Lynet first saw her in the courtyard.
Well, the girl was in the courtyard. Lynet was in a tree.
The juniper tree in the central courtyard was one of the few trees still in leaf at Whitespring, and so it was one of the best hiding places on the castle grounds. Nestled up in its branches, Lynet was only visible to anyone directly beneath her. This hiding place was especially helpful on afternoons like these, when she had decided to skip her lessons without telling her tutors.
The young woman who walked briskly across the courtyard did not pass directly under the tree, so she didn’t notice Lynet watching. What struck Lynet first was the girl’s clothing. Instead of a dress, the girl was wearing a long brown tunic over loose trousers, allowing her to move more freely, in a long, striding gait. She walked with purpose, dark eyes staring straight ahead.
Lynet thought she knew every face at Whitespring, but she didn’t recognize the girl at all. True, they had visitors come and go throughout the year, but usually for special occasions, and even then, Lynet could recognize most of them by sight, if not by name.
A stream of questions all fought for attention in Lynet’s head: Who was this girl? Where had she come from? What was she doing at Whitespring? Where was she heading now with such conviction? Why was she carrying a large bag in her hand? She was a mystery, and mysteries were rare at Whitespring, where so little changed from day to day. The stranger was certainly more exciting than the music lesson Lynet was avoiding.
Now at the other side of the courtyard, the girl went up the short flight of stone steps that led to the west wing of the castle. As soon as she’d disappeared through the arched doorway, Lynet dropped down out of the tree and hurried after her, her bare feet silent on the snow. She peeked down the hall and saw the girl starting to go up the stairwell on the left. Lynet waited until the girl was out of sight and then scurried directly across the hall to climb out the window. Whitespring’s uneven stones and ledges and sharp corners made the castle excellent for climbing, something she had discovered at a young age. She used the ledge above the window to pull herself up, careful not to snag her gray wool dress on the sharper parts of the sculpted ledge. She didn’t want to have to explain to her father why there was a tear in her dress, or to see the forced smile on her sewing mistress’s face as she asked why the embroidery on the hems that Lynet had done just last week was already coming undone.
Crouching silently on the ledge, Lynet traced the young woman’s movements in her mind: after going up the stairs, she would come down the hall until she reached the first turn, a little past where Lynet was perched, at which point she could continue straight ahead or turn right down another hallway. Lynet counted the seconds, knowing that she should be hearing footsteps any moment—
Yes, there they were, passing down the hallway just inside. Lynet was sure to duck her head so the girl wouldn’t see her hair peeking up past the window frame, and she listened as the footsteps continued on past the turn, straight down to the end of the hall, followed by a loud knock.
She heard a voice call, “Ah, come in!” and then the sound of the door closing again.
Lynet wasn’t sure who had spoken, but it didn’t matter who, as long as she knew where. She peeked over the ledge just in time to see the stranger going through the door at the very end of the hall to her left. Lynet climbed in through the window, hurried down the same hall, and went back out the last window so that she was now on the other side of the castle. She carefully skirted the ledge, counting the windows in her head.
When Lynet reached the window of the room where the stranger had gone, she knelt on the ledge and peeked in through the corner. The window was closed, but she had a clear view of the young woman, and that was what truly mattered. Lynet recognized the other person as Tobias, one of the nobles who had lived at Whitespring since before Lynet was born.
Tobias was saying something now, his enormous eyebrows making him look fiercer than he really was. But the young stranger didn’t seem at all intimidated by Tobias’s intense stare—she held her head high and stared right back.
In fact, the stranger didn’t seem to let anything trouble her. There were flakes of snow in the messy dark braid down her back and on the collar of her shirt, but she made no move to brush them away. The bag she was holding was bulging full, and yet even after carrying it through the castle, she showed no sign of tiring. The inky thumbprint on her jawline, the fraying edge on one sleeve … these small imperfections fascinated Lynet because the girl wore them all with such ease and confidence. Lynet had never seen a woman look so comfortable in her own skin without appearing pristine.
Who was she?
