Make No Promises

Issue #153

My sister Lydie and I often walk in the hills when our morning lessons are over. We take our lessons separately—I am the younger by three years, so the history lessons that give me such trouble my sister has already mastered. Fencing is even worse, where besides my lack of training, I have also my shorter reach and my weak left eye to contend with.

She will always be the better swordswoman.

Today was mathematics, my favorite subject. Numbers are logical, trustworthy, unchanging. I can set variables into a system of equations and find clear and certain answers—better yet, I can know why. I know what the people around me will do, but their motivations baffle me.

When I finish with my tutor, my sister is just getting out of her own lesson, and we meet in the fortress library as we leave.

“It’s too fine a day for chess,” I tell her before she can speak. We’ve just learned the game from our mother, and now Lydie only wants to play chess, while I would rather enjoy the cool weather.

“We can at least bring it along,” she says, quickly enough that I know she anticipated my protest. “The rocks in our usual clearing are flat enough for a game or two.” I hesitate, and she widens her eyes at me pleadingly. “I’ll even let you win a game if you like.”

That startles a laugh out of me. “You will absolutely not. I believe you to be fundamentally incapable of losing at anything.”

Lydie gives me a tragic look. It’s mostly theatrical, but I can see her real disappointment, and I relent. “Then you have to carry everything,” I say. “And pack up all the pieces when we’re done, and go pack the case up now while I change into better shoes for walking.”

She’s laughing now. “I will, I will, I promise you. I won’t even complain about how heavy the pieces are on our way up. And I might let you win, you know, just one time.”

“Make no promises,” I say.

I put my books away and change clothes, throwing a scarf over my head to keep the sun off; putting on thick-soled sandals to bear the sun-heated stones. When I am finished, I sit by the window and wait for my sister’s return. There are two flights of stairs between our rooms—it will take her some time to pack away the chess pieces and come to fetch me.

My rooms look out on the back courtyard, so if I turn my head I can see everyone passing through. Just now, it’s the stable boy my sister has been pining after. Looking at him, I see our futures etched in the air between us, the courtyard filling with echoes of what will come. My sister will wait for him to approach her, careful of the power difference between them, but they will court for a time.

I will be fond of him for my sister’s sake, and for his kindness, and he will be almost like family for a time, though too in awe of our mother as god-prince of our small city to ever truly join us. I understand—my mother has ruled our people as god-prince since long before I was born. She controls the storms, bringing bitter hot wind and sand to burn our enemies, and sometimes draws down rain when even the summer brings too little water—killer and life-giver in one. And she is centuries old, and half the myths and legends we tell in our city are about her or people she knew. It is intimidating enough to be her daughter; I can barely imagine how frightening she must be to an ordinary servant of the fortress.

They will separate a few months after that, and within a year or two, while my sister is away at school, they will both have moved on entirely. He will fall in love again and get married, to a tall farmer’s daughter who sells vegetables in the town below.

I visited her stall yesterday, just to meet her; this girl my friend will someday marry. I wore a scarf over my hair and half-covering my face, so she would not recognize me as Prince Rienna’s daughter. Before I returned home, I left three gold coins hidden under the long mesquite pods. She has not found them yet, but she will soon, with no obvious connection to me.

She and the stable boy will be happy together, I think. Past the point when my sister leaves for university, they fade from our family’s lives, and so from my awareness. I could press the point, but I have no need. I am not known for my sense of humor, but the farm girl made even me laugh, and the stable boy has always been—will always be—kind to me. They should suit each other well.

“Mandeva,” my sister says behind me, and I turn, startled.

She took less time than I expected—my vision is clear, but the depth of my perception is poor, in my sight of the future as in my daily life.

My left eye has always been weak, where I will lose it fighting to defend the fortress, and my mother, against my sister’s return. My sister has always been the better fencer—she will be faster than I, sure and swift, her blade striking before I can even unsheathe my own sword. She will fall short, though, misjudge the distance, and though I will lose the eye, I will not die as she intended.

Lydie smiles, apologetic, at my surprise. “I did knock,” she tells me. “Not loud enough, I guess. Thinking dark thoughts?”

“Nothing important,” I tell her. And it is true. She never falls truly in love with the stable boy; it will not hurt her badly when he leaves. Away at school she will find someone new, a young man from across the ocean.

They will be together until she dies, which will be sooner than I ever expect, in the dungeon where I will throw her when I take back our city.

We walk into the hills together, Lydie keeping to my right so I can see her clearly. In the sun, her clothes are bright against the warm dark brown of her skin, making the walk feel particularly festive, a celebration of the weather turning slowly into the cooler season of the year.

The paths are familiar, and my feet are sure on the sand and stones for all that my vision has never been whole. Someday I will give up on being prince and go wandering, telling stories and seeing the world. I will always miss this, though—walking with company. When I travel I will travel alone.

“How was mapmaking?” I ask my sister, and she groans theatrically.

