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KISS OF LIFE
SMOKE AND SCREAMS AND LOVE.
Fractured images swirled in the back of Branwen’s mind, transporting her a thousand leagues away from Castle Rigani. She dug her fingernails into the armrests of her chair as her heartbeat accelerated. The dreams always grew worse this time of year. Snatches of color like stained glass that collided together and burst apart.
“Really, Branny,” said Essy, interrupting her thoughts. “You’re such a mopey drunk.”
Branwen inhaled. Her cousin had forgotten what day it was. She spared an extra second’s glance at the sea, preparing herself to meet Essy’s gaze. The waves were rough through the small, circular windows of the princess’s drawing room: indigo capped with white. She never liked to lose sight of them for long. A wildness stirred inside her as they broke against the shore. She did her best to smother it.
“Elderberries loosen your tongue altogether too much,” Branwen said as she turned to her cousin.
The princess giggled and touched another thimbleful of elderberry wine to her lips.
Branwen kept her voice light. “What would dashing Lord Diarmuid say if he could see your cheeks so flushed?” Diarmuid was the son of Lord and Lady Parthalán from the province of Uladztir, whom King Óengus had invited to the castle for a feast this evening. Essy couldn’t stop talking about him.
The princess responded by brandishing her bright pink tongue. “Diarmuid does make my cheeks flush all on his own.” Another giggle and a hiccup. “But if we’re going to be subjected to Lord Rónán recounting all of his youthful victories against the Kernyveu—again—then I think you’d do well to have another thimbleful yourself, Branny.”
An anchor dropped in Branwen’s chest simply thinking about the people who terrorized her kingdom. Thieves and pirates all of them. Their assaults on the coast of Iveriu were relentless. She didn’t need any further reminders. Especially not today. Faceless raiders already lay in wait for Branwen whenever she closed her eyes.
Perhaps a hazy glow was just what she needed to make the anniversary pass more quickly. Although no drink would ever be strong enough to completely dull the memories.
Had it really been thirteen years?
Essy measured another pour of the sweet and tart wine into her thimble, declaring, “Delicious,” while sighing in satisfaction. The princess had pilfered the wine from the personal supply of Treva, the head cook, which inspired a flicker of guilt in Branwen, but, then, there were certainly worse things Essy could do.
“Delicious,” Branwen agreed as she swiped the wine-filled waterskin from her cousin, forgoing the thimble, and savored the taste of elderberries on her tongue. Essy clapped excitedly, giving her a conspiratorial wink.
The princess adored making mischief and pulling pranks around the castle. One time she convinced Dubthach, the spinner’s son, that a bowl of hard-boiled eggs was blind men’s milky eyeballs and, as his future queen, commanded him to eat one. Poor Dubthach still couldn’t stand the sight of eggs. Or chickens, for that matter.
Getting tipsy in Essy’s chambers when they were supposed to be studying one of the great Ivernic love stories for their lessons with the royal tutor seemed a small crime by comparison.
Branwen pulled the waterskin away from her mouth, and her eyes flicked once more to the tumultuous waves below.
They called to her. Strange how much she could love the dark depths that carried destruction to her kingdom. In ancient times, so the bards sang, the island of Iveriu was invaded five times, and now the kingdom of Kernyv threatened to do it again.
Fire and sea and fighting men.
Branwen suspected peace was a dream as broken and elusive as her own, a puzzle from which key pieces had been stolen. She gave her head a small shake, the wine burning her throat nicely.
At the center of her fragmented dreams was love. Always love. A pair of lovers intertwined until they shared the same heart; their faces blackened, ashen. The tide pulled them out into the Ivernic Sea. They loved while they burned and they burned while they loved. And always, always their arms reached for Branwen.
It was her parents, she was sure of it.
“Share and share alike,” said Essy, reaching for the waterskin. Branwen’s gaze flitted back to her baby cousin, whose seventeenth birthday had just gone. With no male heirs, the peace and prosperity of Iveriu rested squarely on Essy’s marriage. Ivernic law prohibited a woman from ruling in her own right—she needed a husband—and Branwen had heard rumblings that a foreign ally was crucial to protecting the waters that surrounded their small island. The difference in their stations had never been important, but Branwen sensed that one day it would be. Maybe one day soon.
Essy would, after all, become her queen.
A firm knock came at the heavy wooden door, and Branwen immediately stiffened in her seat.
