“Look, Zéphine!” Marie called. “A unicorn!”
Even though Zéphine knew what would happen, her heart still thumped with hope. She set down her spoon, then jerked her head up to see the breakfast room window where her little sister stood. But when she looked where Marie pointed, Zéphine saw only a gazebo whose white latticework was clogged with crimson roses.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” Marie whispered.
“Yes,” lied Zéphine. “Beautiful.”
Why should she hope to see a unicorn now, when she never had in all her life?
Marie untangled herself from the lace curtains. She was only twelve; baby fat still clung to the corners of her beaming face. “And on your nineteenth birthday, too! It’s a lucky sign—the unicorns will love your maiden dance tonight, I know they will.”
Zéphine sat back in her chair and looked at her little silver bowl. She didn’t want any more custard; the few mouthfuls she had already eaten hung heavy in her stomach.
Marie kept on chattering. “...and the suitors can start watching you dance for the unicorns next month. Philippe is first in line to try, right? He would make a good king.”
“Mother danced for nine men before Father.” Zéphine mashed the custard with her spoon.
“I wouldn’t like that.” Marie’s dark eyebrows drew together. “Nine men, all dead....”
I would only like to summon a unicorn, thought Zéphine. The men can look after themselves.
But she knew that no unicorn would ever come for her.
She stood abruptly. “I’m going out.”
“Leave me alone.”
As she pushed open the glass doors, she saw that Marie had tears wobbling in her eyes. Tonight, Zéphine would get to watch those pretty dark eyes overflow with tears until Marie’s trembling little hands finished sewing Zéphine’s eyes shut.
She strode past the gazebos and topiaries to the northern quarter of the garden. First came the fountains. Marie loved to play among the glistening water-spray, but Zéphine hated them: their many-tiered elegance proclaimed the wealth and peace that the unicorns had given Retrouvailles for a thousand years.
Beyond the fountains, though, lay the pools. They were crafted with as much art, but made to look natural: some overgrown with water-lilies, some surrounded by cattails, some clean and open, ruffled only when a crane alighted. Here Zéphine had always been happiest, because she could pretend she was outside and free.
Today the pools looked nothing like freedom; they reflected the high outer wall of the garden, the mocking rim where stone met sky. If only walls stood between her and freedom, she would have been gone years ago. But the ancient enchantments of Retrouvailles did not permit princesses to leave the palace grounds until they had performed the maiden dance and been accepted.
Fear burned through her stomach. She halted, looking down at the still, dark water in the nearest pool. She had swum in this pool and she knew how deep it went. Deep enough for drowning.
Swallowing, she knelt by the water. Plump white stones by ringed the pool; for weeks she had planned to use them to weigh herself down, but now she couldn’t make herself pick them up.
If she failed her maiden dance, she might not have another chance to die with her soul still free. Still human. But even so, she couldn’t move.
She only needed to be brave for one moment, long enough to jump. Drowning couldn’t hurt too badly. If she could inhale enough water right away—if she could be absolutely sure that she would indeed fail tonight—if she were not too afraid to do anything but kneel here, shivering.
She was infinitely afraid.
“Contemplating the water, demoiselle?”
Zéphine flinched, then recognized the voice. The cold ache in her stomach eased. “Hello, Justin. Guarding the virtues again?”
Justin stood to attention in the narrow point where two walls met, his dark blue coat crisp and buttoned, one hand on the filigreed hilt of his sword as if he might need to defend the kingdom at any moment. He would not: the garden was a nine-pointed star to symbolize the nine virtues of a true princess, and the palace guard maintained a ceaseless watch on each of the nine points to symbolize their devotion.
He saluted. “Someday I’ll be lucky at cards.” Guarding the virtues was one of the least favorite duties among the guards, and they regularly wagered it away.
Zéphine fought a smile. She was sure he gambled poorly on purpose, likely because he knew how much seeing him meant to her. Ever since Justin arrived at the palace six months ago, she’d sought him in the gardens again and again. Out of all the guards—out of anyone, Marie excepted—he was the only one who saw her as a girl, not a maiden fated to dance with the unicorns.
It didn’t hurt that he was handsome. He was no taller than Zéphine, but his arms were round with muscle; his skin, though pale and colorless when he first arrived from the northern provinces, was now quite respectably tanned; and his eyes were an exotic pale blue, and his mouth seemed always on the verge of a smile. For several months, she had kept thinking she would like to kiss that mouth.
Princesses were not supposed to long for guardsmen.
I will never see him smile again, she thought as she stood and walked towards him.
“You look tense. Out for a last walk?”
Zéphine’s heart skipped before she realized what he meant. “I suppose I won’t see you as much when I’m queen.” She did her best to smile.
“Don’t say me you’ll miss me.” Up close, his smile didn’t look convincing either; his jaw was tight, his forehead lined. Zéphine had to crush a sudden conviction that he knew what was wrong with her. She’d been so careful. Nobody knew: not her father, not even Marie.
“What if I will?” She leaned against the wall beside him.
He stayed at attention, facing forward, but his eyes flicked sideways at her. “I think a queen will have better ways to amuse herself. Starting with her husband.”
She sat down with a huff and curled up against the wall. Her red skirts pooled around her; she thought of her blood seeping across the floor of the Great Dome, and swallowed dryly.
“That’s bad posture, demoiselle.”
“Soldier, I command you to sit.”
“I’m not technically a soldier.” But he sat beside her anyway, stretching out his legs as if his white trousers couldn’t possibly stain.
Zéphine tore at a clump of grass. She wanted to forget about tonight for just a few minutes, but how could she, when her stomach was still cramping in fear and every heartbeat took her closer to the unicorns?
“So you dance tonight?”
She nodded, not trusting herself to speak.
“I thought a princess’s maiden dance was supposed to be joyous.”
“What do you know?” Zéphine turned on him, not caring that tears prickled at her eyes. “What does the Reine-Licorne mean to someone like you? Crowns and silks and formal court sessions? Or legends and glory and—”
“You.” He wiped a tear off her cheek with his thumb. “Just you, demoiselle.”
“You don’t know me. You don’t know what I know about being demoiselle.”
“Then tell me what you know.” He looked straight into her eyes. “Tell me what you want.”
“I know my first kiss will be with the man whom the unicorns permit to watch me dance and live. I know my first child and every one after will be a daughter. I know that I will dance with the unicorns every full moon until I die, when my body will be left on the Plaine d’Ossements; and when the unicorns have gnawed away my flesh they will crack open my bones for the marrow. And I wish I could change any part of it.”
“Well.” Justin leaned closer. “One of those things I can change.” And he kissed her.
It was barely more than a brush of his lips, but it sent a shock through her body, sharper than fear. For one moment she was stunned into stillness. Then she leaned forward to kiss him back.