“If Master Kinan has children, he needs no lullabies to put them to sleep. He drones on at me about how small our city is compared to the vast and beautiful city-states across the sea, and lectures me about the different kinds of farmland and the perils of the unmapped deserts until I never wish to travel again.”

“So has he persuaded you yet to stay home from university?” I ask. The college where our mother has secured us a place is a week or two away by sea.

“Not on your life,” she says, and as always I listen for some hidden tone, to know whether she sees, as I do, what is coming. But she sounds so careless, throws my life around so easily in her words, that I think she cannot know.

“I don’t understand how you bear it here,” she tells me. “The closed walls of the castle, the endless stretches of sand and mountains, the string of tutors who know little more of the world than we do.”

“I’m certain you’ll meet many fascinating people while you’re away,” I tell her, because I am certain.

“I hope so,” she tells me. Perhaps three years older means three years better at pretending not to be omniscient, but it seems ever more likely that I alone will bear the burden of her violent return, of our mother’s blood on her hands. Of her blood on mine, as I lock her away to die.

It isn’t a long walk to our usual clearing. By the time we reach it, my sister is already involved in recounting the most interesting pieces of her lesson, for all that she would claim to have learned nothing of value, and we gaze at the familiar stony land, as if we can see the tropical beaches of another land if we only look hard enough.

I can, of course, in glimpses, if I follow my sister’s path, but the farther away she is, the less I know. I have seen the beach where she lands on her return but nothing of what changes, what takes us from friends to enemies while I sit at home and wait.

“And inland there, the ground is rich and easy to farm,” she tells me, as she finishes setting up the pieces. “So much that even where no farmers work, the land looks green with all the plants. And trees twice the height of ironwood trees grow all around!”

I laugh, because the image is absurd, but I see from her face that she really believes it. “Too much green,” I say, playing along. “I prefer the greys and browns of desert land, and all the shades of stone. And so many trees—how do they see the sky?”

Lydie waves a dismissive hand and moves a pawn forward. “Of course no one would want to live there forever.” I shift a pawn of my own, and she moves again immediately, and we settle into the game. “But what a thing to see. And from what I’ve read, the university library is three times the size of our collection. I think I will never want for anything, as long as the other students can play chess.”

I smile and move my bishop and do not let myself wonder whether all this chess we play means she is already thinking of revolution. She has asked me, once or twice, whether I mind that our mother will be prince for centuries more before we gain any kind of power, and though she has stopped asking, I suspect the resentment continues to fester.

“I will be along to join you in three years,” I say. It’s a lie: Lydie will return before her fourth year begins, and after that I will be prince and will have no time for traveling. “That means at worst you only have three years to wait for a proper game.”

“A proper game,” Lydie says, amused, and takes the bishop I had just moved. “I suppose if you spend the intervening years studying hard enough, you may be able to challenge me. At least, if I find no one else to practice against while I’m there.”

“I doubt you will miss me at all, then,” I say, and though I mean to sound light my voice comes out strained and hard. I move a piece at random to cover my reaction, and I only realize afterward that I have left my king wide open.

“Mate in three moves,” she says, not unkindly. “And don’t be stupid, Deva, I shall miss you terribly.” I frown, and she says, “I promise faithfully to miss you every day, little sister, until my return. Is that enough, or must I swear to you by the moon and stars?”

“Make no promises,” I say, as always. I force myself to smile, though, when she looks concerned. “Come, let’s return. I grow weary of losing to you. Besides, Samil will be done with his rounds soon. You would not like to miss passing him by accident in the stable yard.”

“Mandeva!” she protests. “Often it is an accident, you know, lessons do get out late some days. Oh, don’t give me that look,” she adds, as I watch her with the knowing smile of a younger sister who has found a weak point. “We may as well head back, though, I suppose.”

My smile feels more natural now, and I help her pack away the chess pieces with a lighter heart. I let my shoulder bump hers on the way down several times, as if it is my right eye that cannot see, and instead of growing exasperated she throws an arm over my shoulders and pulls me in, and though it is too warm to walk so close, we stay tucked together the rest of the way home, arms around each other with easy affection.

Her parting with Samil is easy and amicable, and Lydie is already moving on in the weeks before her ship leaves for university.

“I am going away to school,” she tells me. “Nothing can hold me back.”

“Samil is already working a trade, and just took on a second apprenticeship to learn another,” I point out, and she grimaces.

“Yes,” she says. “As would I, if mother thought any work were suitable for the prince’s daughter. She thinks she can keep us living as children forever, but I will not stay home and marry the local stableboy.”

“He’s going to become a healer,” I tell her, a little defensive of him, for though he is her lover he has also been my friend, one of the few people remotely my age who work at the fortress where we live, one of the few willing to trust me once I promised that no one in my mother’s household would ever find out. She laughs at me.

“One of your fancies, Deva?” she asks. “Perhaps he will tend to wounded horses, but nothing more. He is as trapped by his birth as we are by ours.”

