Freedom was a myth.
Carys’s brother Andreus didn’t think so. He said a person could feel free even when walls surrounded him.
Carys loved her twin, but he was wrong. Freedom was a mirage. It taunted and promised a great deal as it hung just out of reach.
Back when they were young, her brother loved pointing out the women carrying trays of bread through one of the city’s squares— or the commoners’ children chasing each other, laughter echoing through the narrow alleys. They were all surrounded by walls, and yet they were happy. The walls kept them safe. The walls made them feel strong and secure. That, he argued, was freedom.
As they sat on the battlements he would sketch designs for a new windmill while she watched the guards practice, picking up tips on how to help Andreus improve his skill in combat.
Those who lived in the town below the Palace of Winds didn’t understand that danger came in many guises. Not only in the form of darkness, or winter, or the Xhelozi that hunted during the cold months. Those were dangers that could be seen. Anticipated. Defeated. The massive gray stones erected at the perimeter of the town kept those dangers at bay. The white stones that bordered the castle grounds high above on the plateau doubly secured the powerful and those under their protection. But the walls were a double-edged sword. Even as they pushed back outside dangers, they kept in the things that made Carys wish for some other kind of life. One that didn’t require she hide everything she was.
Carys placed her hand on the trunk of the Tree of Virtues and bowed her head, pretending to ask it for some blessing or other, as girls did when they wanted a husband or a baby or a pretty ribbon for their hair.
Foolish girls. They thought the tree, like the walls, was a sign of safety and blessing. How anything planted in the middle of town to commemorate the slaughter of an entire royal family symbolized anything positive was beyond Carys. Of course, in Eden, it was only Carys’s family who need worry about that fate. Perspective was everything.
Duty to simpering femininity done, Carys turned toward the royal guards. “Let’s go.”
She kept her eyes on their backs as she walked, not looking left or right. Not meeting the eyes of those who fell into bows or curtsies as they noticed her.
The streets beneath her feet were soon to be paved white to match the castle walls. It had been her father’s order. He said the white would show the city dwellers were as virtuous as those who lived above. He insisted the work would begin once the war was over. Carys supposed the Council of Elders would figure out how to keep the horses from mucking up the white of those stones. A fitting job for people as virtuous as animal droppings.
She caught sight of her destination and hurried her steps toward the tailor’s shop on the far western square. “Stay outside,” she ordered the guards as she walked to the door.
“How long will you be, Your Highness?” the freckle-faced guard asked.
Carys turned and stared at him for a long moment. She watched as his face turned red, making his freckles almost pop off his skin. Carys had that effect on people. It would amuse her, if their discomfort weren’t so clear.
When the hand at her guard’s side began to tremble she answered, “I shall be exactly the amount of time I require and not a second longer. And if you question me again, I shall see to it that your commanding officer teaches you the value of holding your tongue.”
“Of course, Your Highness.” The guard swallowed hard and looked down at the ground. “I apologize for any offense, Highness.”
The apology was a start. If she were her mother, it would also be his end. But she wasn’t her mother. She could only hope he’d remember this moment. If he learned from embarrassment, he might have a chance to survive behind the white walls. If not, he had only himself to blame.
Gathering her skirts, Carys stepped out of the last rays of sunlight, into the tailor’s shop, and shut the door. As soon as the latch clicked, Carys heard a familiar voice. “Welcome, Princess Carys. We’ve been expecting you.”
Carys smiled. She felt herself relax in the warmth of the greeting and of the fire crackling in the hearth on the opposite side of the stone room. A large mass of tawny fur was curled into a ball close to the fire. The fur ball opened its eyes, blinked twice, and then went back to sleep. No bows or curtsying from felines. They had no enemies to avenge, power to amass, or familial interests to protect, so they had little need to curry favor. How did cats get so lucky?
She nodded to the reed-thin man, who, straightened to his full height, barely reached the tip of her nose. The lines etched into his face were deeper than they had been the last time she saw him. Life had gotten harder in Garden City with the war. “Goodman Marcus,” she said with fondness. “Thank you for accommodating my request so quickly.”
They both turned at the sound of footsteps pounding the stairs. Carys barely had time to brace herself before Larkin threw her arms around her and hugged her tight.
“Daughter.” Goodman Marcus’s voice was sharp. “You forget yourself. The two of you are no longer children.”
“Pity, since we both were so adorable when we were small. Weren’t we, Your Highness?” Larkin stepped back, tossed her mass of long, frizzy dark curls, and laughed the way Carys so often wished she could.