A moment later he had gathered her into his arms and was kissing her open-mouthed. She felt it through her whole body, a fire she had never quite believed existed, least of all for her. It felt like her bones were melting, but that was all right, because he lowered her onto the grass. When he lifted his lips from hers, it was to kiss her neck and then her collarbone.
“I love you,” she whispered.
His lips stilled against her skin; then he sat up, breathing heavily. “I’m sorry. I can’t— I’m sorry.”
She sat up too. “Sorry you kissed me or sorry I said—” Her throat closed.
“You’re the princess. You have to dance for the unicorns. I can’t—” He choked on a bitter laugh. “I can’t take that away from you. I can’t hurt you.”
Zéphine hugged herself. “It doesn’t matter,” she said dully. “I’ve never seen a unicorn.” She ignored his sharp intake of breath. “My dance will fail tonight, so Marie will be queen and I will be the unicorn bride. Do they tell you guards what that means? They will dress me in white like a bride and give me the draught of waking sleep so I can neither feel nor move. Then Marie will lay me on the floor of the Great Dome; she’ll sew my eyes shut with unicorn hair, slit my arms from wrist to elbow, and perform her maiden dance around me. When the unicorns come for her they will drink my blood until I die and eat my soul when it escapes between my lips. It’s the only way she can take my birthright once the unicorns have rejected me. That’s why I’ve never loved my sister. I’ve always known the last thing I’ll ever see is her sewing my eyes shut. The last thing I’ll ever hear is her song to the unicorns.”
Justin drew her back into his embrace, but she held herself rigid and went on, “Being the unicorn bride, it’s not just dying. Unicorn queens can rest with the ancestors when they die, but unicorn brides forget their names and ride for eternity with the unicorns. I’d let you take me right now if it would make me unfit, but I’d still have to try and fail and I can’t bear it. I won’t. I came down here because I was trying to decide if I should drown myself in the pond.” She gulped. Her voice had gone high and babbling, but she couldn’t care. “You have a sword. You could—”
“I’m not going to kill you, demoiselle.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“Zéphine.” His arms tightened around her. “I couldn’t ever kill you.” He pressed his face into her hair.
It felt comforting to be in his arms, but he couldn’t protect her. “I’m dying anyway.”
He drew a slow, deep breath. “You said that even if I— You wouldn’t be unfit. But I was taught that a princess draws the unicorns through her purity.”
Her face heated. “The purity of her heart. That means she wills nothing, desires nothing but to dance before the unicorns and by dancing, protect her people. And I—” Her fingers tightened around his arm. “I don’t remember which came first. Not seeing the unicorns, or wanting to be free. But either way—there’s no chance they will look at me tonight and judge me pure.”
Justin let out a deep breath. “Did your tutors ever tell about the Bull of Kyrland?”
“Of course,” she said. Kyrland was the barbarian country across the northern sea; the Bull protected it as the unicorns protected Retrouvailles.
“In my home town... most of us are more than half Kyrlander. So we know about the Bull. It isn’t like the unicorns. It doesn’t judge your heart. The Bull comes for whoever spills blood and offers it a binding price—something as precious as what you want it to give you.”
Zéphine blinked at the grass. Hope felt like a cold weight in her stomach. “But... what could possibly be as precious as my birthright?”
He squeezed her. “Offer it your birthright as the price to take you away from here.”
She sat rigid for a moment, hardly daring to breathe. Escape. For years, she’d thought it impossible. She’d thought she would have to be queen or unicorn bride or die.
She could live.
Zéphine twisted to face him. “Tell me how to summon the Bull.”
Justin’s face was unreadable. “You’re sure?”
“Do you think I have any other choice? Tell me how.”
He let go of her. “As my demoiselle commands.”
She scrambled into a kneeling position as Justin pulled a knife out of his boot. It must be his own personal knife: it had none of the decorations and monogramming that were all over the palace guard’s regalia—just a plain wooden handle, with a one-sided blade that angled down to the tip.
He handed her the knife. “Carve a circle on the ground. It doesn’t need to be big.”
The knife handle felt cold and awkward. Zéphine clenched her hand around it and shoved the knife into the ground. Slowly, jerkily she ripped it through the grass roots in a little circle barely wider than her hand.
“Good,” said Justin. “Wipe off the blade. Now cut your finger enough to draw blood. I can’t do it for you, I’m sorry—”
Zéphine sliced her palm open with a long, shallow cut. The pain made her wince, but her hands were steady. She was doing something. She wasn’t trapped any more. She thought she could suffer anything if she were only doing something to escape.
“Now?” She looked at Justin.
He looked a little sad. “Spill your blood inside the circle. Say, ‘Black bull of the north, come to my blood.’ Name your price and make a wish.”
Her heart thudded in her ears. “Black bull of the north.” It wasn’t just her heartbeat; there was something deeper thudding through the ground, almost in time to her heart. “Come to my blood.” She could barely breathe; the vibrations rippled through her bones. “Take my birthright... set me free.”
Everything went dark. She couldn’t feel the grass beneath her or the sting of the cut on her palm, only the heavy beat of approaching hooves. Then she saw something moving towards her: a silhouette of even deeper darkness, growing every moment until it towered over her like a mountain. Hot breath steamed across her face—
She was lying on the grass, light dazzling her eyes. Zéphine blinked, her eyes watering. She was still in the palace. Had the Bull refused her?
Then she heard crashes. The clatter of metal on metal. And screams.
She sat up with a gasp. “Justin. What—”
He shoved her back down. “You summoned the Bull but he didn’t listen. You did break the protections on the palace.” His voice had gone harsh and clipped. “Stay down or I will tie you up.”
At the edge of her vision, she glimpsed black-cloaked men. She caught her breath in fear, because she knew they were not any of Father’s men—and then they started speaking in a harsh, guttural language. Kyrlander.
Justin answered in the same tongue. They bowed to him and left.
Zéphine stared up at him. Her whole body had gone cold.
He looked back down with no hint of a smile at all. “I am Prince Idrask Leifsson, and you just allowed my men into your kingdom. Thank you, demoiselle.”
She surged up, grabbing the knife off the ground, and lunged for him.
He caught her easily, twisted her wrist until she dropped the knife with a grasp, and slammed her back into the ground, this time face-first.
“You really won’t win against me in battle, demoiselle.”
She sobbed with fury into grass. He had lied to her. Every single day he had lied to her, and most especially today. When he kissed her—when he said he wanted her to be free—
She had been such a fool.
“What are you doing to my family?” she gritted out.
“Let’s hope they’ve been taken prisoner.” There was a short silence; then someone shouted from a distance in Kyrlander. “Time for us to find out.” He hauled her to her feet, pulling her hands behind her. “Do I need to tie your hands?”
Zéphine pressed her lips together. After a moment Idrask sighed, gripped her arm, and pulled her forward.
Her face heated as she remembered the last time he had touched her. He had only stopped because he had realized it wouldn’t break the protections on the palace.
