Even though my throat was as dry as the stone walls of the castle, a silvery ray of hope kept me anchored in the center of the crowded dining hall. Courtiers pressed in all around me, a sea of golden hair and sharp smiles. But not one of them was my brother. And not one of them was his best friend.
“Princess Jennesara!” a shrill voice rang out.
The conversations around me quieted. I ducked my head and pretended to fiddle with the delicate chain lacing the front of my too-tight bodice. A couple moved in front of me, and I took my chance to sidle away from the girl heading my way.
I’d endured Lady Isarr’s poorly veiled interest in my brother through all four courses of dinner. I almost told her where she could corner Ren so she’d let me eat in peace. If he’d truly left me to fend for myself, maybe I still would.
I rose on tiptoe, my hand clenched in the soft wool skirt of my dress, dismissing one blond head after another.
“Pardon me,” I murmured as I brushed by a lord and lady whose names I’d forgotten.
My seventeenth birthday was tomorrow, and most of my father’s court had come into Hálenborg when they’d learned we’d still be celebrating despite the attacks at our northern border that we couldn’t seem to quell. Most people had thought the fighting would be over in a month. It’d already been seven.
The spectacle was not what I wanted. But the kingdom needed it, or so my father had told me. He’d said the celebration would be worth the resources it required, that Hálenborg could use a boost in morale.
Dwindling resources aside, I’d rather be manning the upper battlements of the castle in a blizzard than chatting or dancing with courtiers. Because even if the white streak in my fair hair was hidden--and I made sure it was always hidden--their discerning scrutiny always left me feeling exposed. But maybe it wouldn’t be so bad this year. Maybe Cris would finally ask me to partner for a dance.
The haunting notes of the fidla players mingled with the voices of too many people trying to be heard, and pounded against my skull. My stomach flopped and churned, the delicious food weighing heavily now. Ren and Cris weren’t here.
I touched my hair, making sure the elaborate plait was in place, and dodged around a woman’s skirt, admiring the ornamental dagger at her waist. My hand rubbed against the skirt of my own dress, where I wished my sword hung. My father and his court didn’t have a problem with women being soldiers--just with me being one.
Lady Isarr stopped near the Turian ambassador, his black hair and olive skin standing in sharp contrast to everyone else. Her eyes raked over the room.
I ducked down and squeezed between a courtier’s dress and the cold wall.
“--first messenger of the season arrived from Turia, and the king sent him straight back again,” the woman I was hiding behind said to her companion.
My ears pricked up at that. What message had my father been so eager to send to our southern neighbors?
“I heard . . . ,” her companion said, but she stopped when she caught sight of me crouching nearby.
I jerked up and tried to sidestep out the door, but an iron sconce caught my braid, yanking me back. My attempt to extricate myself only tightened the sconce’s hold on my hair. My cheeks heated, and some of Ren’s more colorful curses ran through my mind. Maybe it was better he wasn’t here--he’d tease me about this for the next ten years.
“Your Highness,” a man from the kitchens said, interrupting my frantic tugging. The candle in the sconce wobbled. “Let me help.”
I tugged harder, wincing as several hairs were torn loose. “No, no, I’m all right,” I responded with a smile as fake as any courtier’s. One final pull, and at last I was free.
Those closest watched me with surprised stares and barely concealed smirks. Or, worse, pity. I kept one hand at my hair and the other on my heavy skirt. My cheeks must have been flaming red. “Excuse me,” I sputtered, and darted into the hallway. Had anyone seen the white strands?
Cool air blasted into me, sending shivers along my neck. Spring should have warmed the castle more by now.
“Princess!” Isarr’s screech rang above the muted conversation in the hall behind me.
Did the girl never give up? I picked up my skirt and sprinted to the nearest door.
The latch stuck.
“Come on,” I muttered with a glance over my shoulder. But instead of seeing Isarr, I spotted two men standing far down the hall. Was Cris here after all? The lighting was too dim for me to make out his features, but one of the men stood like him. Why were they conversing in the hall?
