by permission of NineStar Press, LLC.
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