I’m drowning in my thoughts while I polish the broad front steps of Arlee citadel—laying down my daily deposit of Hearth magic with repetitive gestures and whispered chanting—when a woman in black at the head of a silent army levitates into Arlee, the seven thick gates in the town downhill crumbling open before her followers with seven muted explosions. My master’s soldiers, all war-magic adepts, come running and shouting; without even looking at them she lifts a hand, and the earth itself shivers and sends them flying in groaning heaps of breastplates and greaves and shattered blades.
Through my hearth connection I can feel the walls, the ground, even the roses writhing under the press of her strong magic. I slam my own walls closed as the breath leaves my throat, and I scramble inside the gate because it is clear that whoever she is, she plans to march right through it and confront the Duke. For once I’m glad I’m just a servant girl, even if I don’t have a father to match with the newt in my belly, which I clutch to stare up at her as she floats by. As if she feels my gaze she looks down, and the entire world stops for a moment.
She’s wearing my face.
I’d know it anywhere, I’ve seen it enough in early-morning puddles and buckets of water and in the countless mirrors I polish every day in the fancy part of the castle. Dark eyes, darker than most, with bushy dark eyebrows and spiky black lashes. Pale skin, blotchy along cheekbones that are sharper than the fashion; nose flared in shock and pink around the nostrils.
We stare at each other while seconds drip by. Shock gives way to anger gives way to curiosity in her face, and once she almost opens her lips to say something. I, however, feel only resignation and a small sense of hope. Whatever difficult choices are ahead of me, somehow they just got harder, and grew possibilities. How, I don’t know, but I know within me that it’s the truth.
Finally I nod and get up to walk away, and she lets me go. No one will be punishing me for leaving my task. They have other things to think about right now, like the high-pitched sing-song of this sorceress’s voice that I can feel mounting in my bones. It echoes through the castle as I begin to climb the stair to my room on a blind hunt for enough quiet to think.
“Racard, Duke of Arlee,” the voice pierces through years and memories and floor after floor of stone, penetrating the very bones of me, your reckoning is here! Where are you, Racard, Racard, Racard?” A pause, a manic giggle, a crash as something breaks. “Racard, I’ll break your things... come out come out come out!” Her voice grows beyond the human range, high and low, like the wind whistling through the ancient pines and shivering my bones.
It is a regrettable quirk in our Duke that he likes to play hide and seek from his expensive whores, and if they aren’t around he will make do with us the servants, even the homely ones. As a child I liked the game, until I grew both bored with it and tired of the way I inevitably was the first to find my master and then would be made to huddle too close to him, smelling his sour breath and feeling his arm around me in the pulsing dark, until someone else found us which always took much longer than it should have. Later I would pretend to play but hide myself, in the library with a book, and use my Hearth magic to track the game’s progress so I could be the second or third to his hiding spot.
The Duchess never played, preferring to sit in the airy morning room and drink pot after pot of rose hip tea and look out at the raw Lux winter, perhaps missing the sunny land she was born in. Her long fingers, chapped and reddened in the winter around the nails no matter how much oil her maid rubbed into them, would lie still in the rustling silks of her lap. Shoulders slightly hunched, she would faintly smile when, with a great crow of excitement that would leak through the halls and entries of the palace, the Duke was found by some unlucky bastard who got the shit scared out of him when Master leaped from his hiding place and shouted in his ear. I would watch her sometimes, under the pretense of dusting the room, trying to ignore the way her shoulder would twist to hide her face from me, or the way that her back grew stiffer when she heard my footsteps enter the room. She is more interesting than my master, but she is a closed book I can’t read, or won’t read—I don’t lack the power, only the heart. We have a long history, Milady and I, and I still feel the bile of shame rise in my throat when she looks at me full on with her blue accusing eyes. She is not one to forget a grudge, and I am not one to forget a debt.
Now, though, through the Hearth connection I have with every stone and cinder in this ancient heap, I can feel her standing under the family coat of arms in the great gallery, waiting with almost no surprise for doom to blast through the doors, and I can feel my master hiding in the bread pantry down in the pastry kitchen. And then—and then I can feel the sorceress prying into my thoughts, snaking past everything I care about to extract the image of the Duke’s two feet planted on the stones under a rack holding stale bread for the servant dinner.
Her laugh of triumph shakes my skull like a gong. I try to close myself to her but it is more like she loses interest in me and leaves. When she does this I find I am on the stairs still but sprawled across several of the pearly-brown flags, with my belly sagging down between two of them and my cheek pressed against another, where it is worn from centuries of footsteps. My heart is thudding hard in my chest and the baby writhes inside of me.