“Royalty always strives for dignity,” Carys replied with mock sincerity, “which means we are far too controlled to ever be called adorable.”
“I’m certain you looked very dignified the day you fell into that pile of horse manure, Your Highness,” Larkin said with a deep curtsy.
Carys laughed. How could she not? “I wouldn’t have fallen if you hadn’t pushed me.”
“I didn’t push you,” Larkin said. “I was giving Prince Andreus a well-deserved shove. You, Princess, simply obstructed my path.”
Goodman Marcus’s eye twitched at his daughter’s antics. Carys remembered that look well from the days when he would bring Larkin to the palace to help with the court’s dress fittings. She was too enthusiastic and filled with energy to carefully pin hems and display bolts of silk. Typically, Larkin ended up feeling her father’s hand before being put in a corner to wait until his work was complete. A corner was where Andreus found and rescued her.
At first, Carys didn’t talk to the sniffling girl with the tear streaked cheeks. Even at five, Carys had been told time and again that she was to avoid strangers, to protect her brother from anyone who might get close enough to learn what must be hidden. Even then she understood her duty—to quiet the whispers in the Hall of Virtues and stymie those who would do anything to remove her family from power.
But Andreus never paid attention to the rules, and he could never ignore a child in distress. Not now. Not then, either. And he refused to leave the dimpled, dark-haired girl weeping in a crook of the castle. No amount of arguing made Andreus relent in his quest to free Larkin from her punishment. That was the beginning of the friendship. It was the first time Carys trusted anyone besides her twin. It was also the last.
For the next several months, the Queen frowned whenever she spotted Larkin giggling in the castle halls, but their mother never said anything pointed about the dangers of outsiders when Andreus was around. She saved that for the moments she and Carys were alone. She assured Carys that Larkin would be used against them. Maybe even hurt by others who wished to do the King and his family harm. Carys was ordered to let the friendship die. By the time winter came, Andreus had found a new friend to rescue and had forgotten about Larkin. Carys swore to do the same.
She lied. It was a minor fabrication compared to all the others, but it had always felt like a victory to her. And even small victories were significant in the middle of a lifelong war.
“Larkin,” Carys said smoothly, “perhaps we should focus on my order instead of worrying your father over events long past.”
“Of course, Highness,” Larkin sang out with a hastily bobbed curtsy. “This way.”
Larkin bounced up the stone steps leading to the second floor. As Carys followed, Goodman Marcus cleared his throat and said, “I apologize for my daughter, Your Highness.”
Carys stopped at the top of the stone steps. She looked back down at Larkin’s father as he twisted a length of hemp between his hands. A man who loved his daughter. A man who lived life with a virtue none in the castle could ever understand. “You have nothing to apologize for, Goodman.”
Carys walked through the doorway at the top of the stairs. Larkin closed the door, turned, and perched her hands upon her hips with a frown. “Now that we have Father convinced we are still giggling children with nary a true thought in our heads, tell me what’s wrong. You’re troubled.”
“Don’t you know it is not acceptable to tell a lady she looks out of sorts?”
“You have never been a traditional lady.”
And wasn’t that the heart of her problem? “My mother would have you locked in the tower for saying that.”
“Compliments come in many forms, Highness. Especially outside the white castle walls. Ladies are boring. Every move in every situation already prescribed. Gods, they’re barely even people.” Larkin walked over to a large wardrobe and opened the doors to reveal several gowns. “I sewed through the last several nights to complete the special accommodations you asked for. Try them on.”
Larkin selected the most important dress first.
Ignoring the questions in Larkin’s eyes, Carys allowed her friend to pull the corset tight, as if willing curves out of thin air. But as much as Larkin tried, Carys was never going to be soft and curvy. Her edges were hard, inside and out. Still, the dress fit like a glove. Her mother would appreciate that.
Carys cared more about what she’d asked Larkin to add to the dress. The compartments were hidden in the seams, impossible to spot even for one who knew they existed. Larkin was both cunning and skilled.
Carys slid her hands into the pockets and smiled.
“Extra deep, lined with leather, each with a built-in sheath, just as requested.” Larkin paused, staring at Carys for several long seconds. Carys knew her friend was waiting for her to explain. But Carys said nothing and Larkin understood her well enough to simply nod before walking to the table near the window. When she turned she was holding an iron stiletto. “For my lady’s inspection.”