“I do not feel trapped,” I say uncertainly. While Lydie is home, I am always content to be the younger sister. I do not look forward to the day I become the prince.

She waves this off. “You are still a child,” she says easily. “Still taking ordinary tutoring. Not even your first lover, yet.” She speaks as if reading down an imagined list. “You will understand when you are older.”

Make no promises, I think, but do not say. If growing older is what makes my sister betray us, it is something I do not want to understand.

A year later, I sit on the rocks jutting out of the shoreline as my sister rows out to the ship that will take her away to school. The weather is cooler here, a full day’s ride from our city, and I shiver in the damp breeze.

Lydie does not look back until she reaches the ship, and as I wave to her she only lifts a hand in farewell. Then she climbs the ladder they’ve lowered over the side and does not look back. I wave anyway, until the ship begins to recede into the distance and no sign of Lydie is left on deck. Then I let my hand fall wearily back to my side.

Behind me, my mother stands tall, her horse’s reins held with easy authority in one dark hand.

“I know you’ll miss her, Mandeva,” she says. “But after all, she will only be gone four years, and you will join in her in only three.” My mother cannot see the future—I have always known this. She has always been kind to both of us, distant but always loving, but I have seen her righteous anger, and if she knew of my sister’s coming rebellion I doubt my sister would have survived her first year. It was why I never wanted to tell her, as a child, and now I suspect it is too late—I have mentioned the future in passing, and even when my predictions come true, she waves it off as luck. I cannot imagine her believing me now.

“Of course, mother, it is only four years,” I say, and look back at her when she huffs impatiently. “No, truly, I will focus on my studies and try not to pine.”

She touches my braids, lightly, like she isn’t sure she is allowed, and I let myself lean into the touch and take comfort from it. She laughs, a little, soft and self-conscious, and pulls away. “We should return home,” she says. “The ship is almost out of sight already.”

I look out to sea. It’s true, the ship looks small and far away, silhouetted against the pale sky. I can feel the future riding with it, my sister’s life unfolding outward, flowing toward that horizon and past it, until it too fades from sight.

My mother and I speak little on the ride back to the fortress, and I picture our supper in my mind, the four courses we will eat in my sister’s honor. The particulars are blurry—I do not usually bother with such small details—but I can make out roasted oryx and some kind of fish and a goblet of watered honey, crashing to the floor.

Surely this is a small enough thing to prevent. As we eat, I keep careful watch over my own cup and prepare to catch my mother’s if it should fall. It is strange to eat with her one on one—always my sister has been there, more willing to laugh with me, more willing to challenge my mother’s ideas, more willing to argue. Alone with each other, my mother and I are awkward, stilted.

I drink my dessert quickly, the sweetness almost choking as I swallow it down. As soon as I finish, I excuse myself, almost lightheaded with relief, both goblets still unspilled. As I rise, a servant enters the room a little clumsily, and the door shuts with a crash just as my mother reaches for her drink. Honey spills like blood. The ringing of the goblet striking the floor sets off echoes of clashing swords that only I can hear.

It is not the first time I have failed to change the future. Often, in the coming days, I watch our people closely out my window, watch the echoes of their lives unfolding outward.

Sometimes I watch for a very long time, just to see if one of them might prove me wrong.

I told a thief, once, that he would be caught; left a note in neat lettering by his bedside. He could have waited a day—I could see that his family had enough to survive another three days. But he only tried to be more clever; burned the note and set off with determination on his face. I will never know what his plan was going to be, only that it all unfolded exactly as I had foreseen, down to the house he chose and the hide wall he slit as his point of entry.

I visited him in prison and raised his wife’s wages with a few words to her employer of their misfortune, making what recompense I could for my failure. My warning changed nothing that I could see. Perhaps I had always been going to interfere.

My sister has been away almost two and a half years, and my mother demands that I study ever harder, to prepare myself for university. I do the work, more obedient as her death draws slowly closer. It is always hard to tell, but I think she cannot have more than a year left to live—more likely only a few months.

I go to bed each night weary even of mathematics, sick of geography and literature. My focus is on the chessboard these days, on military history and books of strategy, on defending and retaking a fortress. I study fencing, desperate to become faster, sharper, more deadly with a blade. When my lessons are over, I explore every inch of our fortress, learning the hallways until I can find my way through them blind. My sister will attack at night—I must be able to pursue her even where there is no torchlight.

Today is a sword day, so I spar with my instructor for a full hour, and my arms and legs ache from effort and bruises. I pass my mother as I return from training and see her mouth tighten in disapproval.

“Fencing lessons again?” she asks me. “They will be of little use at school.”

“I’m going to need them,” I say, and she loses interest as she always does when I speak of the future.

“Keep training, if you enjoy it so much,” she says. “But you are in no danger here. Our soldiers are strong, and I have centuries yet to stand between you and any harm.”

“Make no promises,” I say, but she doesn’t seem to hear me.