Lynet leaned in farther, and the young woman set down her bag and opened it. With her head bent, her sharp cheekbones were especially striking, her eyelashes casting long shadows across her pale brown skin.… She looked up suddenly, and Lynet jerked her head away from the window. She was sure the girl hadn’t seen her—Lynet had been barely visible in the corner—and yet in that brief moment, she’d thought their eyes had met.
When Lynet peeked again, the girl wasn’t looking up anymore, and Lynet squinted to see what she was taking out of the bag—that would be one mystery solved, at least. And then she saw in the girl’s lean hands a long metal instrument that curved at the end like the beak of some vicious bird. Lynet gasped sharply, and she could tell from the way Tobias was rapidly blinking that he hadn’t expected this either.
The young woman was watching Tobias, waiting for some response, and Lynet couldn’t stop watching her. She wondered how this girl could stand so perfectly still, hands never trembling under the weight of that monstrous instrument she was holding. She seemed almost defiant as she held it, and Lynet longed even more to know this strange girl—not just to know who she was, but to know her, and maybe to absorb some of that boldness for herself.
Tobias gave a short nod and settled down in a chair. On the table beside him was a wineskin, and he drank heavily from it before tilting his head back. The young woman took a breath and then placed the curved end of the metal instrument inside Tobias’s mouth.
Finally, Lynet understood what was about to happen, but not before it was too late to look away.
The young woman yanked the instrument back, and the nobleman screamed as his tooth was wrenched out of his mouth.
Lynet was glad he screamed, because she had let out a small yelp herself. She ran her tongue over her own teeth, reassuring herself that they were still in place.
A surgeon. The young woman must be a surgeon. Though the answer should have satisfied her, Lynet only grew more curious. She had never seen a woman surgeon before.
Lynet remained perched on her ledge until the surgeon had cleaned Tobias up and given him some herbs for the pain. When Lynet heard her leave, she abandoned her post and went back around the ledge, listening for footsteps inside. Her heart was thumping; where would the surgeon go next? What would she do?
When the surgeon had gone down the hall, Lynet slipped back inside through the window just in time to see her turn a corner. Lynet silently followed, but as she rounded the same corner, she ran into the Pigeons.
“Princess Lynet!” one of the women cried, and then they were all around her, and it was too late to escape.
She called them the Pigeons because of their gray hair and their constant cooing, and because they always traveled in flocks. Unlike most of the nobility, who preferred to live in their own private estates in clusters throughout the North, the Pigeons lived in Whitespring permanently, having made their nests here long before Lynet was born. They were Whitespring’s oldest residents, and so they always seemed so surprised to see how much Lynet had grown, even if they had only seen her yesterday.
“Her mother would be so proud,” one of them was saying now.
From behind her, another of the women said, “Look at this hair. So much like the queen’s.”
When she was a child, Lynet had thought they’d meant she looked like Mina when they said she looked like the queen, and she had swelled with pride at resembling her stepmother. But now she understood that when they talked of the queen, they always meant the late queen, Emilia. And the worst part was that they were right: Mina’s hair was a dark auburn, her eyes light brown, while Lynet had her mother’s thick black hair and nearly black eyes. Mina’s face was angular and defined, her skin golden-brown, while Lynet had her mother’s round face and muted olive-brown coloring. Lynet’s cheeks, her nose, her lips, and everything else she possessed belonged to a dead woman who she didn’t even remember.
The unofficial leader of this little band, a gray-haired, long-necked woman named Xenia who served on the king’s council, bent down a little—out of habit, mostly, since Lynet was now taller than her—and took Lynet’s face in her hand. “So lovely. King Nicholas must be so proud of you, my lady. You’ll be such a splendid queen, just like your mother.” Even in the shadows of the dim hallway, Xenia’s eyes shone with a suspicious gleam—she always squinted at people like she thought that they were lying to her.
Lynet smiled and nodded and thanked them until the Pigeons were finished. Perhaps it was flattering to be fussed over, but she knew their fondness wasn’t for her own sake. They loved her mother, and Lynet looked like her mother, so they thought that they loved her, too.