The gardens were still empty; at first she could almost imagine that nothing had happened. Then she saw a group of black-clad men marching along the side of the palace; the glass doors of the breakfast room were shattered. She had always thought she didn’t love her sister, but when she thought of Marie trapped by the Kyrlander soldiers, she felt sick.
Idrask dragged her down the pathway, past the breakfast room and towards the southern wing of the palace which surrounded the Great Dome. She glimpsed the weathered, gray-green curve of the dome rising above the other rooftops; she remembered the mosaics on the inside walls, portraits of queens all the way back to Ysonde Blanchemains, the first Reine-Licorne. It was probably full of Kyrlander soldiers now.
They were certainly all over the rest of the palace now. She saw more of them, and more signs of fighting: smashed vases, doors swinging open, and sometimes bodies lying horribly still—Idrask always grabbed her chin and turned her face away when she stared. They passed groups of guards taken prisoner, little frightened clumps of servants, and one noblewoman crouched sobbing in a corner, her lacy blue dress spattered with blood.
By the time they entered the southern wing, Zéphine felt like she was in a dream: as if she had closed her eyes and found herself in this nightmare palace overrun by Kyrlanders, and all she had to do was wake up.
The inside of the southern wing was only more dreamlike: fewer signs of fighting—the tapestries had not been ripped off the wall, the golden molding and rosettes still gleamed, the mosaic floors were unstained—but all the palace guards, the nobles and servants, privy councilors and petty officials were gone, replaced by ranks of pale Kyrlander soldiers who saluted Idrask.
Then he dragged her into the Great Dome. They walked through the rings of pillars and she saw the Unicorn Throne, a low, curved seat gleaming like pearl in the sunshine that fell through the eye in the center of the dome. She saw her father lying before the throne in his white-gold robes of state, his graying beard matted with blood. Saw the pool of blood lazily spreading out.
She choked. One part of her mind kept stuttering, It’s not real, not real, not real, but the rest of her knew that this was all real and true and she had made it happen.
“Welcome to my new home.” A man stood by the throne in simple gray—shorter than Idrask, and older, but with the same pale blue eyes, and something similar in the lines of his square face.
Zéphine drew a trembling breath and squared her shoulders. “Who are you?”
“Launrad Yfir-konungr, lord of all Kyrland and now Retrouvailles. I must thank you for your help, my dear—how does your formal title go? Demoiselle la Plus Pure?” His teeth gleamed as he smiled. “And thank you, Idrask, for finally getting her skirts up. I was beginning to think they made all their guards into eunuchs.”
“I did better, Uncle.” Idrask’s voice was blank and respectful. “I persuaded her to invoke the Bull. Of course he did not hearken to her in the least, but it made her unable to summon the unicorns. After such betrayal, I’m sure their house has lost the covenant entirely.”
He was lying. He knew she had gotten at least halfway in the summoning; he had said as much. Zéphine didn’t dare even look at him, but her mind raced. He was the nephew—possibly heir—of an emperor who now ruled half the world. Why could he possibly want to lie about how he had helped achieve an overwhelming victory?
Launrad clucked his tongue. “Not a bad day’s work, though I’m still in terrible doubt about your manhood.”
Idrask’s expression didn’t change. “I’ve done as I promised. Now where is my brother?
“In another moment. We have one more guest on the way—and here she is. Good morning, demoiselle.”
Zéphine turned, knowing and dreading what she would see. There was Marie, each arm gripped by a guard, her dark hair falling out of its chignon and her mouth set in a rebellious pucker. When she saw Father’s body, her mouth dropped open, lips trembling; then she snapped it shut and glared at Launrad.
“The situation is simple,” said Launrad. “I control the entire palace. By sunset I will control the capital. Within a few days, my ships will land in your ports. To ensure a peaceful transfer of power, you and your sister will publicly proclaim me lord, then journey to Kyrland and bow before the Obsidian Throne. Or you will die right here like your father.”
Marie’s glare didn’t falter. “We’re the daughters of Retrouvailles. We bow to no one but the unicorns.”
Zéphine wasn’t even aware of moving before she was kneeling in full obeisance, hands and forehead pressed to the floor. “Please. She’s only a child. She doesn’t understand. I am a woman, I am the eldest daughter of my house, and I submit. I submit.”
“Zéphine!” Marie gasped, but she was drowned out by Launrad’s bark of laughter.
“Say so in public, and I think we have an agreement.” Zéphine rose in time to see Launrad glance at Marie. “There will be time to teach your sister obedience later.”
“Zéphine,” Marie repeated, eyes glistening. “After Father— how could you?”
“I think because your older sister wants to live, my brave little demoiselle.” Launrad strode towards Marie. “It’s a desire you’ll understand better as you grow older and realize you’re able to die.” He tilted her chin up with a finger. “You’re much more foolish than her, but also prettier. I think you will be the one I make my bride.”
Zéphine’s hands clenched. “She’s thirteen—”
“I can stand to wait a year or three for sons.”
Idrask gripped her shoulder painfully tight and whispered in her ear, “Don’t. When he’s in this mood, all you can do is obey.”
“I’ll never submit,” Marie snarled, which only prompted another laugh from Launrad as he turned away from her. “Idrask sister-son. Do you want your brother back now?”
“Then I have one more task for you. Just one, and I’ll return him.” Launrad was only a pace away from them now. “We don’t need the older princess. Kill her.”
“No!” Marie shouted.
Idrask didn’t blink. “I thought you needed her to publicly submit.”
“I changed my mind. Besides, weddings are much more amusing, don’t you think? Marie is enough. Kill Zéphine right now if you want your brother back.”
Marie was struggling with the guards and yelling. Zéphine couldn’t move; she felt like she was watching everything from somewhere very cold and far away. She knew what would happen. Idrask had already betrayed and used her. He had helped his uncle invade her kingdom and kill her father. He was content to see Marie forced into a marriage that would be no more than rape. All for his brother. There was no chance he would scruple at killing Zéphine now.
“No,” said Idrask.
Her gaze snapped to his face, pale and inscrutable, and now the fear started up and down her body in cold-hot waves. Because she wasn’t going to die, she was going to dangle between them as Launrad’s plaything, the same way she had been the unicorns’—and Idrask again was nothing like she’d thought—
“You don’t want your brother back?” Launrad raised an eyebrow.
“I think this is another one of your loyalty tests, and I’m tired of them.” Idrask crossed his arms. “Where is my brother?”
—but he had still never cared about her, and she was doubly a fool to have hoped that he wanted to save her.
Launrad shrugged. “You’re right. And here comes your brother.” He gestured. Light glimmered beside the Unicorn Throne and a pale, scrawny boy with tangled dark hair appeared on the ground. His hands were folded over his chest and he lay quite still. Someone must have washed him, because it took a moment to see that his throat had been cut.