She invaded me. She took my thoughts from me. Hate rises, hot and surprising like bile, and fascination for her power. I do not reach back along that thread of connection between us. I use the strength of my emotion to shutter my soul-windows, damp the lanterns, close the doors. This invader can invade the castle, I don’t care, but she can’t invade my soul. I am not property, no matter what it says in the Great Charter. I am my own.
My nails have bit into my palms. I loosen them. The stairs lead in a tight corkscrew up to the east servant’s tower, where I have slept since I was ten. I have my own room there, which I obtained after much planning and, I’ll be honest, a lot of Dream magic carefully employed on the then-steward of the castle, an old man by the name of Trim who had a secret passion for beekeeping.
The door of my room has a harsh creak when I open it that sets my teeth on edge. I never oil the door because I want to know if someone is entering my room. The room is made of cold grey stone and wedge-shaped like all the others in this floor, pressed against the side of the tower like a cell. There is a wooden bar lock and I shove it home now; the thud it makes against my palm brings me a tiny flush of reassurance. Below I can feel—faintly, because I am so shielded—the terror of the Duke as the sorceress reaches a strong arm into the pantry and drags him out by the neck and dangles him like a puppy and laughs at him.
I reach under the wooden frame of my bed and pull out a basket of nuts and apples that I keep there, and I sit cross-legged on the colorful throw the cook knit for me when I was sixteen, and eat, and ponder. I had two paths before today, and I didn’t like either of them. Both of them required a man to acknowledge me, and one of those men I hated—he hated me too—and the other I’d always loved but he cared no more about me than about his pet cat whom he sometimes forgot to feed.
Now, suddenly, there is a third path. An unknown path. Why do I share a face with this woman? And why had she come here? What does it mean to me—a lowly servant with far more power than is good for her—and to the small creature growing in my belly waiting to suck up my power at its birth? It seems impossible it could mean nothing.
The apple is tart in my mouth; juices run down the back of my throat and my saliva wells until I have to swallow again, and again. In my hand the apple feels heavy and perfectly round, skin a waxy silk against my calloused fingers. It comes from the back orchard beyond the corn fields, where blackberries the size of my thumb grow wild in a thicket of thorns and also there is a small bobcat that makes its home at night. The orchard is largely forgotten and most of the fruit falls unnoticed to melt into vinegary puffs amongst the long grass until the snow covers everything in a blanket of secrets. I go there sometimes and talk to the lithe wild cat and sometimes it will let me scratch it under the ruff in the muscular curve of its neck. I often wonder if I have a bit of beast magic since otherwise it would probably take my face off with a single slash of its claws. Speaking of taking faces off, what if the sorceress decides to kill me because I share her face? Or what if she takes me as a slave, or a servant? Or a lover or forces me to stand in for her somewhere—the thoughts spin out of control in me and I feel tension rising in mounting waves that shiver to my fingertips.
Outside through the papered window I hear the soft thock of a bird striking the tower side and the flutter of its wings as it recovers. The shock in my consciousness is enough to break my downward spiral. I sit still for a moment with a half-chewed bite of apple on my tongue. There’s no way to know the sorceress’s mind without using my power, so I must use my power. The way seems clear now, at least for one step.
I lay my hand on my taut belly and whisper reassurance to the imp inside me and stretch out on my bed. Now after a lifetime of training I need no herbs or smoke to slip into my trance: I merely relax every part of my body, begin a slow inventory of what I hear in my surroundings, and count backwards, skipping every fifth number, from six hundred and forty one. This reality fades and the Dreamworld seeps in, washing my senses with fresh colors and sounds and the awareness of every soul within reach (which for me is, as near as I can figure, a circle of a half day’s ride around me) and its hopes, fears, plans, and secret desires. It is like a flock of crows rising from the fields with harsh voices except that the sound is inside of me, filling me up until I feel like I might explode.
But this isn’t my first Dream. This isn’t the madness of my childhood after I Received from the Duchess’s mother, when they thought I might go insane before I mastered my power and sent me to a Dreamer named Straam several days away for training so I wouldn’t tear the castle down one nightmare ripple at a time (he took my virginity on a hillside under a cherry tree and gave me both tools to master my power and recurring nightmares of the faded blue eyes tattooed on his eyelids and how they frayed around the edges and how when he mounted me, they closed and fluttered until he fell away and took with him too much of me). This isn’t the fevered Dreaming of my first flowering, when it seemed my cunt called out to every breath, every blunt object, every man and girl around me, and the lust I spread around me brought more lambs, more children, more kittens underfoot with each year until I began to learn to deaden myself and put up the walls.
No, this is the Dream of experience. With relative ease I shut my inner ears to the cries around me and search for the woman who wears my face. I assume she’s with the Duke, who is belling out his terror to the heavens for anyone who cares to listen, but I can’t feel her. If anything, I feel a gap where she should be, based on where everyone else is oriented with terror and curiosity. In my years of walking the hidden roads of Dreams I have never felt this before.