“Where did you get that?” Carys hissed, looking toward the door.
“Never fear, Your Highness.” Larkin smiled again. “It belongs to Father. He hasn’t used it in years, and I doubt he even knows where he last saw it. I did, however, and felt a royal request was a proper enough reason to borrow it. I’ll return it to its very dusty chest after you leave.”
The handle was less intricate and the blade inferior to the ones Carys had asked her twin to commission two years ago. No princess could commission the castle blacksmith to make weapons. Not unless she wanted the rest of the court and the Council to find out and start asking questions. Questions were the last thing Carys or her brother needed.
Carys felt inside the pocket for the sheath opening, then practiced sliding the blade into the concealed carrier and drawing it again. The first three draws caught on the fabric. The fourth came free without incident. With an hour of practice she would be able to draw and brandish the weapon with both speed and ease. Knowing that made the knot of anxiety wedged deep in her stomach ease a bit. It had been growing there for weeks as if trying to warn her of—something. When she’d mentioned her unease to Andreus, he’d told her she was just jumping at shadows, that she shouldn’t look for problems where there were none.
Perhaps she was being paranoid, but she liked having her blades near. With so little she could control, it was good to have command over this and to know that no one, not even her brother, was aware of the secret. To survive in the castle, a girl needed all the secrets she could get.
Out of the corner of her eye, Carys spotted Larkin poking a stick into the small fireplace. Once the end was ablaze, she began lighting candles throughout the room to chase away the lengthening shadows.
“Is there a reason you’re not using the overhead lights?” Carys asked. Every business in the town was allotted a share of the power harnessed by the windmills atop the castle towers. Seven massive windmills to represent the seven virtues of the kingdom and the power that those who lived by those virtues wielded.
Power. It came in many forms. Running the lights. Operating the water. Raising people above their stations. Ordering people to their deaths. In Eden, he who controlled the wind had the power.
“Candlelight is not as harsh as the overhead glow.” Larkin glanced at the window, then finished lighting the last candle before placing the burning stick into the fire. “Shall we move on to the next garment, Your Highness?”
“Larkin, what do I not know?” Carys asked as her friend busied herself at the wardrobe. Larkin always changed the subject when she was hiding something. When she looked away the trouble was even greater, and right now Larkin was keeping Carys at her back. “Larkin, tell me. Is there something wrong with the lights?”
Her friend turned with a sigh. “People are saying the wind has not blown as strong as it should in recent weeks, Highness, and that’s why there isn’t as much power. The shortage has caused some . . . tension.”
Tension was never a good word when it referred to the King’s subjects. When there was tension, trouble followed.
Carys moved to the window and looked up at the palace windmills. The massive structures loomed above the white walls and cut through the backdrop of a darkening sky. The sound of their churning was the accompaniment to life in Garden City. Carys could hear their pulsing hum now, but could the blades be moving less speedily than in the past? Andreus would be able to tell. He’d made studying the windmills and the power they created his life’s work. The orb— the light that sat high atop the tallest tower of the palace—used his design. The light was supposed to welcome all who wished to add their talents to strengthen the kingdom and promised safety in its glow, because the things that hid in the darkness could never triumph when there was a light powered by virtue pushing them back.
Her twin had helped build the newest light, but even he had known that the brightest orb would never banish the darkness completely—no matter how big it got or how hard the windmills turned.
Andreus would know if there were a problem with power production. Without her brother’s knowledge, all Carys could say was that the hallways and great rooms in the palace were still illuminated just as brightly by the wind-powered light. Not that it mattered. Lack of power in the palace would cause little inconvenience; down here in the city, it would lead to much larger problems.
“Where is the tension greatest?” The gown rustled as Carys turned her back to the window.
“A few of the millers have expressed some upset, but Father has given them some of our wind power allotment. That has helped quiet the loudest of the complaints.” Larkin helped Carys out of the formal gown and into the next dress. “But there are still whispers, and those whispers are getting louder with every day.”
“What do the whispers say, Larkin?”
Larkin bit her lip and sighed. “The whispers say the cold is coming. The days are getting shorter and the Xhelozi will be waking to hunt if they haven’t come out of slumber already. People are making offerings at the old shrine to keep the winds blowing—especially now that we have so few guardsmen to keep the walls safe if there is an attack.”