“Kari,” Idrask breathed, and lunged forward. In a second he had pulled the body into his arms; his shoulders trembled, but he didn’t make any sound.
“You really are the stupider of the two,” said Launrad. “I needed the power to transport men across the sea instantaneously. What did you think the Bull would accept as a binding price? Kari at least knew it would take royal blood.” He shrugged. “Though he was stupidly happy to die in your place. Since you’re still alive, I suppose you do come out ahead.”
Idrask didn’t look up. “I’m going to kill you.”
“No.” Launrad’s smile didn’t to break. “If you were going to kill me, you would have already done it instead of talking.” He leaned over Idrask’s shoulder. “But you know that even if you could succeed, you would die and so would this princess. You’ve just demonstrated that you’ll risk your own brother’s life to protect her. So I think I’m safe.”
For a moment there was no sound but Idrask’s slow, trembling breaths. How do you like being the one betrayed?, thought Zéphine, and felt a moment of pure, vicious pleasure.
Then Launrad clapped his hands once. “But I can give as well as take. You refused for so long to despoil Zéphine, and now you’re unwilling to kill her. It’s only fitting to let you wed your tainted demoiselle. Here and now. Guards!” He raised his voice slightly. “Bring in the ministers of state.”
She wouldn’t have to face the unicorns. She would get to marry the man she had wanted. Zéphine was getting what she’d always desired, and she wanted to crawl away in shame. Surely she deserved punishment as much as Idrask did.
Four guards marched out of the room. In a moment they would bring in Father’s ministers and Zéphine would abase herself so that she and Marie could stay alive. She looked back at Idrask. If he had not started all this killing, he had certainly helped. He had betrayed her. His brother was dead in his arms.
He was the only possible ally for her and Marie.
She walked forward to lay a hand on his shoulder. Then she looked down and felt faint when she saw the edges of the cut in Kari’s throat. He had been sliced open like a piece of meat. Swallowing, she knelt beside Idrask.
She whispered, “You can’t avenge him unless you get up right now.”
He didn’t reply. But he laid Kari, very gently, back on the ground and stood beside her. At the same time the guards brought in five of the ministers of state, rumpled and downcast. One of them was bruised and one was spattered in blood.
“Good morning,” Launrad said cheerfully. “You’re here as witnesses. Idrask Leifsson, my sister-son, is about to marry your eldest demoiselle.”
Zéphine swallowed dryly. Yesterday she had been thinking wistfully of how she would like to kiss him. Now she was marrying him.
Her father’s body lay six feet away on the ground.
The ceremony was mercifully short—after the style of Kyrland, she supposed, though surely their royal weddings were usually more elaborate. Launrad asked them if they would be wed, grasped their hands and asked if anyone knew of an impediment, then without a pause put their hands together.
“Thy hands are joined and so thy lives. Zéphine, it pleases me to accept you as a daughter of our house. Guards, take the prisoners away. Idrask, I suggest you take your bride to your room.” Idrask’s hand clenched around hers and he glanced back towards Kari’s body. “We can talk about the funerals later.”
Without a word, Idrask strode out of the room, dragging her with him. Marie called her name, but when Zéphine glanced back, she was already half-out the door. All she saw was Launrad, still smiling as he stood beside the bodies and the empty throne.
Idrask took Zéphine back to her bedroom. He slammed the door shut and slumped against it, releasing her hand.
Her room looked exactly the same as when she had woken up this morning: red-and-gold papered walls, white-and-gold curtains flowing from the canopy over her bed, great gold roses molded around the top of the walls. Her silver comb still lay in the corner where she had thrown it in a fit of anger.
She turned back to Idrask. He had slid down to sit on the floor; now he stared blankly at the walls.
“So.” She knelt before him. “Would you care to explain what’s going on?” He didn’t respond, and she sighed. “Soldier, I command you to answer.”
“Not a solider,” he muttered. Then he looked straight at her and grimaced. “I was never your soldier.”
“I guessed that part. Launrad sent you here?”
He nodded. “To bring down the defensive spells through you. He said—” He stopped to draw a slow breath. “He killed our father. Nobody can prove it but everyone knows. He’s used Kari and me as hostages against each other since I was ten. Three years ago he had Kari locked away entirely. He said when he owned Retrouvailles, he would exile us together.”
She tilted her head. “Why didn’t you seduce me when you had the chance?”
He looked away. “I thought I could do anything to protect Kari. I was wrong.”
Something in her loosened, but she still had to say: “Do you think my maidenhood will comfort me when my country is invaded, my father is dead, and Launrad is raping my little sister every night?”
“I never said I was doing the right thing.” He stood. “Launrad won’t lay a hand on your sister. And you’ll be a widow tomorrow.”
“What?” She scrambled to her feet.
“I’m summoning the Bull tonight. My life has to be worth his.”
“That won’t help. The palace is full of Kyrlander soldiers; they’ll just put another king over us.”
Idrask slammed his fist into the wall. “Then what do you suggest? He is always smarter, he is always stronger.”
Zéphine’s chest felt tight. At the dawn of Retrouvailles, the legions of the Imperatrix had occupied the country from sea to sea. When Ysonde Blanchemains first called upon the unicorns, she had destroyed them all in a day.
But if Zéphine had ever had a chance of summoning the unicorns, she certainly didn’t now. And Marie was far too young.
“...I could summon the Bull.” The words came out weakly. She hadn’t been able to kill herself to escape a fate worse than death; she wasn’t sure that she could do it to save her sister and her country.
“No. I won’t—” He stopped, took a breath. “I lied to you.”
“About the Bull. He... could listen to anyone’s call, but it is our house that has a special covenant with him.”
“More or less. Ever since the first yfir-konungr hanged himself upon an oak tree to call upon the Bull.” He smiled bleakly. “Then had his wife run him through with a spear to complete the offering. Ever since, any one of our house who calls upon the Bull is heard.”
“I’m your bride.”
“In name. I don’t think the Bull cares about such things.”
Zéphine hoped she didn’t look too relieved. “Surely there are Kyrlanders who don’t like Launrad. You could make alliance with them.”
Idrask gave her an edged smile. “He left them all in Kyrland.”
And of course Idrask couldn’t go back to find them without Launrad’s help.
“Look.” He ran a hand through his hair. “I can get you and your sister out of the palace tonight, then summon the Bull. Launrad hasn’t named an heir yet; in the confusion, your people will have a chance to rebel.”
Zéphine opened her mouth, then closed it. Despite everything, she didn’t want him to die.
She didn’t have a choice.
The evening sun slanted low and ruddy through the windows. Zéphine lay on her back, staring at the top of the canopy. A trembling servant had finally brought her food several hours ago. She had devoured it and continued waiting.
If Idrask got them out, they could find the surviving nobility and start a rebellion. She knew it. Nobody would follow a despoiled princess: she knew that too. Marie was their only hope. Zéphine had never danced for the unicorns, so maybe Marie could inherit as if her older sister had died young; but maybe Zéphine would have to become unicorn bride after all.