Queen Eseult entered, her gait graceful, her spine straight. Surreptitiously, Branwen hid the waterskin beneath her thick brocade skirts. She spied Keane, the princess’s bodyguard, make a face from the archway, but he said nothing. Keane was starkly attractive and he’d asked Branwen to dance twice at the last Imbolgos festival. Too bad he didn’t cause her cheeks to flush. That was entirely due to the wine.
Scanning their rosy complexions, Queen Eseult lowered an eyebrow. “I see.” She cleared her throat. “It must be a highly amusing lesson that Master Bécc assigned you both today. I could hear your laughter from halfway across the castle.”
Branwen’s eyes snagged on the queen’s and she ducked her head. Technically, as a lady’s maid, she was charged with keeping the princess safe—even from herself. Her aunt had never made her feel like a servant, however. She’d always treated her more like another daughter.
Queen Eseult dropped a comforting hand on Branwen’s shoulder. She had an uncanny knack for reading other people’s emotions. Whispers abounded that the Old Ones had gifted her with the ability to see into the Otherworld, but Branwen was undecided regarding things she couldn’t hold in her hand and examine.
If the Old Ones truly existed and were protecting the kingdom of Iveriu, then why did they permit the Kernyveu to continue their slaughter?
Why hadn’t they saved Branwen’s parents?
Essy remained happily ignorant of the silent exchange between Branwen and her mother. “We’re reading the most marvelous story, Mother,” she slurred.
“And what is this marvelous story?” the queen asked.
“‘The Wooing of Étaín.’ It’s terribly romantic.”
Branwen snorted. “Terrible is right. She gets turned into a purple fly!”
Essy twitched her nose and stuck her tongue out at her cousin, no longer pretending to hide her intoxicated state.
“I don’t fancy being turned into an insect, but Étaín did live for thousands of years. Everyone in Iveriu still knows her name. And to be fought over by two supernatural men…” The princess clutched melodramatically at her heart.
Branwen and the queen couldn’t stop themselves from laughing. Essy’s charm was nothing if not infectious, and she always drew Branwen back from the dark places in her head. Although Branwen didn’t understand why Essy loved the story of Étaín so much. It never ended well. In one version she was cursed by her lover’s jealous wife to be an insect. In another she was spirited away to the Otherworld forever. Maybe Branwen just wasn’t a romantic.
Her aunt caught her eye, almost as if she knew precisely what Branwen was thinking. The corner of the queen’s mouth arced upward and she winked.
Branwen would always be indebted to her aunt not only for raising her but also for taking her on as an apprentice healer. Queen Eseult was renowned throughout the kingdom for her skills with herbs. Branwen may not have believed in the Old Ones, but medicine was something she understood.
She often worked by candlelight long after Essy had fallen asleep, grinding and mixing new remedies to test or practicing her stitches on cushions. Branwen wanted to be able to save somebody else’s parents, somebody else’s children.
If her parents had reached a healer in time, could they have been saved? The queen made sure Branwen never learned the precise details of their deaths, but the question haunted her. Something had broken inside Branwen the day her parents died and never fully mended; something had ignited, too—a fiery hatred that she knew would consume her if she didn’t keep it carefully controlled.
With a sly sideways glance at her daughter, Queen Eseult said to Branwen, “Once the princess has recovered her … wits, could I impose upon you to gather some mermaid’s hair?”
Branwen nodded. Mermaid’s hair was luminous turquoise seaweed that made the surface of the water glow like a lantern on moonless nights. Fresh air and a walk would do her good.
“Thank you, dear heart,” the queen continued. “I’m making a balm for the king. Óengus is suffering from gout again. The weather has been so temperamental lately.”
“Gout? Gross, Mother.” The princess curled her top lip in disgust. “Gentlewomen do not discuss gout.”
“Wait until you’ve been married a few years.”
“I’d rather be transformed into a fly like Étaín than be married to a man with gout!” With that, Essy liberated the elderberry wine from beneath Branwen’s skirts and took an indelicate gulp.
The queen sighed. “Keep this up and I’ll be the one who needs a drink,” she said, wresting away the waterskin.
“Good. Maybe that would loosen you up, Mother.”
Branwen held her breath. Any other queen would have struck her daughter for being so insolent and behaving with such impropriety. A lady’s maid could also expect to be punished if her charge made such a remark.