Once the Pigeons continued down the hall in a cloud of gray, Lynet wandered through a few corridors before she had to admit that she’d lost the surgeon. Still, Lynet was sure she would see her again soon enough. The castle had been without a court surgeon since the prior one had left several months ago, so the new surgeon would be in high demand for a while. Lynet would keep watch, and next time she wouldn’t lose track of her.
Lynet dragged her feet down the hall until she reached the music room, where her tutor was waiting for her, seated at his harp. He was mid-yawn when she walked in, and as soon as he saw her, he straightened, swallowing the rest of the yawn with a startled chirp. “There you are, my lady!” he said. “A little late, perhaps, but that’s no trouble.” His lined face stretched into a smile. She was more than an hour late, but he wouldn’t scold her. None of her tutors ever scolded her for anything.
Lynet had once liked the idea of playing the harp. But the actual lessons were long and tiresome, and she never seemed to improve, so she didn’t see any harm in skipping them when she could. She felt less bitter about the tedious hour to follow now that she had a new project, but as she sat down at her harp, she knew she would play even worse than usual today, her mind still following the new surgeon even when her feet couldn’t.
* * *
When her lesson was finished (miserably, as expected), dusk was falling. Without even thinking, Lynet flew up the stairs to the royal apartments. Sometimes she felt that her entire day was only a prelude for her nightly visit with Mina, a tradition that had begun so long ago, Lynet couldn’t remember exactly how it had started.
The fire was blazing high when Lynet stepped quietly through to her stepmother’s bedchamber. Even though Mina had come to Whitespring from the South nearly sixteen years ago—around the same time Lynet was born—she had never become accustomed to their constant winter, and so she was always cold. Lynet, having been born in Whitespring, was never cold.
A maidservant braided Mina’s hair in front of the mirror. Lynet could see her stepmother’s reflection, serene and regal, her head held high, her back straight.
When Mina saw Lynet’s reflection behind hers in the mirror, she held her hand up to signal the maid to stop. “That’ll be all for now,” she said, and the maid dipped a curtsy before hurrying away, managing a quick smile for Lynet before she left.
Mina stood to let Lynet take her place on the low chair in front of the mirror. As soon as Lynet sat, Mina smiled. “You have snow in your hair.”
Embarrassed, Lynet reached up to brush it away. She supposed one day, when she was queen, she would have to appear as effortlessly composed as Mina did, but that day was years away.
Mina started to comb through Lynet’s hair with her fingers. Combs and brushes were useless on Lynet’s hair; they only snagged and caught in her curls, while Mina’s hands deftly unsnarled and untangled them. They’d done this every night since Lynet was a child, and neither of them ever mentioned that Lynet was old enough to untangle her own hair by now.
Mina asked her about her day, and Lynet told her how useless she was at playing the harp, how she’d already been through three music tutors. “I never get any better, so they all give up on me in the end,” she said.
“It’s not you,” Mina reassured her. “Whitespring is too gloomy and isolated for most people.” Lynet knew she was right. It wasn’t just the music tutors who all left. The only people, noble or not, who stayed at Whitespring permanently were those who had been here so long that they couldn’t be troubled to leave. Lynet wondered about her new surgeon, how long she would stay.…
“You’ve left me behind,” Mina said softly after Lynet had lapsed into silent thought for too long. “Where did you go?”
“There’s a new surgeon,” Lynet said without thinking.
“I’m glad to hear it. Whitespring has been without one for long enough.”
“She’s quite young,” Lynet said.
Mina lifted an eyebrow. “She?”
Mina was watching her with interest, but Lynet didn’t want to tell her more. She felt oddly protective of her new stranger, and she didn’t want to share her with anyone else yet. “I also saw the Pigeons today,” she said quickly.
Mina grimaced, and she accidentally tugged at one of Lynet’s curls. “Same as usual, I expect?”