On the run, there would be no draught of waking sleep. After all she’d done, she probably deserved it, but she was still afraid. So afraid.
The door clicked open; Zéphine sat up, brushing the hair out of her face. It was Idrask, holding Marie by the arm.
“I’ll be back after dark,” he said, and left.
Marie bolted forward to hug Zéphine. “I was so scared,” she whispered into her shoulder.
Zéphine smoothed her hair. “You’ll be fine,” she said automatically. When was the last time she had embraced her sister?
Marie lifted her face. “I was scared for you. What did he do, to make you grovel so?”
“He threatened to kill us.”
“You’re still a princess!”
“I’m still a prisoner.” The words snapped out full of bitterness; when Marie frowned, Zéphine remembered that this was the first time she’d ever voiced rebellion. Even though she had nothing left to lose, her heart still skipped and she added hastily, “Anyway, a dead princess won’t help anyone.”
“What do you mean, prisoner?” asked Marie.
And she’d had enough of silence. “What else could I mean? We are bound in the palace by spells, to stay here until we dance or die. If we survive to become queens, we can leave but we can never go far because we must return to the palace and dance every month, while our husbands rule in our names. And when we die, we are nothing but meat to fill the unicorn bellies.”
Marie shook her head. “But the unicorns.... Zéphine, you’ve seen them. How could you want... anything else?”
Zéphine looked away.
“You have seen them, right? You always said you did!”
She pushed her away. “I lied.”
Marie’s mouth formed a little circle. She barely whispered, “Oh,” as she sat down on the floor. Her fingers gripped the carpet for a moment.
“I lied every day. Morning, noon, and night.” Her voice wavered and her throat ached but she couldn’t stop the words from spilling out. “I lied and I lied and I hated you so much. Because you could see the unicorns and you were going to live and I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” She dropped into a crouch before her sister and stared at the carpet, her eyes stinging. “I broke the defenses on the palace trying to escape and I would take it all back if I could.”
“Oh,” said Marie again. “That... I suppose that’s why you were so unhappy.”
Zéphine looked up. “You knew?”
Marie had pulled her knees up under her chin and hugged them to herself. “I could tell you were angry with me. I didn’t know why. But you were always so unhappy, I knew that something was wrong.” Her voice dropped to a rough little whisper. “I always wished I could help you.”
Zéphine reached forward and took her hands. “Marie.” She swallowed. “Idrask told you we’re going to escape, right?”
“I made everything go wrong. And I can’t dance for the unicorns anymore. But I’m going to get you to safety. I’ll find Father’s generals, and we’ll rally the army and drive the Kyrlanders out of our country, and Marie, someday—someday you’re going to be the best Reine-Licorne that’s ever been. All right?”
Marie’s mouth curved softly upwards. “Will you be happy then?”
“Yes.” Zéphine knew it was a lie—she wouldn’t ever be a good enough person to be happy just living for others—but she had to say it. “We’ll be together and I’ll be so happy.”
Idrask came for them several hours later. He gave them packs and cloaks and lead them down the narrow corridors used by servants and guards, until they were almost halfway across the palace. Then he said, “Wait here. I only have a few men, and I need to make sure they’re in position.”
Zéphine crouched next to Marie in the darkness, hugging her cloak to herself, and tried not to think of what might be going wrong. Then Marie said softly, “I know this place.”
“I used to explore the passages. We’re not that far from the Great Dome.”
“That’s nice,” Zéphine muttered, adjusting her cloak. She kept remembering Idrask’s rough voice as he told her about the first Kyrlander king. There had to be some way to stop him. Maybe if she begged him for protection, he would come with them. If she were a princess in a chronicle she would want vengeance on him, but she was cold and afraid and despite his betrayal, he was the closest thing a friend she’d ever had. Marie didn’t trust him, but surely—
She shifted, then realized that Marie wasn’t next to her any more.
“Marie?” she whispered, standing, and then a little louder: “Marie!”
No one answered; she was alone in the darkened corridor. How long had Marie been gone? She could be anywhere now.
“Zéphine?” She jumped, but it was only Idrask. “It’s all ready—”
“She—we were sitting together and then she wasn’t here. She must have slipped away—I don’t know where—”
“Could she have gotten scared? Thought I would betray you?”
“No, Marie’s fearless—she’d try to save me, and challenge you to a duel—” Zéphine stopped, remembering Marie’s words: You were always so unhappy. I always wished I could help you.
“She’s gone to the Great Dome,” she whispered.
“To summon the unicorns. Come on!” She turned and ran.
She’d been worried about running into guards, but the first time they came across one, Idrask simply snapped, “The younger princess is running away. Come with me!” The man followed without a word and they kept running.
All the way to the Great Dome, Zéphine hoped they wouldn’t find her. Maybe Marie had gotten lost or scared along the way; maybe she’d had some other plan. When they pounded up to the double doors, she paused, gasping, and dared hope that Marie had succeeded, that the unicorns were now nuzzling her palms and in another moment they would destroy the Kyrlander army. She hoped for anything other than Marie trying and failing.
Then Idrask flung open the great double golden doors.
Launrad stood near the center of the Dome—bodies and throne cleared away—clasping Marie to his chest. The gesture would have looked tender if not for the knife against her throat.
“Good evening,” he said. “I hope you were coming to warn me. It would be very disappointing if you thought this child was dangerous enough to support.”
“Yes, Uncle,” Idrask said bleakly.
Zéphine bit her lip. “Please,” she said. “She’s just a child—she doesn’t understand—”
“You’re right,” said Launrad. “She doesn’t.” He shifted his grip and laid the blade of his knife across her face. “Little girl, what shall we do with you?”
Zéphine tried to start forward, but Idrask grabbed her. Marie met her eyes across the room and smiled as a little line of red trickled down her cheek.
“Is it so disturbing? I’ve heard about your customs, the rite of the unicorn bride. She would have done worse to you, if you had failed in your duties.”
“Please,” said Zéphine.
“But I can’t have my betrothed marked in an unsightly fashion.” He abruptly released Marie and shoved her away; she fell to the ground. “Take her away, bandage her up, and make sure she isn’t so foolish again.”
One of the guards started forward, reaching out to grab Marie, but she jumped up and darted away with a movement that was strangely graceful. The guard lunged for her, but she twirled away again. Like a dance.
Zéphine’s heart thumped. It was a dance. The opening steps of the maiden dance, that she had been meant to dance this night—and Marie—
“No!” she shouted. “Marie, stop!”
“Can you not catch one little girl—” Launrad began irritably.
Marie spun, leapt, and landed straight into a cartwheel. And the unicorns came.