Queen Eseult simply recorked the elderberry wine. Then she stooped down, kissing the princess on the forehead. Essy made a noise of complaint.
Branwen’s aunt turned toward her and kissed her temple, too. As warmth from the kiss radiated outward, she was choked by shame for failing in her duties.
“Today is hard for me as well, my darling Branny,” the queen murmured before sweeping out silently.
She remembered. A solitary tear slid down Branwen’s cheek, frozen in the afternoon light.
“Come on.” Essy pushed to her feet, catching hold of Branwen’s hand. “The Queen of Iveriu commands us to catch a mermaid by the hair, and so it shall be.” She glowered in the direction her mother had vanished.
“It wasn’t a command, Essy. It was a request.”
“A queen’s request is always a command.”
Branwen shrugged, letting her cousin tug her from the chair. Request or command, she would do anything to repay the queen’s love. Gladly.
Essy stumbled along beside her as they wended their way from the castle to the beach below. When they were children, Branwen had resented her younger cousin’s following her everywhere, constantly pestering her, but the gap in their ages eventually meant less and less, and Branwen could no longer imagine her own portrait without Essy painted by her side.
Keane kept a respectful but watchful distance from the princess and her lady’s maid. Branwen was glad she didn’t have a bodyguard of her own. It would get tiresome.
She usually spent her spare time on the rocks below the ramparts. They seemed fierce and protective to her, like Queen Eseult; in the fading sunlight, the stone of the four rounded towers shone like emeralds. Branwen always knew she was safe within the castle walls. Its bastions jutting out toward the sea were lined with archers to fend off any invaders, like the Kernyvak pirates who killed her parents. And yet she couldn’t resist the urge to be free of them.
Most people would avoid the spot where they’d learned their parents had been murdered. But, for Branwen, this was also the last place she had known they were alive.
She felt closest to them here.
Sometimes she could almost make herself believe they were merely at Fort Áine, the destination of their final journey. That they would be coming back for her soon. Her pulse spiked as the breakers crashed in her ears.
“Did you even hear what I said, Branny?” Essy nudged her gently with her shoulder.
“What was that?”
Essy had the same eyes as Branwen’s mother, Lady Alana—green like Rigani stones. It made her love her cousin that much more. She, on the other hand, had inherited coppery brown eyes from her father, Lord Caedmon.
The princess twisted a straw-colored lock around her finger and pulled, scowling at her cousin. “I said, do you think any man will ever love me as much as Étaín? Do you think Lord Diarmuid could?”
Real sadness underscored her words and Branwen’s heart ached. Her cousin spent too much time losing herself in old, romantic ballads. It wouldn’t help prepare her for a political marriage. “I thought you didn’t want a husband?” she said breezily.
“I don’t want a husband. I want a lover. I want a man who loves me—not my kingdom or my titles.”
“Don’t let your mother catch you talking like that, Essy,” Branwen said, chastising her with a swing of the small wicker basket that she’d brought to collect the mermaid’s hair.
“Why not? I don’t care who knows. I don’t care if everyone knows!” the princess said, raising her voice. Sidelong, Branwen glimpsed Keane furrowing his brow. “Why shouldn’t I choose whom I love?” Essy demanded.
They both knew why.
Essy was the kingdom. One day she’d be queen and her first duty would be to the Land. To Iveriu. When the time came, Essy would do the right thing for her people. Branwen only wished it wouldn’t make her so miserable.
The princess blew out a shaky breath. “No one ever asked me what I wanted.”
Branwen’s gaze skated over the waves, darkening as the sun set, and thought of her parents. There was an Otherworld that supposedly lay beyond the waves. Were they there? Were they happy? The only thing Branwen knew for certain lay beyond the waves was the island of Albion and their enemy, the kingdom of Kernyv, on its western peninsula.
“We seldom get what we want, dear cousin,” she said.
Essy followed her gaze to the beach. “I didn’t forget what today is…” She nodded toward the water. “Are you all right, Branny?”
There was a pinch in Branwen’s chest. She shouldn’t have doubted her cousin. Essy knew her better than anyone. Branwen sighed. “This day happens every year.”
“That’s not an answer.” A line appeared on the bridge of Essy’s nose. “Just because we seldom get what we want doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try,” said the princess, raising her chin.