She isn’t there. I feel no presence to whisper to; no despair to cradle in my arms. There is no fountain of need and desire to manipulate. I’m going to have to see her in-person to learn what happens next.
The cautious part of me, the part that’s always terrified by the unpredictability of my power, the part of me that wakes in the night and lies frozen until the first threads of dawn confirm another day has appeared, the part that is relieved that childbirth will likely halve my force, whispers that I should stay in my room and wait for her to leave. Maybe she will forget my face. Whatever doom she is dispensing is not mine; I have enough of my own.
Truthfully, my doom was sealed the day the Duke’s mother died and I Received all her power instead of her grandson Elever. We were both about eight then. There were many places we’d rather have been than in the sickroom, standing in the close air that smelled of urine and old sweat. Back then Elever and I were occasional playmates, but not that day. I still remember the paper-thin skin, spattered with age-freckles, on the old woman’s arms that lay on the coverlet as still as if she’d already died, and I remember the darting pale blue intelligent eyes sunk into her face. My duties included sponging her cheeks and forehead with fresh water and changing the bedpans.
The Predictor had suggested Elever do it instead—he’d been born with little power and could barely Dream a nightmare to a baby, though in my opinion he’d gotten the best card in the deck just by coming into the world a Duke’s son and getting all the candies and cakes whenever he wanted—but he’d refused in a huff and left the room. I remember too how the Duke’s lady stood in the corner, hidden partly in shadow, as the imperious old Duchess felt her way toward the dividing line between Life and Death with as much defiance as she’d lived firmly in Life’s maze. The floor was marked with lines and names, two of them. The old woman had Dream magic and Hearth magic. The closest line on the floor had Elever’s name written on it and two curved lines for his toes. The next line had a carefully chalked crown for the Duchess. If no one got in the way, they’d Receive based on how close they were and their affinities. The old lady was strong, almost a real Dreamer, so it was a good thing for Elever, and for Milady who’d not been strong in the first place and then had shared her power with her son when he was born.
We servants don’t get so careful around deathbeds as the nobility, I guess because we don’t have time for it all, nor can we pay the Predictor. And I think because we are more caught up in the drama on the bed, the life fading away before our eyes. Sure, we might jostle a little for position—everyone wants to Receive! It’s the only way to increase the magic you were born with, and in this world you need magic, money, or birth to rise in station! Are there any other kinds of worlds?—but with my master’s family, death is a morbid, precise business full of whispered arguments and infinitesimal measurements and ghoulish waiting for death.
This time, all the precision, all the intention, didn’t matter because the old woman died before anyone expected her to, with an impish look on her wizened face as if she did it on purpose. I swear she stuck out her tongue at the Duchess in the shadows as she stiffened, let out a low gurgle in her throat, and sighed surrender. I had been freshening her pillow, lifting her fluffy grey head and slipping a new white cushion underneath, and I felt her sag into my hands while panic sparked in my throat and shocked through my blood. I’ll always associate the pungent aroma of the lavender that was crisping and burning in a standing basin in the corner with what happened next.
Magic like a swarm of bees with stingers pumping hot poison struck me and pierced me through my skin into my blood and the inner parts of me. With my eyes I could see a stream of tiny bright yellow sparks flowing from the old woman to me, and with my ears I could hear a hum that started low and grew to a scream—ah but that was me screaming, and the Duchess who had leapt across the room and struck me in the face was screaming too, and the magic was screaming through my bones—higher and higher pitched while pressure built inside me until I thought I might explode into sparkly bits from here to Daviton, half a day’s ride away.
The scent of singing lavender burned my nostrils. I was still screaming but I forgot how to breathe, and the screams exhaled from me as whispers in the air of that room which no longer was filled with shadows but pulsated with light like I’d never seen before, white-yellow light that penetrated every corner and froze Milady’s face forever in my eyes, froze it with horror and awe and resentment and fear in every line of it.
Suddenly I could feel every person in the massive castle. I could feel the castle itself, aging, settling on its bones with weariness and stories long forgotten. I could feel the birds like small worlds darting through the air outside, and I could feel the trees in the orchard and the animals in the great barn. I could sense the needs, the wants, the fears, the desires, of every being as far as I could imagine. I was eight years old, mainly concerned with whether my secret tansy flower in the horses’ exercise yard would get trampled, and suddenly I could taste the remembrance of the cook’s cunt in the mouth of a guard who had always teased me for my black eyes. I knew that my mother had just collapsed in a closet under a perfectly folded stack of linen and was hiccupping with tearful remembrance of my father, dead some four years. My awareness caught the whisper of jealousy in the heart of Lettie, the gardener, over the leather belt her friend Sra wore.