They walked out from the rim of the room, between the edges of the shadows. They were the same blistering white-gold as the sun at noon, but Zéphine could look at them unflinching. Their manes were tangled starlight, their horns glimmered with unnamable colors. The rest of the room faded, growing shadowy and indistinct, as if it were ashamed to have form in their presence. Her eyes blurred with tears; she couldn’t move, couldn’t speak, could only stare and realize why Marie had always spoken with wonder in her eyes.
Launrad drew his sword. “Kill them now!” But none of the guards took a step, caught by wonder or fear. One guard stood directly in the path of a unicorn, but even he did not move—only stared, his mouth working as the unicorn walked smoothly towards him... and through him, without pausing, as if he were made of smoke. For one instant he swayed, blood seeping from all over his chest; then he collapsed. His blood spread in a pool.
The unicorn walked on, unstained.
That sight sent everyone but Marie scrambling, trying to dodge the unicorns as they made their slow, placid progress towards the center of the Dome. Launrad pulled a group of soldiers to one side in an orderly retreat. Zéphine and Idrask took refuge at the base of a pillar; unicorns passed them on either side, and though Zéphine knew what would happen, she started to reach out before Idrask pulled her hand back.
Light clotted around Marie and the unicorns. The angles of the room were the same, but gazing towards the center, Zéphine felt she was looking up an immeasurable distance, towards a place she could never hope to go.
Marie flung her hands wide. One note of unicorn song ripped out of her throat: a clear, bell-like sound that sent Zéphine slumping forward. She looked up, vision swimming, to see the unicorns circling Marie. It was the climax of the dance; Marie’s eyes were solemn and sure, and for one heartbeat she looked certain to succeed—
Then her gaze drifted to Zéphine. Her steps faltered.
The unicorns lowered their horns.
It was at least quick. Marie cried out once as three horns ran her through at once. Then she collapsed, and there was no sound but the soft, wet noise of the unicorns lapping up her blood.
Zéphine did not look away. She stared hungrily at every curve of the unicorns, at the blood sliding down their jaws, and she crawled forward so she could try to dance for them. So that before they killed her, they would look one moment in her eyes.
Idrask wrestled her to the floor. He muttered something garbled and human; it took her a few moments to realize he was saying, “She’s already dead, you can’t help her, you’ll just die, Zéphine, don’t leave me—”
And she sobbed as she realized that he thought she was trying to help her sister. Her sister who was now a unicorn bride.
The unicorns raised their heads. Even now, remembering it was her sister who lay bloodied and broken beneath them, Zéphine’s mind keened with the desire to follow them, dance for them, die for them. If they had ever looked at her, she would have been lost completely; but they did not notice anything human as they streamed out of the Great Dome, fading as they ran, until they disappeared between the shadows.
Slowly, Zéphine realized she was weeping, her body shaking with great, soundless sobs. Idrask still held her to the floor, his face buried in her hair, whispering something like I’m sorry and I’m here and I’m sorry.
Finally she got control of herself; after a few hiccups she whispered, “I’m all right.” Idrask still clutched her, so she said more strongly, “I’m all right. You can let go.”
They sat up together. Her head pounded, her teeth ached, but she was still alive and sane. Her gaze wavered towards where Marie lay dead, and she swallowed convulsively. She had always known that one of them would be the unicorn bride. She had always wanted to escape.
She had never, ever wanted it like this.
“That,” said Launrad, “was very troublesome.”
He stood a few paces away from Marie, his arms crossed. He looked down at her body with an expression that suggested her death was a petty insult he nonetheless took personally.
She staggered to her feet. She stepped unsteadily towards Launrad, not sure what she was about to do or say. Idrask gripped her hand, to comfort or restrain, she couldn’t tell.
Launrad looked past her at Idrask. “It seems you were wrong. Their covenant is not completely broken. You will get your wife with child as fast as possible.”
Zéphine found her voice. “My daughter... will never dance for the unicorns.”
He smiled and clapped a hand against Idrask’s shoulder. “Let me know if you need help,” he whispered, and left them.
Zéphine knelt by Marie. Her face was pale and blank, as if life had never touched her; but at least there was no ghost of agony. She was now a unicorn bride, and maybe that was happiness for her.
She always loved them, thought Zéphine. Like she always loved me. Then she started to cry again.
This time, when they went back to her room, it was Zéphine who slumped against the door and slid down to the floor. Her eyes were hot and itchy. She was very tired.
She thought, I keep doing nothing and everyone is dying.
Idrask knelt before her; he laid one hand on the door by her head. “Zéphine. We’ll try again tomorrow. You should rest.”
She looked up at him. He’s the only one left, she thought. Her stomach clenched. I won’t let him die. I absolutely will not let him die.
“No,” she said.
“We can’t do anything more tonight—”
“No.” She stood. “I’m not running away while you kill yourself. I want to help you fight Launrad myself. I want us both to live.”
“After I’ve killed your whole family?”
“Marie decided. You’re sorry. I don’t care about the past, I just want to stop losing people.”
“Zéphine—” He looked away. Swallowed. “Thank you. But there is no way to stop Launrad without the Bull.”
“You go to the Bull and I swear I will dance for the unicorns.” The words snapped out of her; she was almost sure she meant them. “We can run together. Launrad’s main army hasn’t even landed yet. If we find the generals, we could win.”
“Against the Bull?”
“Against Launrad! He needed your brother’s blood to transport a troop of guards to this palace. He’d need something very precious to exchange if the whole country rose up against him. How many times do you suppose he can pay the Bull without giving up his own life?”
Idrask’s mouth twisted. “You’d be surprised.”
Her hands trembled. “I am a terrible princess. But at least I haven’t given up.” She poked him in the chest. “Dying won’t make you any more forgivable.”
Idrask snorted, turning away from her. “You’re that eager to keep yourself wed to a conqueror?”
“...you know, I’d forgotten that part.”
He barked out a laugh. “Well, I suppose if we win, we can arrange for everyone else to forget it too.”
She tilted her head and stepped towards him. “Do you love me?”
His shoulders tightened. “I won’t trouble you.”
“You,” she whispered, “are the stupidest man alive.” She couldn’t reach his lips, so instead she kissed the side of his jaw. “I’m not leaving and I’m not dying. I’m going to fight him with you. And what I said in the garden.... I still mean it.”
He turned to face her. “You can’t possibly—”
“I am princess of Retrouvailles. When Ysonde Blanchemains’s lover was captured, she became the first Reine-Licorne and slaughtered all the legions of the Imperatrix to get him back. If I want to love you then I certainly will.”
For another moment he stared; then he cupped her face in his hands and kissed her. It was not like the last time, when he had kissed her with a fierce precision that she now knew was born of desperation. This time his touch was gentle, hesitant, as if he could hardly believe she was real.
Zéphine pulled him down onto the bed.
Much later, they lay curled together in the darkness.
“Tell me about Ysonde,” Idrask murmured.
