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“Arise, Your Highness. The realm awaits the sun of Your presence.”
The ritual words cut through the thick smoke of the nightmare, bringing me awake with a start. A bad omen that I hadn’t come out of the dreams on my own—and a sign that gave the images the power to linger in my mind, stains refusing to be scrubbed clean.
The wolf fought its chains, howling in hoarse rage, shedding fire and ash.
The sea churned, bloodred and crimson dark, bones tossed in the waves, white as foam.
The tower fell into a pile of golden rubble, then to fine sand, the grains sliding against one another with soul-grinding whispered screams.
I loathe dreaming, where I have even less control than in the waking world. Calanthe Herself sings sweetly to me of the seas, the plants, and the creatures that walk Her soil. But outside our fragile island, the abandoned lands beyond cry like frightened children in the night. I can’t help them. It’s all I can do to protect Calanthe, and most days I despair of being able to do even that.
Still, with no one else to hear them, they call to me in chaotic images, the nightmares dashing me from one dark scenario to the next. No matter how the dreams plague me, I usually wake when the light of the rising sun reddens my eyelids. I keep my eyes closed, pretending to anyone who checks on me that I’m still asleep. Pulling the pieces of my composure together, I listen to the morning song of Calanthe. The birds sitting high in the canopy to catch the first warming rays of the sun show me the sky. The fish swimming in the sea speak of clean water and plentiful food. Even the trees, the flowers, the small insects in the soil all hum to me of their lives.
All reassure me of the balance, that Calanthe, at least, is peaceful and vital.
Only I and the land I’m tied to exist in that time after sleep and before true waking, in what I call the dreamthink, an almost enchanted bubble where I belong entirely to Calanthe. The emperor does not own me. The crying lands he’s orphaned are silent. My ladies have not yet woken me to wrenching reality and the trials of the day ahead.
Dreams always seem to me a terrible price to pay for the succor of sleep. Neither my naturalists nor my physicians seem to be able to explain the purpose of such dreams. And of course, Anure killed all the wizards, so I have none to tell me if magic can answer those nighttime screams. So without answers, and like the exorbitant tithes I’m forced to send to the emperor, I do pay the price, and nightly. The dreamthink is my reward, my time with Calanthe. A gift arising from waking Ejarat of the earth welcoming the return of Her husband, Sawehl of the sun. In the dreamthink, in Calanthe’s sweet communion, I can believe the old gods are with us still, that they haven’t abandoned us. That I have reason to hope.
“Euthalia, wake up. We’re ready,” Tertulyn whispered in my ear. My first lady-in-waiting, doing her duty as always. She couldn’t know she’d woken me from the nightmare instead of the dreamthink. Or that starting my day this way meant it would be certainly cursed.
No one believes in omens or curses anymore. Or hope, for that matter. In this, too, I am alone.
Euthalia is a mouthful, but no one calls me that except for Tertulyn so it doesn’t matter. Only Emperor Anure has the rank to address me by my given name, and I avoid conversation with His Imperial Nastiness to the best of my ability. Tertulyn has called me by my name since we were children, but only when no one can overhear, as etiquette demands.
As if she’d whispered them into my ear along with my name, the concerns of the realm immediately flooded my mind. The emperor’s emissary should have returned in the night and would want an audience with me—something I’d been dreading, as he never brought good news. Rumors had spread of slave uprisings, possibly even rebellion, as unlikely as that would be, that had the emperor both angry and insecure in his power. The worst possible combination in a man like him.
If I believed a rebellion could succeed, I would rejoice in the battle to come. But I had no hope of that. No one could defy Anure’s vast power and ability to destroy the least whimper of resistance, as all those kingless and queenless lands testified, crying their hopelessness to me every night.
No, such rumors meant the Imperial Tyrant would only tighten his fist—one that already strangled us nearly to death. The prospect of worse to come made me inexpressibly weary, and I hadn’t even gotten out of bed yet.
Nevertheless, I had to face the day. A realm awaited the sun of my presence, after all.
I opened my eyes and pasted a serene smile on my lips. Tertulyn—already wigged, gowned, and decked in fresh flowers—stood a decorous three steps back from my bed, hands folded over her heart. All equally polished and lovely as morning dew, my five junior ladies awaited in a ring around her. They’d all been up since well before dawn to dress themselves before attending me. And yet their eyes sparkled as brightly as the birds that had shown me the sun on the sea, pretty painted lips curved in delighted smiles.
Though I was only twenty-six, they made me feel old. If a witch offered me a magic potion to remove the last ten years and restore my youth—and the innocent belief I’d had then, that my life would be a good one—I’d down it without question. Even if it meant my death the next day.
No, that was a lie. I would never shirk my duty to Calanthe, not even for such a fantasy. Not without an heir to take my place. No matter how old and tired I felt.
Making sure my smile matched my ladies’, I sat up. “Good morning, Tertulyn, ladies. Who is our guest today?”