Isarr still searched, her nose up in the air, like a hound sniffing me out. My fingers threaded through my ruined plait. No one, not even Cris, could be allowed to see the white in my hair.
I rammed my shoulder into the door and slipped inside the retiring room, latching the lock carefully behind me. My heart tapped against my ribs as I leaned against the door. Isarr’s feathery steps passed.
In the darkened room, I let loose a sigh that carried all the tension of the night. Being watched by so many was exhausting.
Here, alone, my defenses could soften. I loosened the strip of leather from my plaited hair and ran my fingers against my scalp, pulling outward until the strands untangled. I tilted my head one way, then the other, stretching my neck and letting my wavy hair fall over my shoulders.
Lingering traces of perfume and woodsmoke and old furniture finally settled me. My hands followed the motions they knew by heart, weaving my hair back into a braid that would conceal the white streak behind my temple again.
I’d kept it a secret my whole life and shown Ren only after our mother had died. Even then, when he was five and I was three, he’d known I was an impossibility. The discoloration was no bigger than a coin, yet it marked me as dangerous. A challenge to his claim to the throne--a throne I didn’t want.
I ran my hand over the finished braid. There were too many risks to leave my hair loose for long.
My back and ribs ached from my heavy dress, and my bed called to me. Surely, no one would miss me if I didn’t return to the dining hall.
Voices outside the door stopped me. “Did you see her hair?” one murmured, and another laughed. “She obviously braided it herself.”
“Positively shameful,” came the reply.
The voices faded to whispers but didn’t disappear. I’d heard the comments before. I brushed my braid over my shoulder with a long exhale and moved to the dying embers in the fire. All sorts of rumors would snake through the castle if I emerged from a dark room by myself. I’d have to wait.
I found the fire iron and prodded the embers until a small flame ignited. A charred scrap of parchment the size of my palm fluttered against my dress, then to the floor.
I brushed a smudge of ash from the embroidery on my skirt, but it only smeared. “Glaciers,” I muttered. I snatched up the offending bit of parchment, ready to cast it back into the fire. But the tiny flame dancing in the hearth illuminated a single word.
The hairs on my arms shot straight up, and a waterfall of shivers skittered down my back. I poked the fire iron through the rest of the warm embers, but nothing more of the note remained. Though the edges of the scrap were blackened, I could read another word: my father’s name.
I angled the scrap to the low flame to see what else I could make out.
Magic may indeed be our only hope to stop the destruction.
--search for the mages’ library has been unfruitful. The key must lie in Hálendi or--
A hole ringed with black had destroyed the next part, but then:
--strange magic on the front lines. Herds of cattle now husks in the fields, collapsed mines, villages--
The cold in the empty room wrapped around me, tightening until my bones ached. Did my father know about this? He must, but the note now cradled in my palm had been burned in the retiring room--not in his study, nor in the council room.
The muscles in my shoulders and neck tightened as if preparing for a fight. The magic of old had been banished ages ago. Now it was only supposed to be inherited by the heir to the throne of Hálendi, by my brother, Ren--his magic marked by the customary white streak of hair near the temple. How could there be magic on the front lines?
Unease prickled along my scalp. I’d spent my entire life hiding my magic. Who else out there was hiding magic as well?
I tucked the scrap into my pocket, then cleaned my blackened fingertips on the underside of the rug. I paused at the door, my hand on the latch, and closed my eyes.
In the quiet, I let my magic swirl to life. The tethers hummed inside me like silken cords emanating from just under my ribs, connecting me to my father and brother. As I focused on those threads, the soft hum of Ren’s excitement and my father’s anxiety seeped into me, mixing with my own feelings.
As far as I could tell, that was the extent of my magic--a one-way glimpse into their emotions. Nothing that could lend me an edge in battle. Nothing like Ren, who could heal others with his magic.