Until now my small Hearthlove had been good for nurturing the carrot row in the garden and stirring soups into velvety richness. It was convenient for the daughter of the cellerer and a laundry maid, who had at best to hope in her lifetime for the position of chambermaid, and it had only been a peripheral aspect of my awareness, like the color of my hair or the size of my feet. Now with the Dreamvision and the Hearthlove pulsing through me in terrifying power, I could barely remember my own shape and location. I faded from myself in the ocean of everyone else.
I think the worst of it at that moment was that I could feel how Milady hated me for taking the power meant for her son. I could sense she was pondering poisoning me and sending the magic to him that way and then was recoiling from herself in horror but still thinking about it. I felt the way her fancy shoes pinched her feet and how a large part of her just wanted to walk away from her Lord and his endless whims, his empty castle, and his stupid servants who took what wasn’t theirs, and go back to her people where the sun always shone and her nursemaid would make her turmeric milk whenever she wanted it. I could feel that, and I could feel Elever coming closer, drawn by the screams and his curiosity. I could feel the moment coming but I could do nothing about it.
I could feel the cool door handle under his fingers and how his back muscles strained to open the heavy door into his grandmother’s room, and I saw myself through his eyes when he stepped in, glanced at his mother and then down at the servant girl who had stolen his inheritance. When he saw the final twinkling remnants of the magic in the air, I felt the longing leap into his throat and how he bit down on it so no one would see. Suddenly I realized he was accustomed to hiding how much he wanted more magic, and how badly he had wanted his grandmother’s Dream magic so he could be normal, so that it wasn’t only his birth that spoke for him but his power. And then I felt in my own stomach the stone that fell when he realized what had happened.
I was defenseless then, my awareness spread over a hundred minds, my body sprawled on the floor with glowing tears tracing down my temples. Elever and his mother exchanged a ruthless glance that I felt like a sword in my belly, and they both took one step closer to me. Their hands twitched. I stared back at them through their eyes. And then all the other servants burst in the door, and Milady’s youngest sister, and the Duke, and everything was hate and loud voices and chaos and I found my body transported to my parent’s room and left there, bleeding magic in a glowing trail across the dull stone of the passageways, until they could figure out what to do with me.
I never asked for Elever’s power. I didn’t want it; I only Received it because I was doing the tasks he refused to dirty his hands with. We all knew that, but everyone blamed me anyway. For some years, Elever was sent away to study at the University of Balmage, where I intuited he had a rough time, but I always doubted it could have been as rough as mine, growing up in the shadow of a mistress who hated me, leaking power over everyone I knew and feeling every emotion, dream, and desire that bubbled up within the castle; torn between loathing myself and fascination with the strange power that came from the twining of the old woman’s magic and my own. I never wondered if other Receivers suffered as I did; I only suffered.
My training left me in worse shape than before, just not spreading the misery with every dog, stallion, and manservant. In between kissing me and convincing me for a time that I liked it, Straam the Dreamer taught me to lay a circle of string with certain enchantments around myself before sleeping so my Dreams wouldn’t leak out, how to narrow my focus to one or only a few people, and how to purge myself from everything once in a while using candles and juniper berries and a little bread. I tried to learn from him if he had suffered like me when he came into his power, but he wasn’t interested in sharing anything but his body parts and never mentioned his past or anything at all that would give me insight.
Really it was only when I forced the beautiful horseboy Gerard to see me, when he began to sit next to me at Second Supper and share the best bits of his beef with me, and when he told me I was prettier than Ela the lady’s maid that I began to find some ease in my life. I was eighteen or so. I know I blossomed, began to shine like I really deserved his admiration and his love—first expressed through a stolen kiss here or there and then, when I pushed aside my memories with a hard fist and let him, through sweet nights in my little room together—and that was when Elever began to notice me as more than the blister in his foot, the thief in his house. That was when Elever took to spying me with his bright eyes. I could feel everything he thought about me, no matter how I tried to shut it out. I could feel the tortured lust mixed with grief and hate, the sidelong glances at his aging mother and the loneliness that struck him in the night when he pondered how he was the only son of a failing house with no chance in sight to gain the solace of the magic he really wanted.
Somehow I was surprised when he came for me, though. It was late at night and the house was nearly silent; he found me in the library where I had disappeared some hours before. Servants are not supposed to know how to read; that knowledge is one of the things separating us from our masters and ensuring we remain safely where we belong. But it was not just the guilt of being caught with a history book in my hand and the scintillating past of the Empire of Tiranel in my mind that made me swallow hard and take a long breath when Elever appeared before me holding a candle—in the library!—and munching on a crust of bread. “What are you doing here?” he said, and it was a reasonable question. I bit my lip, looked down at the soft leather cover of the book in my hand and the gold-leaf that outlined in curly letters its title: Of the Founding of Tiranel the Winsome City. Looked down at the years of dreaming and yearning, and back up at my reality which was much less enjoyable to ponder. His presence beat toward me like a flush of heat.