“There’s not much more to the story,” said Zéphine. “It was so long ago—and in those days we were just an alliance of tribes—it’s not even sure that she was saving her lover. Most tales say that, but some say it was her father or her sister. One tale says it was her daughter, and a few say she was moved only by the sufferings of her people. But they all agree—she went to the Plaine d’Ossements, somehow she summoned the unicorns, and she danced before them. And the unicorns consented to serve her. In one night, they killed every soldier of the Imperatrix within the land. For thirty years, she ruled as Reine-Licorne—there were no kings in those days. Until her last dance, when the unicorns loved her so much that they killed her and ate her soul; so alone of all queens she rides with them forever as unicorn bride.”
Idrask’s arms tightened around her. “That’s how they love? They really are evil.”
“No.” She was surprised how vehement she was. “Unicorns aren’t evil. They can’t be, for they never choose. They simply are according to their nature.” It was one of the first precepts she had ever learned. “That’s why they are drawn to the pure in heart: they can recognize their complete singlemindedness.”
“Don’t ever be that pure.”
“That’s... not a thing you can promise or decide. You either want something that desperately or you don’t.” She sighed into the darkness. “I don’t think you ever need to worry.”
Idrask’s finger traced the line of her temple, and she caught his hand. “Don’t you ever summon the Bull.”
“...I can’t promise that either,” he said. “If you were—if it really was the only way—”
“But not before.” She laced her fingers with his and clenched them.
“Not before,” he agreed, and buried his face in the crook of her neck.
“This way,” whispered Idrask, and she followed him down the servants’ corridor.
It was almost the same plan as before: Idrask would give orders to the few guards he trusted to obey him and they would slip out of the palace with stolen horses. But this time it was Idrask who was supposed to leave at her side, not Marie, and they were leaving in the slow, warm afternoon hours instead of the middle of the night.
They were past the point where they had lost Marie—Zéphine’s throat tightened—and they were almost to the stables. Idrask led her through a door, out from the corridor into a ballroom. The chandelier glinted faintly in the afternoon sunlight that spilled across the gold-and-crimson floor. Everything looked quiet and normal; Zéphine sighed in relief.
“I really thought you had more sense,” said Launrad.
They spun to see him at the opposite end of the room—and there were the guards coming in the doors. Zéphine felt dizzy. They were trapped.
“Lost it, sorry,” Idrask said through his teeth, gripping her hand. As Launrad walked lazily towards them, Idrask backed towards the windows.
“I would have been content to let you give her children,” said Launrad. “But if I must do everything myself—”
Idrask whirled away, dropping Zéphine’s hand as he drew his sword to attack the guards between them and the window.
He was brutal and quick. In a few moments he had dropped two of the guards; he grabbed a sword off one of them and slammed it against the window, shattering the glass. Then the other guards were on him and he had to turn and fight them, a sword in each hand.
“Zéphine!” he yelled. “Out the window—”
And Launrad was there, and his sword only moved twice before it was buried in Idrask’s gut.
The whole world seemed to stop for a moment. Zéphine couldn’t breathe. Then Launrad pulled his sword free and Idrask fell to his knees, his swords clattering to the ground beside him. Everything moved again. The guards drew back; Zéphine ran forward to grab his shoulders and steady him.
Idrask pressed his hand to his side with a gasp, then held it out, blood dripping onto the floor where the gold inlay formed a perfect circle. “Black bull of the north,” he snarled. “Come to my blood.”
“No!” snapped Zéphine, trying to pull his hand back—
As nothing happened.
“I lied,” Launrad said placidly. “I didn’t just kill your brother for the power to move troops. I also bargained his blood to ensure that for all my life, the Bull would never hear your calls, nor could anyone else invoke him against me.”
Idrask gasped again and slumped. His whole torso was soaked with blood now. Zéphine eased him down to the ground and pressed her cloak over the wound—he let out an awful grunt—but the blood kept seeping through.
“Stay with me,” she said. “Idrask? Listen to me. You said you would stay.”
His lips curved a little. “Sorry.”
He was dying.
In that moment, she knew what the Ysonde had felt, what had caused her to strike the terrible bargain with the unicorns. It didn’t matter which legend was true and whom she had been trying to save—lover, sister, father, or all her people. There had been someone whose life was worth anything to her.
Zéphine’s heart still wasn’t that pure and never would be.
But the Bull would grant you anything for a price.
She leaned down and kissed him. “Thank you.”
“Because I love you.” She smiled. “So I’m not afraid any more.”
His eyes widened and he started to gasp her name, but she pulled the knife out of his boot and turned away. She stepped forward, head high. Bloody, broken, and impure, she was still a princess of Retrouvailles.
Launrad eyed her. “You can’t possibly hope to fight me.”
“No,” said Zéphine, because he was right: he was a warrior and she was a princess who had never killed anyone. But she was also the wife of Idrask Leifsson, wedded and bedded and heir to his power.
Her hands moved as smoothly as if they belonged to someone else. One quick slice, and she had opened her palm again; as the blood welled up, she held out her hand and said, “Black bull of the north, come to my blood!”
Hoofbeats drummed in her ears.
Launrad sighed. “He won’t ever turn against me—”
The ballroom was gone. She was back in the darkness, but this time in the very far distance—she knew it was the north—faint light glimmered at the horizon. The hoofbeats pounded closer, jarring her bones, but she still couldn’t see him—
Until his breath burned along the back of her neck. Suddenly Zéphine felt very small and unworthy and afraid. But this was the Bull, who granted wishes even to people who didn’t deserve or mean them.
“Lord of the north,” she whispered. “Father of my house. Grant my wish.” She turned then, and saw the great hulk of its body, the two burning red eyes whose fire concealed infinite depths. The air shivered out of her lungs, but she drew another breath and said, “Take my heart for your price.” All her impure heart. All her desires, foolish and hateful and kind alike. All her hopes and hates and fears. “Take it and give me in return a heart that is pure enough for the unicorns.”
For one heartbeat the eyes stared at her; then the darker void of his mouth yawned open and rushed down, swallowing her—in the belly of the Bull, everything was fire, burning and devouring—
She heard a noise that was something like an earthquake and something like a chuckle, and she knew that it meant, Granted.
Then la Demoiselle la Plus Pure opened her undefiled eyes and gazed at the enemy of her country. She curved her hands in the gesture used by every princess and queen since Ysonde, and she whirled into the maiden dance. Around her men shouted and drew their swords, but they didn’t matter; they were nothing, shadows, as the walls grew filmy and vague and the ever-living unicorns walked out. She remembered that she had once feared these creatures, but as they nuzzled at her palms and whinnied, the soft noises tearing at her throat with longing, she could hardly imagine why.
Among the glimmering crowd, she could faintly make out human faces—slender, ghostly girls, naked and unashamed, clinging to the backs of unicorns, their faces half-buried in their manes. She remembered one part of her purpose and she held out a hand, calling, “Marie!” There was no response, so she called again, “Marie!” and a third time, “I call on my sister Marie!” Still nobody answered—one girl blinked at her with puzzled eyes, and she recognized her.