That night, I am so weary from training that even reading by candlelight is exhausting. I put the book aside. The candle is beginning to gutter in the melting wax. Absently I check on the futures of the villagers—marriages and thefts and funerals spill out into the future, some soon and some years away, disorienting in their multitude. It gets harder and harder to see the when of things, now, as if the approaching loss of my eye makes my sight weaker, the depth of my perception worsening. The future echoes around me until I can barely see the candle, and when the visions fade I have missed the candle going out.  

I wake to the tromping of feet outside my door and the low ringing of voices and steel. My chamber is in total darkness, and I start awake disoriented, not sure when I am, whether I somehow miscounted the months so severely that my sister can be already outside, my mother dead before I can even try to warn her.

As I scramble out of bed, my legs tangle in the sheets and I fall, hitting the stone hard. I cannot see, I cannot drag my legs free, and I panic, gasping for air and thrashing, hitting a flailing arm painfully on the bedpost. I get one hand on my sword where it lies beside my bed and finally pull a leg free. I stagger upright, bruised and aching, then move to the door.

In the hallway, the dim light of torches in the corridor seems painfully bright. There is a flash as the light catches on chain mail, a soldier in the hallway turning to face me. I see his eyes widen as he recognizes me. He signals some alarm around the corner, then comes at me. I drag my sword clumsily free and move to face him. Two of his fellows come to join him, but the hall is narrow enough that they must approach me one by one. I kill the first two, then crouch and thrust my blade upward as the third makes to leap over their bodies.

I leave him there gut-wounded, a slow and bitter death. I have my family to find, and I cannot be bothered with my sister’s pet traitors. If the fight ends soon enough, a healer might even reach him in time.

I do not look ahead to see if one will.

By the time I reach my mother’s bedroom, the rush of panic has faded to leave the ache of fighting on sore muscles, and my body feels distant, clumsy with exhaustion. I move carefully, quietly, entering my mother’s chambers with my sword extended, until I hear a voice whisper my name.

There is a muddled shape on the floor at the center of the room, and as I stare it moves slightly and calls my name.

As I hurry closer, I can see the pool of blood spreading darkly under her. “Mother?” I say, and cannot help how my voice rises, thin and helpless.

She draws a wet, ragged breath, and gasps, “Lydie never did learn patience.”

For a moment I think she means the way Lydie left her, not waiting to see her die, and I think she might yet survive. I feel a surge of relief and reach for her wound to see what I can do, but she shakes her head. “We are long-lived, but...”

Of course, she means Lydie’s attack, although Lydie was heir and would surely have been prince eventually. My mother, centuries old already, can’t imagine what three hundred years of waiting feels like to those of us who have been alive barely a fifth of a century.

I say none of that; only grip her shoulder firmly, lean down to kiss her damp forehead. “I won’t let her rule,” I say. “I will take our city back.”

I speak of facts, but she answers as if it were only a promise. “You must try,” she orders, her voice rasping. “When a kingdom is torn from its rightful prince, the land withers and the people sicken with it.”

I have read about that danger in the books of family legends, but my sister was never fond of history.

“She will fall,” I say. “And I will imprison her in the lowest dungeons.”

My mother lifts her hand to my face; touches my bruised cheek with surprisingly gentle bloodied fingers. “You will destroy her,” she says, low and rough, like she has just begun to believe it.

Then she dies, without fanfare, her hand falling back to her chest. Her face goes limp, a little blood spilling from her mouth. I shut her eyes and arrange her against the wall as neatly as I can, laying her out like she is only sleeping.

I’m having trouble breathing, my chest constricted with fear and grief and anger. I rise stiffly to my feet, my knees cold and aching from the flagstones. I wipe blood off my shaking hands and steel myself to seek my sister out. If I am to stop her taking the fortress, as I have seen her do; if I am to save myself and the country from the six hard months of her rule as I prepare to recapture my own fortress, I must fight her now. If my foreknowledge is any use at all, if there is any chance the future can be changed, this is the moment.

I turn toward the door only to see it shoved wide, hitting the wall with a crash. My sister stands in the doorway, sure and dangerous, hair cropped short for battle and skin lighter from the loss of the desert sun. The torches behind her cast her face into shadow.

I reach for my sword, but I am too slow, and hers is already drawn. She makes one swift, certain thrust with a trained fencer’s elegance. For a choked second I can appreciate the grace of her movement, her smooth step back, sword lowering before I can even feel what she has just done, and then the pain hits and I forget everything else.

It’s like my world has cracked open, jagged, until only fleeting impressions reach me through the agony and shock. A voice shouting from the hallway; my sister turning away to listen. Her shoes ringing against the floor as she leaves. I am sprawled on the ground, though I do not remember falling, and I feel her footsteps echo through my bones. My hands clench spasmodically, and my eye is gone, and the pain is shattering, everything coming apart with the burning, blood running thick and warm down my face to puddle choking in my mouth, and with one eye I can see myself return, see myself take back the fortress, see the patch over my eye and remember when I will be well again but it seems impossible, and I gag on my own blood and sob into the floor.

