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Castles in Their Bones
by Laura Sebastian
Daphne thought she would be able to see the moment she left the country of her birth. She’s imagined a place where the fertile green grass and blooming flowers stop short and give way to the hard brown earth and patches of snow that make up Friv’s terrain. She’s imagined she would feel it in the air, that she would exhale the fragrant, fresh air of Bessemia and inhale the frigid, dead air of Friv.
Instead, the change happens gradually over the three- day journey north. The flat earth turns to rolling hills, those hills slowly go bald, the trees around her begin to grow wild and skeletal, their branches twisting toward a sky that seems to appear slightly grayer every time she blinks. At each inn they stop at, the accents of the innkeeper and the other patrons grow rougher and sharper, though they still speak Bessemian.
They will reach the border today, and then there will truly be no going back.
This is a mistake, Daphne thinks as she watches the world around her shift and change into something unrecognizable and dark. She wants to go home, to the palace where she learned to walk. She wants to run back to her mother and feel safe and comfortable in her shadow. She wants to wrap her arms around her sisters and feel their hearts beat as one, just as they were always meant to.
The longing is so strong that her throat goes tight under the lace of her new high-necked gown and it feels like she’s choking. For a second, she lets herself imagine what it would feel like to tear it off, the stiff velvet plush beneath her fingers as the material gives a satisfying rip and she’s free to breathe deeply, the skin of her throat no longer itchy and hot. Already, she misses the unstructured pastel dresses of her girlhood, how she could always find herself reflected in Sophronia and Beatriz, the same features, refracted like facets in a diamond.
She tries not to think of her sisters as she last saw them, strangers with strange faces, varnished and corseted and pinched and prodded until she had to squint to find them.
“Are you all right?” her companion in the carriage asks. Lady Cliona, the daughter of Lord Panlington.
Daphne supposes the king sent her to be a source of comfort during this trip, that Daphne is meant to be grateful to have someone her own age to travel with instead of a stiff matron with narrow eyes and pursed lips.
She recalls everything she knows of Lord Panlington— former head of the Panlington Clan before the Clan Wars ended and Bartholomew became king of a united Friv. Panlington was a formidable warlord and one of the last of the clan heads to swear fealty, though since the war’s end, he’s been one of Bartholomew’s most loyal courtiers—a few spies have even used the term friend.
She knows significantly less about Lady Cliona—only that she’s his sole daughter, though he has five sons. Cliona is said to be his favorite. The spies said that she was notoriously headstrong, bold, and hopelessly spoiled. They didn’t explicitly say she was beautiful, but there was mention of six marriage proposals rejected over the last year since she turned sixteen, so Daphne had assumed.
Now, sitting across from her, Daphne’s surprised to find that she isn’t a traditional beauty—at least not by Bessemian standards. Her face is more freckles than unblemished skin and her copper curls are riotous, barely restrained in a chignon. Her features are too sharp, lending her an air of severity that makes her look older than her now seventeen years. But over the last three days, Daphne’s realized she has a quick, dry wit, and she’s seen her wrap everyone from the carriage driver to the innkeepers to the guards around her finger in mere seconds.
Daphne decides she likes Cliona—or, at least, the girl she’s pretending to be likes Cliona.
“I’m fine,” Daphne tells her, forcing a smile. “I’m nervous, I suppose,” she continues carefully. “Prince Cillian and I have only exchanged a few letters over the years, but I don’t know anything about him. Have you met him?”
Something flickers over Cliona’s expression, gone too quickly to say what it was, but Daphne files it away. “Yes, of course,” Cliona says, shaking her head. “We grew up together at court. He’s very kind, and very handsome. I’m sure he will adore you.”
Daphne tries to look relieved, but she knows that isn’t the truth—not the whole truth. Prince Cillian is dying, and everyone seems to know it. The last report from the spies said he hadn’t left his bed in three months and was getting worse each day. He just has to live long enough to marry her, she reminds herself, though a little voice in her head chides her for her callousness—it sounds an awful lot like Sophronia.
“And the rest of Friv?” Daphne asks. “I’ve heard it’s still a . . . tumultuous country. How do they feel about a foreign princess set to be their next queen?”
There’s that look again, the fleeting glimpse of wide eyes and pursed lips. The look, Daphne realizes, Cliona gets right before she lies.
“Why, I’m sure they will adore you as well, Your High- ness,” Lady Cliona says with a bright smile. “Why wouldn’t they?”