Nothing would ever bring Branwen’s parents back, and nothing would ever change the fact that Essy was born to royalty. Her blood dictated her future. Branwen squeezed her cousin’s elbow. She’d try to be more understanding.
“If you don’t feel like entertaining tonight,” said Essy, “I’ll make your excuses at the feast. You don’t always have to be so stoic.”
A small smile parted Branwen’s lips. The princess might be self-centered at times, but she loved deeply in her own way. For months after Branwen’s parents died, Essy would crawl into her bed so Branwen wouldn’t have to face the dark alone. Branwen had been so angry—at the world, at Essy for still having a mother—that she wouldn’t share her covers. But Essy still came, night after night, and slept in the cold.
“Thank you,” said Branwen. The last thing she wanted to do was play hostess for pleased-with-himself Lord Diarmuid, but she was part of the royal household and she would perform her duty. Stoic was the only way she knew how to be. “I’ll be fine, Essy. Truly.”
“If you’re certain.”
“In that case … Will you fix my hair?”
Branwen laughed. “Never fear,” she assured her. Essy always pushed her luck.
“You’re the best, Branny!” the princess sing-songed as if she hadn’t been on the verge of tears moments ago. Her cousin’s moods came as fast and feverish as a tempest but broke just as quickly.
Branwen shoved Essy toward the castle. “Off with you!” She flicked a glance in Keane’s direction. He inclined his head.
“Promise you won’t stay too long by the waves,” said Essy. “The coast isn’t safe at night.” She was right. The Kernyvak raids on Iveriu had begun when the Aquilan Empire retreated from the island of Albion to the southern continent, and they had intensified with each passing year.
Nevertheless, Branwen waved her hands, unperturbed.
“Perhaps I should leave Keane with you,” said Essy.
“Nice try.” The princess was forever trying to evade the vigilant eyes of her bodyguard.
Stubbornly, Essy complained, “I’d give all my jewels for a tenth of your freedom, Branny.”
“Ah, yes, the freedom to collect seaweed and fungus from the forest floor. You would just love that.” Her cousin’s study of herbal remedies had ended precipitously after she forced Dubthach to drink one of her concoctions and he lay in bed with a stomachache for two weeks. Branwen stroked Essy’s brow in a tender motion. “Jewels for mushrooms!” she teased. “Bards will sing my ballad far and wide: Branwen of the Briars!”
“Fine.” With the speed of a falcon, Essy’s pout dissolved into a mischievous grin. “Don’t let the mermaids get you!”
Branwen watched Essy walk in the direction of the main gate, still a bit unsteady from the wine. Keane filed closely behind her. Just before the princess disappeared from view, she called back, “Love you, Branny!”
A laugh followed, which was echoed by the surf.
“Love you, too,” Branwen whispered, but the sea beckoned to her.
Dying sunlight swirled around her. Some of her countrymen believed it was filled with invisible sprites. They believed you could cross the Veil into the realm of the Old Ones through hills like Whitethorn Mound, a short distance from the castle.
Branwen believed in what she could see. She believed the existence of sprites or Old Ones was about as likely as having one true love. The only true love she felt was for her aunt and her cousin. And for Iveriu.
Mermaid’s hair was strewn across the wet sand. Branwen liked the feel of the slick granules as she picked up the seaweed and placed it in the basket. She had been on the beach the day her parents died, building them a sandcastle.
She remembered how she’d hollowed out the sand into a circular moat with the earnest concentration of a master builder. The first line of defense. Her people had been at war with the kingdom of Kernyv since before Branwen was born. At six years old, she’d already understood the importance of protecting what you loved.
The sandcastle was to have been a gift, an apology to her parents. She’d been very cross with them for leaving her behind, and she had refused to say good-bye. While they were away, she had longed for her mother’s embrace, to bury her face in dark mahogany curls—Lady Alana always smelled of rosemary. She longed for it still.
Right as Branwen was packing the final sand wall of the intricate terraced structure, a tiny blond projectile had catapulted herself into Branwen’s arms. She had lost her balance and they both collapsed on top of the castle.
You’ve ruined everything! Branwen had shrieked. Essy took no notice, rolling in the glistening grains merrily—completely oblivious to the destruction she had wrought. To her, it was just a game.
A rustle in the undergrowth surrounding the beach jolted Branwen back to the present. She gasped as her gaze caught a familiar shape.
