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It would have wings, Leda decided, with thick cords of muscle fanning out into a web of interlocking threads. Its claws would be long and sharp, opaque in their poison, with eyes that burned red in rage, gold in repose. It would be scaled. Long-necked? Definitely spiked. It—no, she—would have teeth as lethal as the swords in her father’s armory. Leda’s mind spun image after image, texture after texture, colours, sounds, worlds. She struggled to keep up.
Fragments of sunlight slid down the frosted windowpane, the glass weeping under Leda’s tracing fingers. The snow beast emerging on the glass acted as a prism, throwing an aurora of colour against her pale cheeks and setting her sprightly eyes on fire. Her icy finger burned as her beast exhaled. Blue flames danced across the glass, so pale they mimicked the Adrion Sea. Although reflective scales dug into Leda’s skin like tiny barbs of ice, all sensation had fled a long while ago, consumed by the other monsters that now lay sleeping on her makeshift canvas.
Outside the study window, she could faintly make out the shape of the snow covered mountains and the dark sprinkle of farms beneath, their lands blanketed in winter. The city that nestled just outside the palace walls were but a grey smudge, unworthy of her attention.
She imagined her beast swooping down on the lowly farmers, quick as lightning, faster than the leopards that staked the Rattler Mountains. She would appear without warning, mercy nevermore, crunching her prey’s bones to a fine powder, crimson streams running down her—
Leda’s head snapped forward, golden eyes wide. Master Harper stood at the front of the room, book open in one hand and quill in the other. Chin lowered, and mouth set in a firm line, he said, “If I am disturbing you Princess, you need only say so. I do hate to waste your precious time.”
From across the room, Gwenyver snickered in her desk, blue satin gloves covering her perfectly painted lips. Beside her, Claudia—or rather Claudi-dumb, as Leda liked to call her—sighed dramatically and made a show of brushing her sleek red hair over her shoulder.
Leda shot the twins a ferocious glare and imagined horns on their heads.
“Well?” asked Master Harper, one eyebrow raised. “May I continue?”
“Well, if you’re asking…” said Leda.
Master Harper’s wrinkled face purpled. Leda imagined steam coming out of his bull nose.
This earned a snicker from Rhyland, who was seated to her right, dark scraggly head bent low over his parchment. Rhyland was Leda’s best friend. He was the son of a former knight who had risen to Captain of the Kingsguard two years ago, after saving her father’s life during the Siege of Yarwood. As thanks, the King had given him and his son special privileges, including a small stone cabin on the edge of the palace grounds, just past the Stones of Renviere.
Leda loved going up there, though the stones never failed to send shivers down her spine. Sometimes she even thought she could hear whispers coming from the ancient stones. Two years ago, when Leda had first met Rhyland, he had been sitting atop one of these tall stones, carving a child-sized short sword out of a thin block of cedar. It had been a surprisingly warm day, rare for Merenda, and Leda had removed her boots in favour of squishing her toes into the wet grass. They had both been eleven at the time, and eager to appear fearless.
“Excuse me,” she had called up from the bottom of the stone of Amarthia. “That’s my hiding place.”
Rhyland had glanced down, unimpressed, and continued to whittle away. Clearly he didn’t know who he was dealing with. “Aren’t you afraid of the gods striking you down dead for using their sacred place in such a way?”
Leda put her hands on her hips. “No, are you?”
“No,” he smiled, reaching down a hand in offering. Leda dug her fingers into the nicks in the rock, the skin of her toes protesting as she made her way up to where she could reach his hand.
“What’s that for?” She asked, once seated across from him.
“Gutting phantom leopards.”
“Right,” she said. “Do you even know how to use one of those?”
Rhyland flashed a toothy smile, on his feet in the blink of an eye. He removed another wooden short sword, sanded and well used, from his belt. Bouncing on his feet, he said, “Name your target.”
Leda stood, digging her bare toes into the cold stone for balance. She looked around, and smiling mischievously, pointing over his shoulder to where Claudia was coming down the path for her morning prayers, hair oiled high above her head in what looked suspiciously like a bee hive. In one of her hands was a bright red fire fruit.
“How about this: if you can knock the fire fruit out of that girl’s hand, I will bring you a whole bag of sweet tarts.”
“Done,” said Rhyland, turning his body to the side, feet shoulder width apart. There was a dangerous glint in his eyes, a kind of energy that Leda was all too familiar with. The thought made her smile.
Rhyland brought his elbow up to his ear, sword ready in his hand. Leda forced herself to remain still, though her excitement was close to bursting at the seams. Even if he missed—which he probably would—the sound of Claudia’s screams would be more than enough to help her sleep soundly that night.