“I thought most people avoided the shrine.” The first of Eden’s seers had ordered it constructed to give citizens a place to appeal directly to the Gods in times of struggle—and they had, until five years ago. A cyclone had appeared above the castle, and though the seer drove the wind tunnel back into the mountains, he warned that the deadly winds had been an answer to a careless request made at the sacred site. After that, the common people stayed away. Only the most troubled were driven to visit the grove on the edge of the city.
“They did, Highness.” Larkin sighed. “But that was before, when the old seer was alive and there was enough wind power in the city. The new seer is lovely, but they wonder how someone who looks as if she can be blown over by the wind can possibly have the power to control it. Those who visit the shrine say they are trying to send her strength.”
“And those who aren’t visiting the shrine? What are they saying?”
“They say your family and the Council have put us all in danger by installing Lady Imogen as Eden’s seer. They are wondering if your family truly wishes to keep Eden safe.”
Carys stiffened. “Do they speak of the Bastians?”
“Not where I can hear them,” Larkin assured her. “A new seer is bound to make people nervous, especially as the first cold season approaches, but those I have talked to trust Prince Micah to keep the kingdom safe. They know he would not be planning to wed Lady Imogen if he wasn’t convinced of her skills. Once they are wed and the warm months return, things will settle down.”
Carys forced a smile. “I’m sure you’re right. I value your thoughts on this.”
Larkin looked at Carys. “But if you don’t mind me asking, Highness, what are your thoughts of our seer? All anyone in town knows for sure is that she is young and lovely.”
In the shifting shadows cast by the candlelight, Carys stepped into the next garment. Careful not to meet Larkin’s gaze, Carys pictured the dark-eyed oracle who moved through the castle as quiet as a ghost but seemed to be everywhere and see everything.
“She’s . . . smart,” Carys offered. It was no lie. On the rare occasion Imogen spoke of matters other than the wind and the stars, her future sister showed vast knowledge of the kingdom’s history and the inner workings of the castle.
“And she’s dedicated,” Carys added. In the six months since the seer had been summoned from the Guild to court, Imogen had spent several hours of each day on the battlements, either in meditation with the stars or in consultation with the Masters in charge of the windmills.
“My father and the Council believe Lady Imogen has great power.”
“I didn’t ask what they thought, Highness.” Larkin pulled the laces of the white-and-rust dress tight. “I asked about you.”
Carys shrugged and turned again to the looking glass. Her long pale hair glowed almost silver in the shifting light. “I have not spent enough time alone with Imogen to know her well.” Or to trust her.
“Has Andreus spent much time with her?”
Carys looked hard at her friend. “Why do you ask about Andreus? Have there been whispers in the city about the two of them?”
Her brother’s study of the windmills was almost as well known to the people of the kingdom as his other hobby.
Larkin took a step back. “I meant no offense, Highness. There has been no gossip about Lord Andreus and Lady Imogen. Only about how quickly she charmed Prince Micah.”
Carys let out a breath in relief. Her twin wasn’t known to have many boundaries when it came to attractive women, and many of the women he encountered seemed to have even fewer than he did. While she did her best to stand by her brother, there were some things she couldn’t protect him from: first and foremost, himself.
Larkin looked as if she wanted to say something more, but then she shook her head and asked instead about the details of the upcoming wedding. Carys was happy to switch the conversation to talk of the ceremonies and balls and tournaments that would be held in the royal couple’s honor in the glow of Eden’s orb. With the cold coming and the expense of the war looming, the Council of Elders had suggested the festivities stay within the castle walls. Her father had agreed with the Council, but Micah refused to accept their decision since everyone in the kingdom would hear of the lack of typical amusements. They would speculate about the depth of the Council’s support for the Crown Prince and his betrothed, or whether the descendants of the exiled House of Bastian might be the Elders’ true choice for the throne.
Carys understood her elder brother’s concerns. Rumors alone could be enough to spur another contest for the crown, especially with a war depleting their guards. So she’d bided her time until she found her brother alone in his rooms, then laid out her plans for expanding the celebrations.
“You must tell Father you’ve been approached by people who are certain the lack of festivities means that we are losing the war. Have some of your friends say they’ve heard from their fathers that a smaller than normal wedding celebration is the signal to the highest lords to flee the city.”
“You want people to think we’re losing the war?”
“No.” People thought that anyway. “I want Father to believe his lukewarm support for your wedding confirms for our people that Eden is losing the war. He and the Council will be forced to make the celebration the grandest seen in centuries to prove their confidence in victory. And once the people witness the generosity you show at your wedding tournament, they will look forward to your reign. You will make them feel safe in their homes and gain their loyalty all in one sweep.”