I think I hear my name and then one of our soldiers is there. Her face is outside of my half-blinded sight, but I can see the bright buckles on her boots, fortress-issue, one of ours.

She carries me from the room, but I do not see how we get out of the fortress, fixated on the slow dark trickle of my blood that runs down the back of her uniform, streaking it in long dark lines. I see the future spin and sway dizzily between me and the floor, so that instead of flagstones I see the stable boy my sister once danced with waiting for us in the home he shares with his wife. I see him turning to face the door as we enter—as we will enter. We will come in the door and he will welcome her, the farmgirl-turned-soldier who has saved my life, and I wonder if she recognized me after all, if she knew the gold in her basket came from me or if she had only found in soldiering a sense of purpose.

His face will turn from panic to relief when he sees her face, and then twist to horror again. I cannot hear the words she will say—the world is slipping at angles, and all I can concentrate on is their small house and the bloody patch on her tunic and the dark red pain in my eye.

The local soldiers are trained in field medicine, though they have had little cause in the past to use it, and my rescuer sets me down on a low bed as her husband fetches bandages and medicines. I suppose they do not want to risk the fortress’s attention by calling in a real doctor; it is possible my sister will have noticed I am gone, though she may only think me lost among the dead.

She hisses when she sees my eye; touches my bruised face with cool fingers. Her touch is gentle, but it drags me back from the future where I have been hiding, darting between memories of the days of my rule and the days that come after, when I will let the fortress rest and the town rule itself; when I will leave to wander the world. My travels are long and weary, and though each town gathers eagerly to hear my stories, I will never be asked to stay; will never find company for the roads. My eye will be only a scar by then, and the pain will be gone, and I wish I did not have to suffer the road in between.

“You’re lucky to be alive,” she murmurs, already brushing the skin around the wound with the thin cold salve that will freeze the pain away. I shiver with relief as the burning starts to fade, the present finally reasserting itself. I slip away from my sister’s funeral into the small house here, crowds and coffins fading to reveal tall wooden poles and rough skin walls and the soldier who saved my life. “Very lucky—you came very close to death.”

“We are all lucky,” her husband says, kneeling beside her.

Their names are a fragment of my past, and I do not have the clarity necessary to find them. She must see that I am lost, because she touches my arm carefully, almost reverently; a subject to her prince. “My lady,” she says. “I am Riven, one of your family’s soldiers. My husband, Samil, once served you in the fortress stables. You are safe here.”

My agony has faded to a dull, nauseating ache, and I am able to find my voice, though it comes out hoarse and painful, as if I have been screaming. I probably have. “I am honored by your service, Riven,” I say faintly, and I see her stand straighter; see both their faces ease a little. “And Samil,” I say roughly, tilting my head so I can see him from my one remaining eye. “Of course, your kindness has ever been known to me.”

He bows his head but does not smile. They know, then, not only who has died but who led the invading army. I try to convey my sympathy with a look, but my face is bruised and numbed and I doubt my expression is reassuring.

The pain has receded for now, and though I know it will return, its power over me has faded. My mother’s death, though, is still a fresh wound, and I feel helpless and aching with my grief; heavy, as though exhaustion and sorrow have pinned me to the rug on which I lie.

The future is no comfort. As far as I cast my mind forward, my mother is still gone.

Months pass as I heal enough to return to sword practice, sparring with Riven; enough to receive visits from a few trusted soldiers. The usurper who was once my sister has forbidden them from congregating, but they come alone or in pairs to hear me speak; to swear their service.

It is the most I have spoken with those outside the fortress. Samil has grown since he courted my sister, and I see it in small ways. He still shares his water ration with children and wounded soldiers, but he talks back to me now. I remember when he was frightened of my mother, but though he addresses me as his prince, he is not shy of me.

Which is particularly annoying sometimes, as I try to push myself beyond my slowly healing abilities.

“You didn’t eat any breakfast,” Samil calls as I am halfway out the door. “And barely any supper. That means no sparring. You’re still healing, you need your strength.” I freeze guiltily, sword in hand, and see him watching me a little sardonically. He works primarily healing animals, but since my sister left him he has become a doctor’s apprentice, and he is familiar with restless patients.

“I had plenty of water,” I tell him. “And plenty of rest.”

He makes a scolding sound as Riven comes in. We spar only in the evenings, tucked behind their small house. Though it is far from the fortress, she always goes out first to be sure no one is watching.

“Is something wrong?” she asks me, and I scowl.

“Ask your husband,” I say, more childishly resentful than I would like, and she clearly recognizes the exasperation on Samil’s face, a healer with an unruly patient. She stifles a laugh, and quickly schools her expression into something more befitting a soldier addressing her prince.

“Ah, my lady,” she says, trying to sound apologetic and mostly sounding entertained. “You would not expect me to send you into danger undefended? So you cannot expect my husband to defy his own instincts. Still,” she adds, giving him a stern look. “I hope you recall exactly who your patient is.”