“Wait,” Rhyland slowly lowered his arm. “Who is that? She looks high-born.”
“She’s no one,” Leda said quickly. “Just one of the privy cleaners.”
“She doesn’t look like a privy cleaner. What if she catches me and has me arrested? I could be put to the flame—“
“Oh hush,” she said. “Nothing bad will happen to you. I’ll make sure of it.”
“Oh? Because you’re so important? You in your dirt covered stockings and stained tunic?”
Leda wasn’t surprised he didn’t know who she was. He had only just moved onto the palace grounds and she was never allowed to leave the castle grounds long enough for the kingdom to get to know her face. It also didn’t help that her parents tried their best to keep her out of formal appearances for fear that she would stir up trouble. One incident and they had never let her forget it.
She covered her mouth in a mock gasp. “How dare you. These happen to be my finest pair of stockings. I worked very hard to make them this colour.”
Rhyland bowed, one eyebrow raised. “My apologies your Royal Highness.”
“Actually it’s Princess, but close enough.”
Rhyland crossed his arms, amusement lighting his features. “No you’re not.”
“Yes I am. I am Princess Leda of Merenda.”
“No you’re not.”
“I am!” She huffed. “I can prove it too. Just look into my eyes.”
Rhyland shrugged, but bent over anyway. When she had his full attention, she flicked her second eyelids into place, membranes clear as glass. The world sharpened and suddenly she could see the tiny individual threads on Rhyland’s tunic, every single strand of hair. Behind him she could see past the tips of the mountains, further than her father’s lands to where a jackbird sat upon a poisonberry bush, one wing extended in order to preen itself. This is what marked the royals of Merenda. The history books claimed that they were descended from the dragons of old, though no one had seen a dragon in hundreds of years. Most believed them to be extinct, killed off in the many wars that plagued the land back in the time of Evil King Acheron.
Rhyland jumped away, clearly caught off guard. “Okay, okay. I believe you; just…put those away.”
Leda slid her second eyelids back, laughter bubbling out of her chest. So the boy could throw a sword but was grossed out by her eyelids? How strange, she thought. “Is that anyway to talk to your princess?”
“Sorry. Don’t ever do that again Princess.”
“Well, are you going to do it or not? Don’t tell me you’re scared.”
The humour on Rhyland’s face shifted, sliding into something more dangerous. “I’m not scared! I’ll do it, but princess or not, as soon as this hits, we hide. Okay?”
Leda nodded her head, teeth flashing. Claudia was now kneeling by the Stone of Druis, fire fruit held out in offering. They were far enough away that Leda was certain she hadn’t spotted them yet.
Rhyland took his stance again, and Leda felt the bubbles of manic laughter arising in her throat. She pushed it down. A moment later, Rhyland’s arm shot out. Leda watched as the sword somersaulted through the air, plunging through scarlet skin, juice exploding in a dance of freedom all over Claudia.
Claudia shrieked, loud and shrill. She fell onto her backside, clumsily trying to scramble away. Rhyland grabbed Leda’s hand hard and tugged her to the edge of their stone. They jumped, landing on the wet grass in a crouch. They moved to the side until they were able to peer around the rock to where Claudia was still shrieking and attempting to crawl away. When she finally got to her feet, she wasted no time in sprinting back up to the castle. She didn’t even bother to look back over her shoulder.
When the shrieks faded away, Leda turned to Rhyland. Eyes alight with wonder, she said, “Teach me.”
They had been friends ever since.
Claudia liked to make fun of her for hanging out with a lowborn but Leda was just fine with that. She didn’t get what was such a big deal. The King had granted Rhyland and his father special privileges, so didn’t that make him one of them? So what if he didn’t have the proper title? She envied Rhyland. He got to go wherever he wanted, whenever he wanted. He could leave the palace grounds, something that Leda was forbidden from doing unless escorted by Lady Tanda and a battalion of palace guards who blocked her view of most of the village and the village’s view of her.
“Well I would certainly love it if you continued with the lesson Master Harper,” Claudia smiled sweetly. “Geography is just so interesting and you are such a good teacher.”
Rhyland snorted quietly and whispered, “What a load of horse-stool.” He and Leda shared a secret smile. The day before, they had spent hours in the library looking for all the different ways to say ********** It had become a game to them, and had all started with Lady Tanda, who had threatened to wallop both of their behinds if she ever heard them say “a word like that” again. Leda of course had kindly reminded the nursemaid that as the princess, she could have Lady Tanda’s hands cut off if she so much as tried. Leda had been sent to bed without supper that night.