“I could report you for reading,” he said, and he took a step closer; I took a step away from him, and my back pressed against the stone of the inner wall. He smelled of his father’s brandy, and of sweet apple spices. Through my magic I could feel the blood pounding in his veins, in his breeches, in his throat. He saw me through hot eyes, and danger hovered over me like a raincloud. I knew whatever was happening was bad and that I had to escape. Just beyond him was the open center of the library, and not twenty paces away was the great door which—I could feel a draft—was open.
“I’m sorry,” I said, and I tried to slip past him, but he gripped my upper arm with his fingers until they ground against the bone and I whimpered, folding in on myself with the pain of it. Something in it excited him. He pushed me back against the wall—hard so the breath jolted out of my chest—and held me there wriggling, his tongue caught between his teeth. I shoved with my heels against the wall, wrenched my shoulders. He was stronger than me, years on the training ground with a sword and cudgels.
“You have to pay for your wrongdoing,” he said, and we both knew he didn’t mean the reading. I felt dread pool in my stomach like snow. It was happening; the storm that had started that day in his grandmother’s room was breaking now.
I shook against his grip and it tightened until the hurt made me weak. Words tumbled from my mouth and my eyes prickled. “Elever, it’s not my fault! Please.” I knew now where this was going—it wasn’t my first time—and I felt soft tears falling onto my collarbone. His hungry gaze found them and watched the dark splotches they made on my uniform over the breast which I had so joyfully exposed to Gerard just hours earlier in the shed behind the milkbarn. The tears made him happy, in a savage way. It was sickening to feel both my terror and his joy in it, like swallowing a fishbone that sticks in the throat and chokes.
He leaned against me, one hand braced against the stone above my head. “You’re a bad girl, Jane, you are,” he said, and ground through our clothing against the tender skin of my belly with his hard cock until I whimpered, and then let go of me. Of course I tried to run away from him then, and of course he seized me from behind and threw me onto the flagstones where, amidst the dust and glory of the library that had been my refuge, he raped me twice and then left me to sob alone and wish I’d never heard of Arlee, or magic, or sex. That night when Gerard came to my room I turned him away, and on that night began my gradual distance from the life I’d found in that castle, which was all I knew.
Now, five months later, I am walking down the stairs of the north tower toward a sorceress who is impervious to my power; my belly pulls tight with the strain and sharp twinges arc in my hips and groin. I know Elever is stuck there with her like a butterfly on a pin, and his mother too in all her bitter courage. I know the Duke is there, and the majordomo, and any number of servants, inside and out, and guards too. My destiny pulls me forward, out of the swirl of memories that defines me. I find I am ready to meet it. I hurry down the stairs and through the servant’s hallways into the central maze of the place, familiar to me as my own thumbs.
When I reach my goal it is as if they are all waiting for me, frozen in place. Not a word is spoken. They stand there looking at each other, then at the great doors which have been ripped from their hinges and now lie like broken game pieces in a shifting cloud of dust. They look at me walking with calm steps through the rubble and into the Great Hall that once hosted Spurl the Conqueror and that now is filled with Dream magic so strong nothing seems real, all flowing from the woman who levitates some three feet from the floor and waits for me, wearing my own face full of vengeance, and curiosity, and something softer, something like love.
“There you are,” she says, in the voice that cuts through normalcy and strains at realms beyond, where the wind lives and the cries of the shrikes. “I was waiting for you.”
I nod, still adjusting to the feel of her blankness in my Dreamsense. She was waiting for me. Does this make me happy or scared? Scared, I think, because then I realize I have placed a protective hand on my belly. Startled, I remove it, but not fast enough. She sees, and Milady sees, and Elever sees, and the Duke sees, and each person draws a different conclusion and I don’t like anything I see on anyone’s face. Now. It’s happening now. My destiny and this child’s destiny are hurtling ahead and I can do nothing to stop it. I don’t even want to, because I have been waiting too long in the fear and the paralysis.
“My name is Jane,” I say to her. Something passes between us. An acknowledgement. A sharing.
“I am Timrys,” she answers, and I see with the corner of my vision the Duke’s eyes widen. He has heard of her. Perhaps from the Capitol, through the Dreamspeech the rulers share every week or so? Which would make sense because why would this woman be here if not for something larger than me, than this duchy? But he says nothing and the moment passes.
Milady points at me, and in a voice like dead leaves she says, “She is only a servant.” When Timrys turns her fierce eyes on her she flinches but looks back in defiance. She adds, with a curious gesture of her finger toward me as if to tell everyone to notice what she’s saying because it’s important, “She is nothing, really, nothing at all. Nothing.”