Daphne leans back against the carriage seat and looks her new companion over. “You aren’t a very good liar, are you, Lady Cliona?” she asks.
Cliona freezes before managing a bashful smile.
“When I was a child my mother used to say the stars blessed me with an honest tongue, but these days it seems more like a curse,” she admits.
Daphne laughs. “Is Friv so full of liars that you feel hindered by truth?” she asks, raising her eyebrows.
Cliona laughs too, shaking her head. “Aren’t all courts?”
They ride for a few hours more in bursts of small talk and stretches of silence, until the sun is high overhead and the carriage comes to a stop beside a wide, rushing river, the sound of it so loud Daphne hears it even before the door opens. More carriages are gathered on the other side of the river, all of them painted dark gray except one that is a bright lacquered green with gold and black accents, drawn by two pure-black horses bigger than any Daphne has ever seen.
This is where Bessemia meets Friv, she realizes—the Tenal River marking the border. There are plenty of footbridges across, as well as wider bridges that are part of the trade routes, but here there is not a bridge in sight.
“Tradition dictates you make the crossing into Friv on foot,” Cliona says, seeing Daphne’s bewildered expression.
“On foot,” she repeats, frowning. “Through the water, you mean?” When Cliona nods, Daphne can’t help balking.
“But it will be freezing cold and I can’t possibly keep my balance.”
“Someone will make sure you don’t fall,” Cliona says, waving a dismissive hand before her eyes catch on someone waiting at the riverbank. “See? There’s Bairre.”
“Bear?” Daphne asks, confused and a little alarmed. She peers out of the carriage, but she doesn’t see any bears—only a crowd of strangers. Cliona doesn’t have a chance to answer before a footman offers a hand and Daphne steps down onto the ground.
Still Bessemian ground, she thinks, but the distinction doesn’t give her much comfort.
Cliona doesn’t stray far from her side, and when she offers Daphne her arm, Daphne accepts it. The terrain is unfamiliar and her new boots are too tight and the last thing she wants is for her first impression in Friv to be of her falling flat on her face.
A first impression lasts forever, you must ensure you make a good one, as her mother liked to say. Daphne repeats the words to herself now, hoping she will not find a way to be a disappointment before even setting foot in Friv.
A boy waits at the bank, and when they approach, he bows his head, but his expression is difficult to read. His chestnut hair is curly and overgrown, blowing wildly in the wind and hiding his eyes. He’s handsome, Daphne thinks, but in that moody, wild way that yearns for a haircut, a bath, and a glass of champagne to alleviate his pinched frown and tense jaw. There are dark circles under his eyes, standing out starkly against his pale skin, and she wonders when he last saw either his bed or the sun.
“Bairre,” Cliona says—not a bear, Daphne realizes, but the Bairre. As in King Bartholomew’s bastard son. He gives Cliona a curt nod before his eyes fall on Daphne and he bows. “Normally, your betrothed would be the one to escort you across, but given Prince Cillian’s health . . .” She trails off.
At the mention of Cillian, the boy flinches—Bairre flinches. There hasn’t been much information from the spies about Bairre, even though he’s been a regular presence at court his entire life. The story is, he was found in a basket on the palace steps when he was a few weeks old, mere days after the Clan Wars ended. There was nothing on him but a note with his name, but the king didn’t hesitate to claim him as his own, raising him alongside Prince Cillian despite Queen Darina’s protests.
“Your Highness,” Bairre says, his voice as chilled as the wind blowing off the river. He looks back at the river and the group of courtiers waiting on the other side.
Daphne follows his gaze, taking in the sparse harshness of the land with its gray skies and bald trees, the patches of overgrown weeds. She tries not to flinch at the sight of the courtiers in their drab velvet gowns and ermine cloaks. Already, she yearns for the soft beauty of Bessemia, the frills and silks and sparkle. Looking at the women now, she can’t find one piece of jewelry among them, not a hint of rouge even. The people are all bland and colorless and Daphne can’t imagine she will ever feel like one of them.
Friv is a harsh, joyless land, her mother told her. Filled with harsh, joyless people. It is a land shaped by war and hungry for blood.
“You could try to smile,” Bairre says, his voice jerking her out of her thoughts. “They did come all this way to greet you.”
Daphne forces herself to smile, knowing he’s right. She can hate it here—nothing can prevent that—but the people can’t know it.