“If she would just eat a little bread,” he says testily and turns back to me. “Truly, my lady, you know you cannot afford to weaken.”

“I bow to your medical authority,” I tell him, with exaggerated weariness. I sink back onto the couch and wave an imperious hand. “You may bring me more bread and fish,” He rolls his eyes but goes to obey, as Riven laughs in the corner. I have not seen her laugh since that day by the stalls, I realize, and am pleased to have caused it. I watch her fetching bread as Samil roasts a piece of fish, and they are easy now, laughing together, teasing. It is a relief to see that though I have brought difficulties with me, I have not ruined this for them.

As the summer rains pass, the rivers briefly widening to make irrigation easier, it comes time to harvest the trees and the small patches of irrigated land, and talk of war fades beside the talk of farming.

“My family has less than half of our usual nypa crop,” Riven tells me. “And my cousin’s farm lost their oldest mesquite trees to blight.” She holds up a shriveled pod, twisted and black with dry rot. I force myself not to lean away from the musty, bitter smell of it.

“The land knows,” Samil says. It is old superstition, for the townsfolk as well as for my parents. Murder a prince, of however small a city, and the land itself rejects you.

Even I don’t know whether it is true. I have no cause and effect in my visions of the future; I never know the why. I do know that the crops will do better in the next few years, and the flourishing mesquite trees will draw more animals to the city to be eaten. I know that over the next few decades, irrigation will improve, and the town will grow so that I am no longer needed, and I will hand over the reins to elected officials and begin my wandering.

I do not know, though, whether the blight has anything to do with the usurper’s treachery or whether the crops improve because of my own rule. I only know that the people believe in the old superstition, and that means I can use it.

More soldiers come to visit the house now, the dying trees pushing the more reluctant into action. They are loyal and they are angry, but they are also frightened.

They might have served their whole lives without warfare, and now sister fights sister and they are caught in between, and the usurper’s guards are strong and well-armed and prepared to do battle.

I gaze at these soldiers when they come and thank them for their loyalty; praise their honor. I promise them victory, not with rousing speeches but with certainty.

Sometimes as they leave I hear them speaking to each other, whispering that I should always have been my mother’s heir. Her power came to me, they say; they can hear the truth in my voice. Their devotion grows stronger, and their hope rises, and I have my army by the time the trees have grown bare with winter.

The usurper has not been as cautious of late. Her guards are from far away, and many have returned to their homes; the others have grown unwary in the quiet after the uprising. Meanwhile my people bow and scrape and stay quiet, and I can see, when she stands above the town to speak to the people, that she believes in their loyalty. She imagines herself the rightful prince, speaking from the prince’s balcony where my mother once stood.

“And soon you will have a new lord,” she says. “To join me in my reign. My consort is sailing even now across the sea. His ship lands in three days, and there will be a public feast in celebration.” She makes the announcement proudly, as if the people will be glad to have a foreign lord. They murmur politely, exchanging dark looks, and report back to me when night falls.

“She will expect us to attack when his ship comes in,” I tell Riven. With no one to unify my people, they might well have done so –seized a moment when the fewest soldiers could do the most damage. But we have been waiting and planning, and we have enough troops to take the fortress if her guards are unwary. “If we strike tomorrow instead, she will not see it coming.”

“Tomorrow night?” Riven asks, ready to spread the word, and I shake my head.

“The usurper attacked in the night, as if the darkness could cover her transgression.” I have grown used to speaking as a prince to an audience, and I choose my words deliberately. “We will enter in the light of day. We will march in while she is making speeches to the people. Her guards will be with her, the fortress halls unguarded. We will walk in through the southern gate. It will not be hard.”

Riven hesitates. Samil says, out of sight in my blind spot, “I mean no disrespect, my lady, but there is no southern entrance to the fortress.”

I turn so I can see them both at once. “I know the fortress as no one else does.” This is true—I have seen the southern entrance since I was a child, seen myself entering at it. It took me all the years Lydie was gone at school to find it, but I am sure of its place now. “The door is just wide enough to enter three abreast. I will lead our soldiers in and take them unaware.”

Riven says, “We will be honored to follow,” but Samil does not look convinced.

“It will not be hard,” he says, echoing me. “Does that mean none shall die? That none shall be wounded? Over and done within an hour, and a feast to celebrate after? You cannot promise us this.”

I have known Samil since I was a child, and he and Riven saved my life, so I do him the courtesy of taking a moment to see the true death count. “We lose one man,” I tell him, and pretend I do not see his disbelief. “Three more are wounded in battle, one badly. Riven is not among them,” I add, and I can see the relief in his face, his desperate need to believe.

“I would be honored to die for you,” Riven tells me fiercely, and I realize she is embarrassed by our concern.

I smile at her; turn so that she has all my eye’s attention. “I make no promise that I will keep you safe—I will rely on you in battle as if you are my own right arm.” To be a prince’s right arm is neither safe nor comfortable. “But I am glad that you are to survive, for I will still need your help when the fighting is done and the usurper has fallen.”