The basket of mermaid’s hair fell to the sand.
It was a fox, poised and curious. The same fox she’d seen the day her parents died. Thirteen years ago today. Impossible.
The fox barked as if it sensed her skepticism. Branwen had never told anyone how the creature appeared on the beach, its eyes intent, a story behind them, moments before Queen Eseult came bearing tidings of her parents’ deaths. At the time, she’d wondered if it was a messenger sent by the Old Ones, like in the legends of her people. When she was older, she’d dismissed the memory as childish whimsy—a foolish hope that anyone in the Otherworld cared about her.
Regardless, Branwen would recognize the fox’s gleaming red-currant coat anywhere. And its white ears. So beautiful, so unnatural. Dusk shimmered around the creature, making it seem more illusion than flesh and bone.
The fox stared out to sea, indicating something with its nose and barking again. What was it doing here? What was it looking at?
She sucked in another sharp breath as she spotted it: a raft. She could just make out the form of a man sprawled across it.
Turning toward her, the creature regarded Branwen with Otherworldly grace. Save the man, it implored with ebony eyes. She shook her head. That was a ridiculous notion.
The fox swished its bushy tail in annoyance.
Her chest tightened with the urge to obey. Move, the beast seemed to say. Exhaling, Branwen ran toward the water, still apprehensive, and waded into the chilly depths.
When she was submerged halfway up to her chest, Branwen managed to seize one corner of the makeshift raft. She couldn’t see the man’s face but he wasn’t moving.
She kicked as hard as she could, guiding the large plank of driftwood toward the shore. It took all of Branwen’s strength to haul the raft onto the beach. As she felt the sand once more beneath her feet, she dropped down beside the stranger, shivering from exertion and the freezing waters. Scanning his body, she looked for injuries the way that Queen Eseult had trained her to do.
Hurriedly, she turned the man over. His tunic was in shreds, stained with blood. A gash started at his shoulder and sliced diagonally across his heart to his abdomen. It didn’t seem too deep, but, unfortunately, his chest wasn’t heaving. He wasn’t taking in any air.
Branwen didn’t know how long the stranger had been unconscious. There was a chance she could still save him if it hadn’t been long enough for his soul to depart. The kiss of life, her father had called it.
She’d been on the beach with her father one afternoon when the villagers brought a drowned fisherman to him for help. Branwen watched in awe as her father revived the man. All of the peasants had loved Lord Caedmon. As a little girl, Branwen had understood that although he ruled over them, he never placed himself above them.
Trying to remember that distant day, Branwen began pounding on the stranger’s chest. His wounds wept blood all over her hands. Nothing was happening. Fighting her panic, she raised her face above the man’s.
She had not yet allowed herself to take in his features. But when she did, her own breath buckled in her throat. He was the most handsome man she’d ever seen, even with his cuts and bruises. A foreigner, certainly. Dark curls, wet and bloody, framed elegant cheekbones and a mouth that was almost too perfectly formed.
Collect yourself. Branwen’s training was intended for a moment like this.
Without further delay, she felt the stranger’s neck for a pulse. His brown skin was flaky like a snakeskin from the sun. Could he have been aboard a trading vessel from the southern continent?
Summoning all of her courage, she pressed her lips to his. They were salt-stained and irresistibly sweet. She pinched his nose with her fingertips and breathed life into him.
More than Branwen had wanted anything since her parents died, she wanted to save this stranger. She beat his chest again, shuddering as he took in her breath. Instantaneously, he coughed hard and sprayed her with seawater. Despite the cold seeping into her body, her cheeks burned hot. The stranger wheezed and spat so much water out onto the sand that it seemed as if he’d swallowed the entire Ivernic Sea.
After an eternity, the stranger opened his eyes. Hazel flecked a darker brown, matching the last glimmer of evening light on the waves. He regarded his savior as he rasped for air and gurgled salt water.
Branwen stepped back because for the first time in her life, she felt a pull she couldn’t control. A pull stronger than the sea.
And then he smiled. “That was some kiss.”
She touched her flaming lips as the words reverberated in her mind. The stranger’s voice had an odd lilt to it. He spoke her language but he wasn’t Ivernic.
Her eyes widened in disbelief. The beautiful stranger was a Kernyvman.
Branwen had just saved the life of her enemy.
Copyright © 2018 by Kristina Pérez