At Claudia’s praise, a blush crept up Master Harper’s neck. He was a rather proud man who Leda guessed didn’t receive compliments very often. Their world was one of war and conquest; there was little glory in being a well-read tutor. The lines around Master Harper’s eyes softened and he looked away, embarrassed. “Well thank you Lady Claudia. It is an honor to be teaching the kingdom’s future leaders.”
“Oh no, thank you,” said Claudia.
The moment Master Harper’s back was turned again, reaching up to point to a spot on one of the many maps crowding the wall, Leda silently pretended to puke and Rhyland mimed stabbing himself in the eye.
Claudia ignored them, folding her hands politely into her lap, back ram-rod straight, ever dignified. Her twin, Gwenyver followed suit, shaking her head slightly as if she were the poised adult she liked to pretend she was.
Leda didn’t care for such fabrications. She had no desire to be a grown up. All the older high-born ladies of the court did was sip tea and change dresses three times a day. She had no idea why one would need separate states of dress for each meal. It was rather silly, she thought, since they barely touched their food anyway. They were like birds, bony fingers barely able to hold on to the tiny utensils, pecking away at the crumbs of food while not really managing to get any of it into their beaks. Rather, it ended up in even smaller pieces on their plates after being poked at for so long. Leda had been scolded many times not to play with her food, so why were they were allowed?
Leda envied the Blood Runners, the all-female Queen’s guard that her mother had brought over with her from the Southern Isles when she had married her father. With their dark red uniforms, iron spears, and skill in combat, they were everything Leda wanted to be. She wanted to go on quests, explore the world, and fight monsters. All her life she had poured over the books in the library that depicted images of the rocky Spearwood Cliffs and the dangerous waters below that housed enormous lightening sharks and poisonous sea lizards. She had all but memorized the landscape of the Indai rainforests and the names of the tree tribes that lived beneath the thick canopies. She wanted to be elsewhere, anywhere. She wanted to be part of the action. But sadly, she was second in line for the throne. Instead of charging into battle, she would spend her adult days on her elder sister’s small council, bickering with the other high-born about grain prices and slave rights.
Outside, the wind battered against the rough stones of the castle, screaming to be let in. Leda shivered as a draft of cold air slithered through one of the tiny cracks and slid over her ankles. She cursed Lady Tanda for forbidding her from wearing her warm boots, claiming that they were “only proper for winter, not spring.” Lady Tanda was always saying stupid things. In Merenda, it was always winter.
Leda kicked up her feet and folded them beneath her in a rather unladylike way, tucking her dirtied slippers into the rumpled folds of her dress. She had made sure to walk through every pile of dirt and puddle of who-knows-what on her way to her lesson that morning. Take that, Lady Tanda, she thought to herself. Look how proper I am now.
She imagined her creature on the window huffing as if amused, flakes of snow drifting from its nostrils.
You need a name, thought Leda. Something frightening, something strong.
A knock on the study door interrupted her thoughts. Lady Tanda entered, her heeled slippers clipping on the cold stone. Her graying hair was pulled tight against her head, stretching the skin over what had once been sharp cheekbones. Leda had drawn a monster like that once, with skin stretched so far that it pulled away from the bone, eye sockets drooping dangerously low.
“Good day Master Harper. My apologies for interrupting, but I am to bring Princess Leda to the throne room.”
Master Harper waved his hand in assent, turning back to his maps. Leda jumped out of her seat, heart singing. “Meet at the clock tower later?” She whispered to Rhyland.
He tried his best to wink, although it looked more like he had something stuck in his eye. “You bet,” he whispered back. “Quest for the Treasure of Evil King Acheron is a go.”
Leda saluted Master Harper and then sprinted out the door.
“Princess Leda!” Lady Tanda yelled, turning to march quickly after her. “A lady does not run! She walks with grace and serenity!”
“A lady also does not raise her voice Lady Tanda!” She shot back from down the hall. Rhyland chuckled and looked out the window. The glass was frosted over, completely obscuring the world outside. Leda’s monsters were nowhere in sight.
Feet flying over cold stone, Leda shot through the halls like a river hawk. She had left Lady Tanda far behind and did not intend to give her time to catch up. She flew past palace guards who stood like statues, long used to her antics. She dove around a lady’s maid, who gasped in exasperation as she lost hold of the pile of folded linens in her hands.Past halls of grey tinted windows and hanging armor Leda raced, her breath racing with her. She imagined herself with wings, in colours of blue and red. They would turn hot, like fire, and burn all that they touched. She rounded a sharp corner, refusing to slow, and ran right into Captain Narissa of the Blood Runners. Narissa’s arms shot out, quick as a cobra, and wrapped around Leda’s back, shifting to control the impact.