Lynet knew the Pigeons would distract Mina—Mina found them even more unbearable than Lynet did. The first time Lynet had slipped and called them by that name in front of Mina, she’d been afraid that she’d be scolded. Instead, Mina had burst into laughter. Lynet didn’t blame her; though the Pigeons were always charming and respectful to Mina’s face, Lynet heard the way they talked about her when they were alone. They called her the southerner, or the southern queen, never just the queen—that title was still reserved for Lynet’s mother.
“Same as always,” Lynet grumbled as Mina started braiding her hair. “I look so much like my mother, my hair looks just like my mother’s, I have my mother’s eyes … they probably even think I have my mother’s elbows.”
Mina frowned a little and bit her lip, but said nothing.
Lynet continued. “It wouldn’t be so bad if it was just them, but—” She stopped, feeling too guilty to give voice to her thoughts.
“But you wish your father would stop comparing you to her as well?” Mina offered.
Lynet nodded. She started twisting a piece of her skirt in her hands. “It’s even worse with him,” she said quietly.
Mina laid her hands on Lynet’s shoulders. “Why do you say that?”
Lynet kept her head down. It was easier to talk about it when she wasn’t looking at anyone else—or at herself. She wanted to change the subject, but she had already done that once, and she knew she wouldn’t be able to manage it again. Whenever they talked about Lynet’s father, Mina seemed to … harden somehow, like she was putting a shield in place that even Lynet wasn’t allowed behind. Sometimes Lynet wondered why they had married at all, when they seemed to spend so little time together and show such little affection when they did.
Mina squeezed Lynet’s shoulders gently. “It’s all right, wolf cub,” she said. “Don’t be afraid.”
Mina’s special name for her rallied Lynet’s spirits, as it always did. She hated feeling afraid. “It’s just that … well, the others only talk about how much I look like her, but Papa … I think he wants me to be like her in every way. He expects me to be sweet and gentle and—and delicate.”
Lynet practically choked on the word. It was what her father always said about her mother—and about Lynet, too. Your features are delicate, Lynet, like a bird’s. You shouldn’t be climbing trees, Lynet, not when your hands and feet are so soft and delicate. Emilia had died, he said, because her body had been too delicate for childbirth. Being delicate had killed her mother, and yet he was so eager to bestow the quality on her.
“You say that like it’s a curse,” Mina said, her voice low and heavy. “There are worse things in the world to be than delicate. If you’re delicate, it means no one has tried to break you.”
Lynet felt ashamed without knowing why. She had always tried to emulate her stepmother, but the way Mina spoke now, Lynet wondered if she was trying to take on a weight she didn’t fully understand. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I must sound like such a child.”
“That’s because you are a child.” Mina smiled, but her smile started to fade as she studied their reflections in the mirror. “Or maybe not,” she said. “You’re turning sixteen soon, aren’t you?”
Lynet nodded. “In a month and a half.”
“Sixteen.” Mina knelt down beside her. “That’s how old I was when I left my home in the South to come to Whitespring. I think part of me has always thought of myself as sixteen, no matter how many years have passed.” Mina looked at the mirror and scowled, seemingly disturbed by what it showed her. Their faces were side by side, and for the first time, Lynet noticed a single white strand in her stepmother’s hair.
“You’re still young,” Lynet said uncertainly.
Mina wasn’t paying attention to her, though. She brought her hand up to her cheek, examining the corners of her eyes, the thin lines around her mouth. “If they love you for anything, it will be for your beauty,” she murmured softly, but Lynet didn’t think the words were meant for her, so she felt guilty for hearing them at all.
She waited a moment and then she said, “Mina? Is something wrong?”
Her stepmother shook her head. “Only a memory.” She turned to Lynet and kissed her on the head. “You’ve grown up so fast. It took me by surprise. Soon you won’t even need me anymore.” Mina stood and gave Lynet’s braid a playful tug. “Run off now, and enjoy the rest of your evening.”
Lynet started to go when Mina called to her, “And do let me know what happens with your young surgeon. It’ll be good for you to have someone closer to your own age to socialize with for a change.”
Lynet didn’t respond as she hurried out the door, but for some reason she couldn’t explain, she felt herself blush.
Copyright © 2017 by Melissa Bashardoust