Crown’s father: the worst father ever. I imagine that Crown lies awake late, late at night and wishes she had Mere’s father instead … except it would never occur to Crown that her life was less than superb in every detail. Even the details she despises!
She’s not particularly logical, is she?
Crown stood at parade rest, like one of the Royal Halberdiers during review. She’d spent far more time with halberdiers during her youth than with her father. They’d taught her almost everything she knew—everything worthwhile, certainly. Her governesses had known nothing of any importance whatsoever, as far as she had ever discovered.
But the halberdiers knew that when her royal father lost his temper, it was better to keep your eyes high and look him boldly in the face. Look down at your feet and he became twice as savage, they said. It suited her. She’d be damned if she ever let Father see her flinch. Whose daughter was she anyway? Certainly his. And she would act like it.
He’d summoned her into his war room to scold her. She knew he also made a point. All she had to do was glance around, and take it in: the war room was large, thirty yards across and perfectly circular, and the stones of its floor had been carved into a map of all Albion with its various kingdoms, wooden cities set here and there like toys, with fortresses and towers. Tin soldiers marched across it, standing for armies. The seas encircling Albion were blue tile painted with serpents and sailing ships. Any child would have been delighted to play here.
She’d crept in here, five years old, to play war games and imagine herself a general. Until she was older, she’d never bothered looking at the wall hangings, long banners of tapestry showing the Mage-queen’s reign. They shone against the grey stone with silky color. The queen crowning her Key-consort. The queen raising an army of knights-royal, more knights than any ruler had since or probably would again: a mark of the power of her Key.
The queen wielding the Kingdom Magic. Forests marched at the wave of her hand. The tides rose into walls of glass. Her touch could blight or heal.
The queen stooping to the headsman’s block, an executioner in black mask and robe waiting with axe at ready. Behind the mask, the headsman might have been one of her knights-royal, or a noble, or anyone else at all. The public headsman had gone to his grave swearing he’d refused to do it, he’d never shed royal blood. It didn’t matter. The queen’s Key had turned his back on her long before.
After her death, her empire had fractured into splinters. All that remained to her true heirs was this tiny kingdom and this city.
“You’re looking at the tapestries, girl,” her father said. “You should. I hung them to illustrate a lesson. Beware pride and passion. You’ve romanticized your handsome Gloxian far too long to be healthy.”
She refused to lose her temper, no matter what he said.
“So young, so headstrong. Ruled by your own hot blood—I keep waiting for you to outgrow this stage, but not yet, alas.” He shrugged. “Allowing yourself to pretend a betrothal implies love? Nonsense. We are not commoners.”
The insufferable thing was that her brother Alexander was present, smirking behind his hand the whole time.
“Love will come after your eventual marriage, which will not be to Perrin of Gloxia,” Father finished. “I should never have let you have that miniature.”
Yes. The miniature, in its cunning gold locket. Open the filigree cover, and it swiveled on its hinge to click into place on the reverse of the portrait, out of the way. The portrait itself fitted snug as a toy into the palm of her hand. She kept it always with her. Before actually meeting Perry, she’d looked at it morning, noon, and night. Here was her promised lover: his clever face, the humorous lift of one eyebrow, that elegant ruffled collar and those tousled curls. What girl of spirit could have resisted?
Even after yesterday, she’d kept Perry’s portrait; yes, she’d thrown back his rings, but not his miniature. She hadn’t been able to give it up. She had it with her now, safe on its chain.
Ahh, her face probably betrayed her. Her face had never yet kept a secret, Mere told her. “You’ll give it back,” Father ordered.
What a good thing that she didn’t wear it openly. “I lost it,” she said. “Long ago.”
He looked at her with obvious disbelief, then sighed. “You know, when I tell a lie, no one living can catch me at it. That’s a skill you need to learn, and quickly, girl.”
“Gloxia only wants our secrets,” Alexander said. “They want the secret of the Keys. They’ll want their own Key. Your sweet Perrin’s their spy.”
“He is not!”
The impudence made her want to put a punch through something. She couldn’t keep still any longer. Pacing felt better, back and forth with long strides, her maiden’s braid swinging. That braid was down past her waist; she caught it to keep it from lashing, throttled it between her hands. When she had to show herself at public audiences, forced into skirts—spider-gauze studded with tiny crystals, silk slippers and velvet bows—her maids wove her braid with ropes of pearls and ribbons and flowers, extending it to her ankles, and she hated it. Hated it.
“Behave yourself,” Father said. “Remember who you are. I called Alexander here for this to remind you both that you are family. You should be working together. You’re twins—you are each a strategic asset to the other. No matter which of you is given command, you fight on the same side.”
“I’m not your soldier, Father!”
Alexander said from the side, “Oh, so kissing that downy-faced boy is like being ordered into battle?”
She’d have thrown him out bodily, except Father would kill them both afterward.
Glaring, though—no one could tell her not to glare. “I didn’t ask for your opinion!”
“You sound like a girl in a tantrum,” Alexander drawled.
Father rubbed his jaw, watching her—watching them both. She hated it most of all when he forgot his usual sarcasm, and went narrow-eyed and cold like this. He might as well be a stranger then, someone else’s father maybe, but not hers. Never hers. Nobody related to her should ever be so calculating.
We’re royal. We should rule from the heart, or else what use ruling at all?
“Remember that you’re not my heir any longer, Alexander,” he said at last. “When you speak to your sister, you’ll learn to be civil. And vice versa, Alexane. Sir Gawaine’s just brought me your friend Mere with a knightly magic new-flowered.”
Crown felt as if she had walked into a wall. Mere has a power? What? “Mere?” she said. Beside her, Alexander swore.
“Yes, Mere. She has the Eye of God.”
“You’re lying!” Alexander said. “It can’t be.”
“Of course it can. It might have been you. Now get out.”
Alexander did, with a thunderous slam of the door.
Mere has the Eye of God. It was only to be expected, once they’d found a Key. That was the way of it: a court of potential knights gathered around a new Key, and in the Key’s presence, one by one, they manifested the knightly powers. Magic strength or sight or other strange ability—the list of powers was long, and kept changing. Crown knew it usually took months for knightly powers to make themselves known, but here it was, barely two days gone and Mere had … it spoke of unusual strength in their Key. But it should have been her. She was crown heir, she should come first.
“Why did you tell Alexander?” she said.
Father raised an eyebrow. “To see what he would do.” Then: “Until now you’ve enjoyed an idle life, daughter. Useless. That ends now. You’ll pull in harness, you’ll work with others—your brother included. Stop carrying on like a spoiled princess in a story.”
“Well, I’m not that any longer, am I? I’m Crown!”
She wore her dining knife, of course, even here. She kept it honed razor-sharp; that was another trick the halberdiers had taught her. No wise soldier let his knife go dull. One slash with it and off came her braid, severed just below the nape of her neck and flung it down on the map of Albion.
“I’m not just a pretty princess anymore,” she spat.