The Demoiselle grabbed her wrists and pulled her off the unicorn. “Marie,” she said. “You are my sister. Remember.”
The girl blinked slowly again. “Yes,” she said. “I remember you. Are you happy now?”
That question didn’t have any meaning, so she ignored it and said, “You are a princess. Do you remember that too?”
Marie’s hair swirled in the still air, like a handful of confused thoughts. “...yes.”
She cupped her sister’s face in her hands. “If you could be happy here... would you protect us?”
Suddenly Marie smiled, looking immeasurably human. “You know what I always wanted. All of it. Of course I will.”
The Demoiselle let go of her and looked at the unicorns.
The unicorns gazed back, and knew themselves in her eyes. And she finally understood them. She understood that they needed a demoiselle: a creature they could recognize, yet who was other. This need had driven them to princess after princess, ever since Ysonde first gazed on them and woke them; it drove them to devour the unicorn brides. She understood why they demanded the pure in heart: because, being creatures that did not know choice, they could only recognize someone for whom need and desire had fused into absolute certainty.
And she understood the strictures of Retrouvailles. The people had been desperate for princesses pure enough to dance before the unicorns. So they had created the walls and the spells and traditions to ensure that each princess would grow up unable to imagine any choice or outcome besides her maiden dance. Only in this way could they guarantee that every princess would be pure. But they had also guaranteed that no princess could ever change anything.
Until one weak and foolish girl had ripped out her heart.
“Listen,” she said, for she was still just human enough that she needed to speak. “I am giving you a new covenant. You will heal the Kyrlander prince. You will destroy the Kyrlander king and rout his men. And then—” her fingers twined with her sister’s “—you will permit this one to remember her name, and she will be your pure-eyed demoiselle, to guide you and reflect you as you guard our country.”
The unicorns looked into her heart and they believed her.
She turned away from the light of the unicorns and walked back towards the clumsy human forms. One of them was the Kyrlander prince she had determined to save. On either side of her, the unicorns streamed away to kill. Someone screamed, but it was not anyone she meant to protect and so she ignored the sound.
One unicorn followed at her back, and when she knelt by the Idrask’s side, it leaned over her shoulder and gently tipped its horn against his wound. Light glimmered across the blood; he drew a shallow breath, then a stronger one. He opened his eyes. For one moment the light of the unicorn was reflected in them, and she smiled at the gleam, but he blinked and it was gone.
“Zéphine?” he breathed, sitting up.
“Our people are safe,” she said.
“Our people,” he repeated blankly. He pressed a hand to his middle, as if still unable to believe he was healed.
“The unicorns have seen you and accepted you,” she explained. “That makes you my king, and my people are your people. I will help you protect them.”
Around her, the gleaming forms of the unicorns began to fade, and she turned to watch them slide back into the shadows. Her eyes stung and watered with the need to follow them, but she knew she would dance with them every full moon; once Idrask had died of old age and there was another princess for her people, she could persuade them to devour her.
Idrask touched her face. “Zéphine, are you all right?” His palm was sticky with blood.
“I told you. Our people are safe. You are alive. No more princesses will be sacrificed.” She thought maybe her tears had worried him, so she smiled. “What more could I desire?”
His mouth pressed into a line. “Right.”
There was no more time to speak, because the room was full of clamor. A few of the Kyrlander guards had survived, and many of the Retrouvées had broken out of where they were kept and come searching for the cause of the disturbance.
The Reine-Licorne stood, pulling up Idrask with her, and went to tend her people.
She was crowned three days later: the first Reine-Licorne in nine hundred years to rule in her own right, with Idrask Yfir-konungr as her consort-ally.
For the first month she was very busy, and there was little time to reflect. Sometimes she dreamed of her sister begging her to wake up. Though Idrask often smiled at her, sometimes she woke in the night and found he had been weeping into her hair. She understood why. The Bull had taken none of her understanding, so the facts were very clear to her. But they were also distant, like stars on a cold night. To some degree, she could regret causing Idrask pain, because she was determined to protect him. But even that was only a wisp of a sorrow that burnt away when she looked into sunlight and saw a unicorn glimmer back.
She was the Reine-Licorne. Her duty was her delight, and she desired nothing but the safety of her people. That Idrask could not accept this was unfortunate, but it was not her concern.
One month after Launrad’s defeat, the moon was full and it was time for her to dance before the unicorns again. She did not need to, now that Marie rode with the unicorns and knew her own name, but—she explained to Idrask—she wanted to. It would have been more accurate to say that she was Reine-Licorne, and therefore she was one who danced, but the word “want” made him quiet and stare at her for a few moments. Then he kissed her fiercely and let her go without protest.
She went to the Great Dome and knelt in the moonlight. As the unicorns began their slow, inexorable stride out of the shadows, she rose and danced.
Zéphine woke on the floor of the Great Dome. She stared lazily up at the curve of the dome, painted like a night sky with gold-and-silver rays coming out of the eye in the center, and wished that Idrask was here with her.
She sat bolt upright. She wished. She was full of desires and hunger and fear.
There was only one power that could have given her old heart back again.
In a moment she was running out of the Great Dome, past the ceremonial guards, back to the Royal Chambers—and there was the royal physician at the door, pale-faced and stammering that the Consort had made them swear she was not to be disturbed—
She pushed past him without a word. Idrask lay still on the bed, and for one moment her heart felt like it had stopped. Then she saw the bloody bandage over his eyes and remembered that no one bandaged a dead man. She saw his chest rise and fall, and she felt dizzy with relief.
Then she realized what that bandage must cover.
Zéphine stalked to the edge of the bed. “How could you?”
The edge of his mouth curved up. “They weren’t nearly as enchanting as yours. Didn’t need them anyway.”
“I told you not to summon the Bull.”
“I told you not to become that pure.”
She supposed he was right, so she sat beside him on the bed and silently took his hand. His fingers tightened around hers.
“I’m not sorry,” she said.
“I know. I’m not either.”
She closed her eyes with a sigh. She was happy to be restored: to be alive and holding his hand. But part of her keened at the memory of the unicorns, and the thought that she might never dance with them again.
When she opened her eyes, though, she saw a unicorn gazing at her through the garden window. It was not so crisp and blindingly real as she remembered; it seemed to have shaped itself out of the pale morning light and the slanted shadows between the leaves of the rose-bushes. When she blinked at it in surprise, it blinked back in silent recognition, then faded.
To restore a heart was not to make it forget. Perhaps there were some desires that could be chosen, after all.
If she tried, she could forget every desire besides the unicorns again. If she tried, she could lose the sight of them once more. If she tried very hard, she thought that she could even learn to both love her husband and protect him.
Idrask’s breathing had evened out into sleep again. Zéphine sat by his side and waited for him to wake.