I knew what she thought of me—how could I not!—but somehow the words still wound me. The thread of connection between Tymris and me pulses and I feel her anger as she snaps her words into the room, “She wears my face. She bears her own child. She carries great power. She is hardly nothing. She is more than you—” here she turns her full attention on Milady and stares into her without mercy “—you who are too small even to murder for your son, too petty to act on your longing for that man you dream of kissing, too...” Tymris loses interest but I do not. I watch the woman whose silent bitterness clouded my life wither into herself, watch her chin lose its definition and redness appear around her eyes. Tymris’s defense of me is comforting. I take a step closer to her. Elever leers at me. I know what he’s thinking—he’s thinking that he put that babe in my belly and it is his to claim, and so am I. He may have put that babe in my belly, but I’m not his. I take another step toward Tymris.
The duke has a line of drying blood straggling down his forehead and ending in the tired dimple of his left cheek. “Go away, Jane,” he says, but I can hardly hear him his voice is so quiet. I take another step toward Tymris. Toward my destiny.
Tymris turns toward me and looks into my eyes. “Jane, what shall I do with these people?”
She’s asking me. This sorceress, who holds all our lives in her broad palm, is looking at me with my own eyes and asking me what to do with my rapist, with the woman who has hated me my whole life, with the Duke who might as well not exist for all the protection he gave me. I take another step, and I am close enough to reach my hand and take the fabric of her dress—some leathery black material, streaked with poison green—in my fingers and rub it, if I wanted to. She really wants to know what I think. The world takes a waltz-step to the side, resettles in a new shape. Suddenly, I am a person of importance. I matter.
I shrug, look at each of them, force them to meet my eyes. They wait, for the first time caring what words come from my mouth. Others in the room watch, an audience that matters not. I am their destiny. I taste the triumph, the solace, and I ponder what might be done with them, possibilities sparking in my mind.
But Tymris grows impatient of waiting for my response. She makes a tiny motion with her hand, and Elever doubles over gasping for breath, his face draining of blood. “I want that child, Jane,” she says, and twists her wrist so that Elever falls on the ground making whimpering noises like a kicked puppy. “Is this one the father?”
“I’m not sure,” I say, and then I realize what she has just said. Shock whips through my body. “No!” The child jumps and then freezes in me. I step away from her. No. This is not the destiny I choose.
Blood pools in my face and I begin to shake with my own intensity. “You can’t have my child!” I say. Anger unfurls in my throat; dream magic arcs between us, and I reach into my connection with Arlee and amplify it. I will send her nightmares to cloud her waking eyes. I will fill her heart with the kind of fear I felt when Elever raped me. My magic flows in defiance toward her with such force that the air trembles.
However, instead of crumbling like I expect she examines my magic and nods in approval. The single black feather in her headdress waves slowly in the air. “You’re strong. That’s good. You’ll have enough to spare when you birth my son.”
No! No! This destiny is worse than the others! I shake my head, feeling a scream building in my throat. Why does she want my child? I earned this child, I treasured this child before it was even born—I risked everything to carry this child. I’m even sacrificing much of my magic for this child! My palms, open at my sides, shoot streams of midnight shimmer that converge at Tymris’s chest. To my right Milady faints. Maybe my magic is too much for her. But it’s not too much for Tymris. She smiles and my magic falters.
“Many years ago an Emperor of Tiranel lay with me and gave me a son,” she says conversationally, as if we are alone in the room and she’s telling me a story. With a casual shrug she redirects my force to Elever and he begins to scream. It wasn’t meant for him; I cut it off with an effort and stand panting, the taste of cinnamon flooding my tongue. “I...” Her mouth twists as if she’d just eaten something bitter. “I lost the child.”
“You can’t have mine,” I say through my teeth. I put both my hands on my belly. “This one is mine.”
“I’ll give you Arlee,” she offers. “I’m conquering Tiranel. In six months when you’ve borne the child, there will be a new ruler of your land. Probably not me, I don’t like ruling, but I’ll look for someone you can work with.” She pauses and flicks some rock dust off her shoulder. I ponder her words with shock turning pinwheels in my chest. She just offered me Arlee, the entire duchy, as if she were offering me a bread roll in the kitchen. She’s trading me a territory with all its goods, wealth, servants, and prestige, for my son. She lay with an Emperor of Tiranel; I’ve never even seen one. A sense of smallness fills me up like water in a bucket.
“No,” I say, a little too softly.
Am I actually considering this? My heart beats in my throat.
What does it even mean to be offered a duchy?
How would I care for the sprawling mess of humanity, livestock, farmland, and strongholds that make up one of the richer duchies in the Empire?
At least I can read, which is more than can be said of most people in the Empire.
What’s the alternative?
This sprig of a child has little chance at a better life than I did (and look how that turned out), but the most powerful woman I’ve ever met wants to give it that chance.