“Let’s get this over with,” Bairre says, his voice tight.
Daphne shoots him an annoyed look and opens her mouth to retort but then forces herself to bite her tongue. After traveling for three days, leaving behind her sisters and her home, and now getting ready to plunge into frigid water, she is ready to bite anyone’s head off. But insulting the king’s bastard will get her nowhere, so she simply lets Cliona take her boots off, knotting the laces and hoisting them over her shoulder. Bairre lowers himself into the river with a splash, holding an arm out to Daphne.
The river rushes so wildly that it looks ready to knock Bairre over, but he holds firm. That, at least, gives her some comfort, and she takes hold of his arm. With her heart beating so loudly she thinks they can hear it across the river, she lets him help her into the water.
The cold knocks the breath from her lungs, and she has to keep herself from crying out. The water goes up to her hips, soaking her velvet dress and making it so heavy she has to struggle to keep upright, holding on to Bairre’s arm so tightly she fears she’s bruising his skin.
Cliona is in the water next, taking Daphne’s other arm, and together the three of them make their way across the river in slow, measured steps.
“You’re going to crack a tooth if you keep chattering your teeth like that,” Bairre tells Daphne, his voice even and unbothered by the cold, though he seems to be quite bothered by her.
She glances sideways at him, eyebrows knitted. “I can’t help it,” she says, her voice quivering. “It’s cold.”
Bairre snorts, shaking his head. “It’s practically still summer,” he tells her.
“It’s freezing and I’m wet,” she says. Though she doesn’t mean it to, her voice comes out like a whine. If her mother were here, she would reprimand her with a sharp tug of the ear, but at least Daphne doesn’t cry. If she does, she knows there will be no stopping it, so instead she clenches her jaw and keeps her gaze straight ahead. She puts one foot in front of the other and thinks of a warm fire in the hearth and a cup of hot tea in her hands.
When they arrive at the other side of the river, a man reaches down to help Daphne out of the water, but it’s only when she’s safely on Frivian soil with an emerald-green flannel blanket draped over her shoulders that she sees the gleaming gold crown resting on his brow and remembers that she needs to curtsy.
“Your Majesty,” she says to King Bartholomew, the words she’s meant to say dim and far away in her mind. She’s meant to recite some sort of formality, some promise of loyalty, but all she can think of is how cold she is.
King Bartholomew’s smile is kind, though, a beam of warmth that Daphne clings to. “Welcome to Friv, Princess Daphne,” he says in Bessemian before turning to where Bairre is helping Cliona out of the river.
“How was the crossing?” he asks Bairre in Frivian.
Bairre looks at the king, not bothering to bow even when Cliona manages a shaky curtsy. Instead, he shrugs, scowling.
“I don’t see why it was necessary now,” he mutters, eyes flickering to Daphne.
King Bartholomew flinches before shaking his head. “There are bigger things at stake, Bairre.”
Bairre laughs, the sound cold and harsh. “Bigger things?” he asks. “What, trade routes and a cannadragh princess are more important than—”
The king silences him with a look before his eyes shift to Daphne, huddled in the warmth of the blanket and trying to make sense of what she just heard.
“Your mother assured me you took well to your studies, including Frivian,” he says, smiling, though the smile appears strained. “I apologize for Bairre’s manners. We have a tent set up for you to change into some dry clothes. Lady Cliona, will you escort her, please, and change into something dry yourself? King or not, your father will have my head if you catch your death.”
Cliona dips into a curtsy. “Of course, Your Majesty,” she says, taking hold of Daphne’s arm and steering her away, toward a burlap tent set up between two towering pine trees.
“What were they talking about?” Daphne asks.
“I’m not sure,” Cliona admits, biting her bottom lip.
“And that word?” Daphne presses. “Cannadragh?”
“There isn’t really a Bessemian equivalent,” Cliona says. “The closest would be soft, but that isn’t quite right. It’s used to describe someone who is accustomed to a luxurious life.”
Daphne can read between the lines—he called her a snob.
Check out Castles in Their Bones by Laura Sebastian
About the Author
Laura Sebastian grew up in South Florida and attended Savannah College of Art and Design. She now lives and writes in London with her two dogs, Neville and Circe. Laura is also the author of the New York Times bestselling young adult Ash Princess series and Castles In Their Bones, as well as Half Sick of Shadows, her first novel for adults.