The door to the retiring room creaked as I eased into the now-empty hall. The gentle tug of the tethers pulled me down one hallway after another, the emotions of my remaining family threading tighter the closer I got.
The charred message sat heavily in my pocket with every step. When I reached my father’s study, inky blackness coated the hall--the sconces hadn’t been lit in this part of the castle. Muffled voices seeped through the crack under the door, and the tethers within me quivered. I knew who was inside.
With a furrowed brow, I stared hard at the door. What could they be meeting about with all of court in the dining hall? I pursed my lips, then tiptoed closer. It took only a moment to find the spot where the door had warped away from the frame. A wisp of my father’s voice escaped through the gap.
“Our troops are spread too thin. No one can know of your journey to . . .”
The sound faded as though he’d turned away. My breath froze and withered in my lungs like the last rose in the first frost. Where was he sending Ren?
I pulled the door open, slipping inside before I could second-guess myself.
My father’s study was sturdy and efficient and all hard angles. He was standing behind his desk, the fire’s light casting deep shadows on his face.
“What are you doing here?” A vein on his forehead bulged, and his anger blasted through his tether into me, followed by worry and the tiniest hint of . . . relief?
“Where are you sending Ren?” I asked before either of them could tell me to leave.
“You were not meant for this conversation, Jennesara.” My father’s sharp reprimand lashed toward me, but I stood firm, clinging to that hint of relief to keep his emotions from overwhelming my own.
“Maybe not, but I’m here now, and I deserve to know,” I replied, my stance wide, ready for the fight. “Please?” I added when I felt him softening.
My father rubbed his temple. “You have to promise to guard this secret. You cannot breathe a word of it to anyone.”
“I won’t tell a soul, Father. I promise.” I held on to my skirt to keep my trembling hands from betraying my desperation. If only he knew how well I could keep a secret.
He sat and gestured for me to sit next to Ren. My brother’s blue eyes locked with mine as I slid into the chair, a barely concealed grin pulling at his cheeks. Yet underneath his excitement for whatever task my father had assigned him, a flicker of annoyance darkened his tether. I swallowed back the uncomfortable sensation and smiled back, though my expression faded quickly.
“It’s been seven months, and we still haven’t been able to pinpoint where the attacks at the border are coming from,” my father said. “There are reports of a main camp within the borders of the Ice Deserts.”
I tilted my head. “But only scattered bands of wanderers and banished criminals live in the Ice Deserts. How are they crossing into Hálendi?” Our border was protected by ancient magic. For anyone--let alone an army--to cross, was . . . unthinkable.
“I don’t know.” My father hesitated a moment and touched the Medallion that always hung around his neck. The runes engraved on the palm-sized surface were darkened and smooth with age. “But with Atháren leading the troops closer to the front lines, we can finally get one step ahead of them.”
I tightened my grip on the chair at the mention of his plans for my brother. “How close to the front lines?”
His jaw set, and he folded his hands on his desk, the picture of confidence. Yet a tiny seed of doubt seeped into me through his tether. “I am sending Atháren to North Watch.”
His words punched into me. Four days north, all the way to the border. I wanted Ren to tell me it was a joke, that he would never leave me behind, but he only sat taller, anticipation simmering through his tether, making my heart beat faster.
“But he’s only nineteen!” I started. My thumb rubbed at a ribbon of embroidery on my skirt, up and down, again and again, as I scrambled for any excuse to keep my brother with me. “And I beat him in our last sparring match, and--”
“I can do it, Father,” Ren said as he kicked my leg. “Thank you for trusting me with this.”
I should be happy for him--he’d been training his entire life to become king, and now he had a chance to prove himself. But alongside my fear for his safety, a dark streak of envy grew inside me, twisting and tumbling like a stream overflowing with spring runoff.
“What about the magic being used against us?” I persisted. “Ren’s magic is for healing, not fighting.”