She is staring at me, watching me think. Maybe she can hear my thoughts. But I hardly notice her, for my Hearthsense is flooding me. I have always felt too much of Arlee. Now I can feel the slow pulse of the prize white stallion, Lothar, in the stall as he sates himself on Trina the top brood mare, and I can feel as if in myself the quickening that is happening in her womb. I sense the new life springing up in the orchard, the buds just beginning to whisper about summer and peaches dripping with juice. In a hamlet on the edge of Arlee a woman is baking a cake for her new husband; he approaches her with a whistle on his lips. Arlee. I have more love for it than the Duke, more than Elever ever did. I would rule it with more care than they have.
“No,” I say again, even more softly.
She quirks an eyebrow. “Jane, I am Tymris of the Isle of Thorns. I conquered the southern regions with one breath of my lungs. I am the most powerful magician alive, and I will give your son a better life than you could even dream of. I will train him, I will care for him—” her voice breaks a little “—I will love him, Jane.”
I will love him too, I think. I will love him in a locked bedroom somewhere as Elever’s despised mistress, or in a dirty hut as Gerard’s wife. Or, I will love him from afar, I think, knowing he is safe and educated.
Knowing someday he will walk in my door and will not recognize me.
Knowing I can read any book I want to, turn the tables on Elever and his family, marry from outside Arlee or from within it, or not at all.
Knowing... knowing that I am not so good as I hoped I would be. Knowing I am practical to the core of me, and knowing that a duchy for a child is a fair trade as far as I’m concerned. I hate myself as I nod to her, as I acquiesce, as I let fate wash over me without striving to change it, as I accept a gift I never dreamed would come to me and I give away the life I’m growing, all in a single movement.
I hate myself but I love the startled look Milady gives me, the horror that fills Elever’s eyes, the blankness stretching like a puddle from the Duke. I love the rustle of surprise that spreads through the crowd of servants watching. Tymris nods. “Very well.” She takes my hand, lifts it high before all. She’s higher than me by three feet and the movement stretches my back until I squeak. She looks down, startled, and lowers my hand a bit. Her voice echoes through the Great Hall. “By right of conquest, I award this duchy, with all its goods, chattel, Charter, and moneys, to Jane, in exchange for her child. You all bear witness.”
I turn to face them; Gerard in a corner with his mouth open, the cook eyeing me with jealousy and a shade of fear, the majordomo with his implacable calm, my mother like a wraith hardly grasping what just happened. Their eyes say, we bear witness, and say very little else. Now I feel my shoulders under my coarse uniform straighten; I let my power wash out over them for the first time without guilt, without shame, without limit. They can’t help but acquiesce. I can force anything to happen in Arlee. I realize that I always could. Now, suddenly, I will.
I will be a fair ruler, I decide as I turn to look at the family behind me; I will be a fair ruler, which means I will treat them as they treated me. They will suffer as I suffered. Every night I cried myself to sleep will be a night Milady will weep in her bed. Every stab of fear that I felt when Elever looked at me, when he touched me, and when I thought of him, will be a knife in his mind. I examine the hold Tymris still has on him, and I break it. I can tell she lets me, a smile quirking her lips. She will let me do anything but keep my child, I think with bitterness and gratitude mingled on my lips like honey.
The fifty or so servants in the hall are still staring at me, and I address them. “You will call me Milady,” I say, my chin high, and I wait for their startled nods. I flick my fingers at the door. “Now, there is work to be done. Go. Do it.”
I don’t need to say I know exactly what work should be done and that I will punish the layabout. It’s understood. In quiet lines they leave the room, each to their own task. I can feel them threading through my castle like bees in a hive. My mother looks over her shoulder at me but I don’t stir in response. She never stirred in response when I looked at her in hope of reprieve, all these years.
“Go with them and learn to dust the rooms,” I say to Elever’s mother, crouched where she fell at my feet, who looks at me as at a live snake. “And follow Gerard to begin learning to work in the hostlery,” I add to Elever. Let them fight over who fathered my babe. More misery to them. To the Duke, I say in pity, “You, you are useless. Do what you will.” I leave a bit of my senses with each person and I make sure they can feel my force vibrating in their souls. They know I’m looking over their shoulders; the pace of the work picks up. My power resonates in every chest. There is no thread of whispered gossip, not now. I am the new Duchess of Arlee, and I am above gossip.
Tymris is still watching me, wearing a proud smile like a mother with a precocious child. I don’t like it but what can I do? When the room is finally empty and I’ve had a moment to master everyone, she leans down—still levitating!—and puts both hands on my belly. They feel hot and burn through the clothes on me to the child within which wiggles like a tadpole in a pond and then stills. Power flows from her into—not me—into the child! What kind of mastery is this? The only way to receive power is through birth and death, nothing in between.