It only took a day for Carys to hear the rumors about what the dearth of pomp and circumstance meant for the realm, and a day more for the proclamation of a celebratory tournament, street fair, and ball to be held in honor of the nuptials. The construction of the tournament challenges had begun almost immediately on the contest field a league from Garden City’s walls. They were supposed to be done by the time Micah and Father returned from their review of the battlefields to the south.
The sun had set by the time the last dress had been fitted. Carys walked to the window and studied the sky as Larkin tucked the garments away. “The days are so much shorter now that autumn is coming to a close.”
“The planters all believe there will be more snow than usual this year. If so, people will be doubly grateful for the memory of the wedding festivities. They will have stories to tell on days too bitter and dangerous to venture outside.” Larkin closed the wardrobe doors and turned. “I only wish I could be here to see it all.”
“The wedding is in five weeks,” Carys said. “Surely you and your father will be in town. Will it not be too late in the season for you to go out on commission trips by then?” Goodman Marcus’s skills were often sought by lords and ladies throughout the strongholds of Eden, and Larkin, now equally skilled, accompanied him. Carys envied their closeness and their freedom to do as they wished without always having to be on their guard. But Goodman Marcus was careful to stay close to Garden City in the winter months. He was wise to do so. The Xhelozi, growing in number every year, were fierce, and winter was their hunting season.
Larkin smiled. “It is late in the season to travel for work, but not too late to travel to my new home.”
Everything inside Carys went still.
“New . . . home?”
Larkin looked down at her hands. “I didn’t know how to tell you. I met someone. His name is Zylan—a furrier whose family lives in Acetia in the shadow of the Citadel. And, well . . . ” She looked up with a shy smile. “I’m betrothed.”
“Betrothed. You are moving away?” Other than Andreus, Larkin was her only true friend. And now she was going to Acetia—the district of Eden farthest from the palace’s orb—in order to get married and live a life of her own. A life with responsibilities she chose instead of ones pressed upon her through schemes or circumstances of birth. A life no longer filled with those thirsting for power.
“Is this what you wish to do?” Everything inside her churned. The candles and hearth fire flickered. “If your father is insisting you marry, I could intercede on your behalf. Explain that you are still young and wish to wait.”
“I’m four months older than you, Highness. Zylan is a good man. He said he knew the moment we met that we would wed. He cares for me.”
“Of course he does.” Carys blinked back the sting of tears. Crying was a weakness she couldn’t afford. Not even for a friend. “You are one of the best people I have ever met. He would not be worth marrying if he didn’t see that. When do you plan to wed?”
“On Winter Solstice. I will live with Zylan’s sister’s family until then. Father believes we should travel as soon as possible since the days are getting shorter. He says it will be good for Zylan and me to have several weeks to get to know each other better before the ceremony. I think he’s hoping I’ll change my mind so he doesn’t have to cook for himself.”
“But you won’t.” Once Larkin’s mind was made up, she rarely changed it. And once her steadfast heart was given, it never was taken back. She’d proven that time and again over the years.
Larkin placed a hand on Carys’s arm. “I know when you meet him you will understand why I have to go. You will love him, too.”
Perhaps. But Carys would also hate him for taking her friend.
She never wished anything so much as that she, too, could go to Acetia, at least to attend Larkin’s marriage. But it could never be. People would talk if Carys left the city. They’d realize how important Larkin was to her. Carys’s wedding gift to Larkin would have to be the gift of letting her go without the threat of the darkness following her. Maybe then Larkin could be free for the both of them.
“I shall hope for strong winds to guide your steps, but I will miss you dearly.” Carys wrapped her arms around her friend, wishing she could be happy. Instead, there was emptiness.
“If only you could be with me,” Larkin suggested with a laugh that didn’t cover her tears. “Think of the trouble we could cause.”
For a minute, Carys let herself think of it—of finally being able to be herself and use her skills without anyone passing judgment. What would it be like to finally do something she wanted to do without using schemes or deceit? Who would she be then?
More than anything she wanted to find out. Instead, she said, “I do not think the world is ready for the problems the two of us would create.”
Larkin gave her a wistful smile. “Well, maybe someday. You never know how the winds will blow, Your Highness.”
“Maybe,” she said, even though she did know.
Her lofty, much-admired life was right here in Garden City. As long as Andreus needed her to guard his secrets and keep them all from harm, someday would never be.