She bows to me, and I touch her palm lightly in acceptance. “Let the others know,” I tell her. “We gather tomorrow an hour before the usurper’s speech, behind the fortress. We will retake it and then, indeed, there will be a feast of gratitude, and funerals for the fallen on both sides, and next year the crops will flourish.”

Riven and Samil bow to me and leave, to spread the word among the other soldiers. I am left alone to sit and watch the future. I look upon the coming battle, beyond it to my sister’s death, and sharpen my sword.

We take the fortress.

It is almost uneventful, to me; I have seen it so many times. I open the door and we enter, and together we strike down all those in our path. When we reach the balcony, the guards are outnumbered, and we take them easily. The usurper comes in to face us herself. When she sees me, she hesitates, surprised that I am alive. The look on her face is familiar from our sparring, running, our many games of chess, the old fierce determination not to lose. Still she is slow to draw her sword.

Then she sees my soldiers and knows it is hopeless, her expression going blank, and she surrenders with rigid grace. We walk out onto the balcony with her in chains. She kneels at my feet and I raise my sword and the crowds below us cheer. I take the usurper’s crown and hand it to Riven, bow my head for her to crown me. When the crowds have finished cheering, my soldiers take the usurper and her remaining guards down to the dungeons.

Riven smiles cautiously at me. “You are prince now, Your Highness,” she says, and I force myself to smile back.

“You have all served me well today,” I say. “I am honored to have your loyalty.”

She bows. “What more can we do in your service, Highness?”

“The usurper had planned a feast,” I say, and think through my words carefully. This is the moment that will define my rule for those watching—Riven, her fellow soldiers, the townspeople. “Surely she stockpiled food for it, probably taken from the people as part of the monthly taxes. The traitor was owed no tax; it is only proper that the food be returned to the people in celebration.”

“I will see to it,” Riven says, and begins to give orders, and I leave it in her capable hands and head to my rooms to find something more regal to wear.

I have seen these moments a thousand times. I always expected to feel—something. Some triumph, some joy, some vindication in vengeance against the traitor who killed my mother. But all I feel is worn, grieving; my parents dead and soon my sister as well, leaving me alone with a lost eye and a well-defended fortress.

The first day is spent in celebrations and mourning. My people approach me to offer fealty and then turn their attention to the food, and one another. I stand apart, watching, thinking of the usurper, trapped in the dark prison cell where she belongs.

I return to the palace when the feasting is over. My chambers were untouched when I entered them, as if my mother had died only yesterday. I visit them briefly now, to ensure that I look every inch the prince and as little as possible the wounded younger sister.

Then I walk down the stairs to the dungeons.

The usurper’s captured guards watch me with wary eyes as I pass their cells. I ignore them; they will face my judgment, but not today. Today I am here only to visit their leader.

She sits in her cell with stiff posture and no expression. As I come within sight of her she glances swiftly toward me and then just as quickly away. I reach her cell, stand directly before her and wait, tall and proud, for her to speak, to defend herself, to finally give me a reason.

I know she will not. She never has before. We have waited here in silence a thousand times, and I have left her here to her fate, and I never hear about her fever until she is already dead. It feels as though I have years, but I know it must be less, or how can I miss it; how can I not know? My future will be built, as my past has been, on silence, on the emptiness of never knowing why.

I tried to change a thief’s future, and my mother’s, and there is no reason to believe this time will be any different. But I have waited so long for an answer, not the minutes I have been standing here, but a whole lifetime. I still ache from the battle, and even my good eye feels sore and stinging and dry, and my mother is dead, and I am bitterly sick of it all.

“You couldn’t wait?” I ask her, my voice cracking out of me, harsh and pained, and she looks up at me startled, as though she had not imagined I would speak. Even I am startled—I have never spoken before.

“You were her heir,” I say. I had not meant to say anything, but I have years of silence pressing on my lips and I cannot stop the questions spilling out. “Now instead of centuries you had only a few months—did you really think you would be allowed to keep the throne? Did you never listen to the stories? The land rejects every usurper, and so do the people. You were mother’s heir, and you murdered her, as you tried to kill me, and for what?”

She stares at me, and for a bleak, horrified second I know I will never find out, that she will never tell me. Speaking has changed nothing, and I am embarrassed to have let myself hope for an answer, even for a moment.

Then, to my surprise, she breaks her silence.

“She had centuries to rule,” she says, and where my voice was hoarse and broken, hers remains clear and smooth and familiar. “As for you—if you had not challenged me, if I had thought you could accept me as your prince, I would have let you live.”

“You did, however unintentionally,” I tell her bitterly. “I survived.”

She says, “Obviously,” with scorn and no relief.

I touch the patch that covers my ruined eye, and her gaze flicks to it, then away, the first sign of guilt she has shown. It is more than I ever expected, and I gain some control over my anger.