“What are you doing?” I pant; I have wrapped myself in my arms against the swirling heat that sank into me and now is searching out every part of the baby to fill it.
She smiles; it’s a peaceful smile and incongruous on the face of one who just turned established magic on its head and conquered one of the Great Duchies with no bloodshed. “You’ll give the baby much of your strength of course, but I wanted to give him some of mine. I can always get more, and he needs some Other magic to be complete.”
Wait. Other magic. I sink into myself, into my awareness of the child within me, and I probe the power churning in it. Dream magic is mine. Some of it—maybe half, who knows as it’s impossible to measure—will go to the child when he is born. Hearth magic, the same—he had my affinities it seems. But now there’s more. There’s Beast magic; far beyond the Hearthsense that tells me about stallions, this power can befriend and master any animal, great or small; can speak animal language. And it is taboo. I look up at her, startled, but then I feel his War magic take root and bloom in my belly; red-hot with rage and body-knowing. My womb convulses. I find myself on my hands and knees below her trying to retain my apple and nuts. Because it is not just Dream, and Hearth, and forbidden Beast, and War, but it is also the fifth—the deadly—branch of magic spreading through my son: Blood magic. Blood magic, with its intimate knowledge of life and death, its drawing strength from forbidden rituals, its practitioners’ instant death sentence in any country in the far-flung Empire of Tiranel.
“You are a fool!” I gasp, and collapse further, cheek to the dusty marble, stretched out as if the floor could anchor me, could secure me from the horror within me. Everyone knows that magic wars with itself. Hearth and Dream is a serviceable combination, but I almost went mad. Throw a little War magic into the mix and fields a duchy over could begin to burn; the farmers will lynch me; they will kill my son. Maybe he could hide the Beast magic, but the Blood magic—Blood always tells, they say, and it can’t be hidden. All the great villains of the stories were Bloodmages. My son is a Bloodmage. My son... my son... her son... I gave him away, and I opened him up to this forbidden power which will destroy him.
She is complacent, maybe a little defensive, standing with her arms folded over her breasts while she waits for me to process what just happened.
I wanted a third option in my life, I did—I opened myself to it, I pushed it to being. I could have stayed in my room, I could have refused the magnificent gift of my duchy. I could have, and I didn’t. I think, as I relax to the floor and wonder if I should cry now, or laugh, or slip away into Dreams, that more than anything I am surprised by what the new destiny brought me.
“Please go away,” I say to her quietly. I know she can hear me.
“Yes, I must finish my campaign before our child comes,” she answers with a preoccupied nod.
I suppose, I think. Our child. Campaign. What will happen to the Empire when Tymris is finished with it? Yet, given what I’ve received today, who am I to quarrel with my new liege?
My duty as Duchess begins to trickle past the shock, and I ask, “Shall we give you food, drink, a bath?” It is now my domain to offer these things and watch others fulfill them.
“I want nothing. I have done the work required here; you will hear from me in your Dreams.” She looks about as if content with her handiwork and floats out the door. I hear a startled gasp from the hall, where I can feel a several people slowly dusting and putting things to rights.
She may not require food, drink, a bath, but, I realize with yet more surprise, I do. I slowly push myself up from the marble and I walk to the hallway to begin to gather my people to me. I will need to send the former duchess, her son, and her husband to somewhere within my domain where they can’t make trouble for me right now. I will need many things, including—I remember him with a start and a flush—Gerard, who can’t help but notice me now.
My fingers rub the top of my rounding belly as I quietly order the transfer of my few belongings to Milady’s chambers, outline to the cook the meal I want to eat with not a glance at her trembling hands, and discuss rebuilding our gates with the majordomo who until now had seemed remote like a faraway noble in another land. Within me our son trembles and leaps, the magic settling into his bones and radiating through me. I haven’t lost him, I think in a consoling way to myself, I’ve given him another mother. And more magic, and many more problems, all of which I’ll have to help him solve in the future.
I invite Gerard to eat with me. He can’t stop looking at me, at my belly—now released in a flowing gown my maid found for me in the back of Milady’s closet—and at my face which seems new and startling to him. Finally he summons the courage to ask his obvious question: “Is that mine?” pointing at my belly.
I have restrained my Dreamsense but now I let a little of his emotion lap over to me. He is stunned, happy, and terrified. He hopes the child is his, and that I will marry him and elevate him. He hopes that I can’t tell where he was last night, and he hopes I will never find out that he has a babe in the hamlet of Dosho, with a girl who still lives with her brother. My lips thin.
“It matters not,” I answer, and I take a bite of the stewed apples I have always loved but had previously only tasted when I was cleaning the pot. “The baby is mine and it is the conqueror’s.”
I look at him, think of his hands smoothing to my spine, and I look away. “The baby is mine.”