“Oof!” said Leda, hitting boiled leather and a spider silk breastplate. She was momentarily lifted off her feet and the world became a blur. Narissa set her down a moment later but kept a tight hold of her arm to steady her. Leda looked up at the Captain, and was annoyed with the stars floating around Narissa’s dark braid and tanned face. When four brown eyes became two, she took a step back. “Oops, sorry.”
Narissa smiled. Dimples around her eyes and mouth lightened her sharp features. She was dressed in her travelling garb and there seemed to be not a weapon on her, though Leda knew better. Hidden among the many seams of her uniform were thin knives and other small weapons, though Leda only knew this because Narissa had shown her once. Narrisa dropped her arm and asked, “And what are you this time?”
Leda’s teeth flashed into a wide grin. She rarely got to see Narissa. She was always off ‘doing errands’ for her mother, though Leda suspected there was always more to the story. She took a moment to consider the question. “Hmm, some type of fire bird I think, but I can’t decide if it has long or short feathers. Long feathers would help with flying, but short feathers…”
“Would help with speed,” Narissa finished.
“And where is this fire bird off to today?”
Leda sighed, her shoulders slumping forward. “The throne room. I’ve been summoned.” She noticed Narissa was still in her travelling cloak. On closer inspection she found a tear in the thick fabric. “Did you just get in?”
“Where from? Were you out hunting down an escaped prisoner, or assassinating a traitor to the Kingdom? Oh! Were you battling a snow leopard?”
Narissa laughed. “No, but that does sound like fun.” She flicked Leda’s nose. “And it just so happens that I am headed to the throne room as well. Why don’t you walk with me?”
“Okay.” The two fell into step, Narissa shortening her strides to match Leda’s. “Do you know what’s going on? My father doesn’t usually summon me unless I’ve done something horrendous, and even then, never to the throne room.”
“Have you done anything horrendous lately?”
“No, nothing too bad.”
“Are you sure? I heard a little rumour a few days ago that some unknown individual sprinkled lilith spice into a certain young woman’s porridge.”
“And said young woman had to be given a sedative until the spice died down.”
“Poor girl. Truly.”
“I wonder why someone” Narissa gave her a playful shove. “would do that.”
“Well I heard a rumour the other day as well. One about a certain someone bragging to the other ladies of the court that she had tried lilith spice before and that she didn’t find it spicy in the least. Perhaps someone was just trying to be nice and give her an extra treat with her breakfast.”
“Anyway, were you summoned too?” asked Leda.
“Yes, and whatever the reason, it must be pretty important for them to have sent a runner to pull me out of an assignment.”
They had now reached the grand hall leading to the throne room. The air was cooler here, the stained glass windows inhaling the wind from outside. Leda felt a shiver go down her spine and wished again for her boots. She pulled her fur mantle more tightly around her shoulders, cursing Lady Tanda once again for insisting that she wouldn’t need her heavy cloak. “You never answered my first question,” Leda said. “What were you out doing?”
Narissa winked down at her. “I’ll tell you when you’re older.”
“That’s what you always say. When will I be old enough?”
They were at the doors now, and the palace guards on either side bowed, then moved to open the towering marble.
“When you become queen,” winked Narissa.
“But I’m not…” Leda shot her a dark look upon realization, ready to fire off a retort, but there was no time left. The marbled doors parted, exposing a long carpet of red embroidery. Narissa took a step back and nodded for her to lead the way.
The throne room was draped in glittering tapestries of red and yellow, towering windows overlooking the iced cliffs of the Norai River. But none of this demanded Leda’s attention. Like always, her eyes were drawn to the artwork on the floor: golden knots looping into twin basilisks, long tails intertwined. Their eyes were closed as if asleep, and their claws curled into their twisted bodies. She had always felt like there was something missing in their design, like some fundamental element had been left out, though she didn’t know exactly what. Maybe it was just that they didn’t look ferocious enough.
The nerves in her belly were doing summersaults but she forced herself to appear calm. She was a firebird; her touch burned. There was no reason to be nervous; they were her family. Taking a deep breath, she raised her eyes, squared her shoulders and took a step forward.
She followed the embroidered carpet all the way to the foot of the raised dais, where her family sat in thrones made of gold. It was when she looked upon their faces that she knew: something was very wrong.
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