“Why now?” I ask her. “Even if you could not wait centuries—what made this so urgent?”

She does not answer.

“You do not think you owe me this much?” I ask her. “A few answers in return for my mother’s murder?”

She stares at me for a long second, then finally shakes her head, and for a moment I see the exasperation of a pedantic sister in place of an enemy’s hate.

“What answer can I give you?” she asks me, and her tone is as much lecturing as bitter. “If I say that, unlike our mother, I wished to live with my mortal husband at my side, and not to outlive him—would that be enough?” I see her mouth twist as soon as she says it, and she hurries on to distract me from the fact that he is on his way, as if I might forget. Perhaps she worries that if she seems fond of him it will give me more reason to kill him.

She continues, faster now, more forcefully, as if willing me to understand. “What if I say that I doubted my own immortality? There is no way of knowing that you and I will live even a tenth so long as our mother—we might well die long before she would relinquish her crown. What if I say she was a tyrant, and I only intended to liberate our people? She certainly kept us under control—no job suitable but to someday become prince, and that day never in sight.”

She sounds bitter, desperate, and I remember her fighting with our mother, her desperation to finally leave home and no longer be a child.

“If I say I had a plan, if I say I was desperate, if I say I never meant to kill her at all—Mandeva, you want some justification so you can forgive me, or for me to say something so monstrous that your hatred can be simple. But there is no justification that will be enough for you, and there is no motivation that is worse than the crimes I have already committed. So what does why matter?”

Her question hits me like a blow. It’s true: I wanted so desperately to have some reason good enough that I could have her back, that she could still be the sister who explained my feelings and joked with me and always wanted to play chess. Her explanations are even plausible. She has always been impatient, defiant; always wanted to prove her own worth.

But what she says is true. There may be traces of the Lydie I remember left, but though I see enough to make me ache, it isn’t enough.

“You’re right. I cannot forgive you,” I tell her. She inclines her head in acceptance, calm as if she had already known, her bitterness and her affection both gone behind a look as blank as a mask.

I turn away from her and walk down the row of cells, back straight, feeling miserable and young and not at all like a prince. I have finally gotten my answer—and another glimpse of my pedantic sister, a hint of all the love and fear and anger behind her indifference—and it still is not enough. I thought, in the moment that I finally spoke, that I had somehow changed something,, that I had finally broken the pattern. Yet even this small change is meaningless. I could not save my mother and I could not save my eye and I cannot save Lydie, who has chosen her path and will die on it.

As I approach the dungeon stairs, though, the walls fade under an overlay of images, the future echoing back, spilling out before me; this prison fading under the next time I come down, and the next.

Tomorrow, instead of sending my guards, I will go personally to meet her husband at the docks and offer him a choice, and, to my surprise and hers, he will choose to join her in prison. She has taught him chess, and in a year I will unbend enough to bring them a chessboard, and in two years I will even join them for a game, and in three or four or five years, when my sister grows ill, I will know and I will bring Riven and Samil down with fresh water and medicine. By then Riven will be the captain of my guard, and Samil one of my councilors, but they will tend the traitor personally because they are the only ones I trust with my sister’s health. Not long after that, my sister will even be allowed out of the dungeons for more than a few hours at a time.

In thirty years Samil will die of old age, and Riven ten years later, and I will no longer be tied to the city by my affection for them, and Lydie’s husband will be dead as well. And in just over half a century Lydie and I will leave the palace. We will wander the world as I had always intended, but together instead of alone.

I am not yet ready to forgive her. As in the moments after I lost my eye, I cannot imagine the path that takes me to the future I see; cannot imagine a time when I can think of her without the gnawing bitterness and pain I feel now. But somehow I have broken the silence that I thought would linger until her death. I stand shocked for an instant, the new future hitting me in waves. Perhaps this time I changed my own mind, my own actions, instead of trying to change someone else’s. However it happened, I have seen her now, seen the glimpses of my sister she was hiding. I have seen her love for a man I have never met; seen even what love she still has for me, and someday, it turns out, that will be enough.

It takes all that I have, furious and grieving, not to walk away and leave her alone with her fear, but I have centuries of living with my sister yet to come. We have to start somewhere.

I turn back to where she sits, still straight-backed and proud, dreading what I will do to her, to her guards, to her husband when he comes.

“Your husband,” I say, this truth the only gift I can bring myself to give her. “You don’t have to worry—I will not have him killed.”

I turn away before she can answer and leave the dungeons, still weary, but with new purpose. I have a household to run, and a city to rule, and a chessboard to buy for my sister’s next birthday.


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Rachel Halpern is a graduate of Grinnell College and the Alpha Writer’s Workshop, currently working on an MFA in creative writing through the University of Southern Maine. Her stories have appeared in venues such as Daily Science Fiction. She was co-editor-in-chief of Grinnell College Press for three years and is currently the editor-in-chief of Inscription Magazine, an online magazine of science fiction and fantasy for teens. Visit her online at rachelhalpern.com.

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