The ring of women parted and Tertulyn swept a gloved hand at a young girl wearing the cascading sky-blue wig and gown of a Morning Glory, curtsying with a practiced deep knee bend. I’d kept my father’s custom of inviting a maiden from one of the outlying villages to attend my morning ablutions, though only because my adviser, Lord Dearsley, had insisted. In those dark days following my father’s death, when I’d first taken the orchid ring and throne, the song of Calanthe so startlingly loud in my thoughts, I’d been less sure of myself and my decisions.
“The people regard it as the highest honor,” he’d urged. “They hold competitions at festivals to select these girls. Think of it: every town and village, even the tiniest islands, choosing the loveliest girl, the brightest and most talented, all vying for the privilege of sending their Glory to the capital, to the palace itself, to attend the queen! For most of these girls, this will be the one and only time in their lives they will leave whatever humble place birthed them. And You and I understand it’s more than that. You have your connection to Calanthe and Her people.” He paused meaningfully, to allow room for the truths we didn’t speak aloud. “But You know that not everyone feels it. Certainly not those who come from refugee families. You cannot take this away now, Your Highness, especially at this time, with their king so recently relegated to the waves, particularly for no reason.”
“I do have a reason,” I’d told him, resolved to meet the uncomfortable subject head-on, no matter that he was a man much older than me. “I understand that this ‘privilege’ came with … an unsavory price.” Though I’d been only a girl myself—and a thoroughly protected one at that—I’d also never been ignorant. The land herself spoke to me, and the Flower Court gossiped incessantly. The sport of information exchange in the palace might as well be one of those village competitions, the way everyone vied to be the first to know some bit of news.
All knew the Morning Glories who’d attended my late father, King Gul, left again with their petals more than a little bruised. And many whispered that more than a few villages celebrated new citizens three-quarters of a year later, Calanthe delighting in the births of more of Her children. Something that had not occurred since I ascended to the throne, for obvious reasons. Disconcerting, I can tell you, to know that though I am the only legitimate child of the late King Gul, my part-blood half-siblings might number in the tens, if not hundreds.
Not that it matters, as I am the only child of my mother and thus the only possible heir to the orchid ring and throne. Unless I can find another. When I was but sixteen, that bothered me far less than it does now.
“The girls will suffer no bruising at Your hands,” Dearsley had pointed out.
“I have no use for them.”
“The custom is old,” he’d said, with a meaningful dip of his head to the sea. “You risk making Your people fearful and unhappy. Calanthe will feel that and respond to it. You are new to having sole responsibility for the land, but this custom is important. Change it at Your peril.”
“Even if I don’t draw their virgin blood?” I’d asked sweetly, my sarcasm far more overt in those days.
“A queen has other ways.”
I knew full well, in my bones, that Calanthe didn’t care about the Morning Glories and the rituals of men like my father. But I keep Calanthe’s secrets and She keeps mine. Dearsley had a point that the superstitions the people observed had weight, whether they affected Calanthe or not. I kept the custom, despite the inconvenience. And I kept up appearances. The Morning Glories were not the only virgins in service to the arcane requirements of the Orchid Throne.
“Welcome, Glory,” I said. “You may assist Me from My bed.”
An earnest, if awkward young thing—weren’t they all? Though surely I’d never been so innocent—she tripped a little over her lavish hem in her haste to oblige. That’s what came of dressing a simple girl in an elaborate confection of a gown for the space of a few hours. Ridiculous how the styles had billowed in imitation of my own.
Accustomed to such bumbling, one of my ladies snagged her by the elbow, preventing her from careening headlong into me. A fortunate catch, as I would have had to be severe with her over the lapse. I’d already begun the day with bad luck—I didn’t need to add ruining the best day of this young girl’s life. Never mind that attending me shouldn’t be anyone’s best anything.
“If I may, Your Highness?” Recovered from her near disaster, though blushing prettily—and as only those who’ve never suffered severe consequences for their errors can—Glory offered a gloved hand to me. I took it with my left, letting her see the famed orchid ring, a treat possibly greater than any other. It hadn’t left my hand since the day my father took it from his and threaded it onto my finger with his dying breath. What would happen to it—and Calanthe—upon my own dying breath didn’t bear considering.
I simply had to survive until I found an heir. Promised to Anure, I couldn’t conceive a child without bringing his fury upon me and Calanthe. And I’d die before I’d have a child of his abominable blood mixed with Calanthe’s. A pretty prison I found myself in.
I gave Glory a moment while she bent her head over the ring in stunned admiration—who could blame her?—breathing in the fragrance of the living orchid. True Calantheans sense the magic in the gorgeous bloom, even if they don’t know what it is they feel, and the encounter is nearly a religious experience. Perhaps Calanthe Herself whispers to them. No one has ever said, and I won’t ask. I try not to rush the moment.
But finally I set my feet on the stone floor and used the leverage of the Glory’s grip to rise. More to snap her out of it than because I needed to. I wasn’t that old. Court rituals, however, have taken the place of the magic spells we practiced before Anure killed all the wizards. Though empty rituals like welcoming the Morning Glories arguably do little to protect us, we nevertheless cling to their assiduous practice to fend off disaster.
I suppose it makes us feel better, though disaster seems to find us regardless. Magic had deserted us, leaving us only with science to fight the monsters. I sometimes entertained the notion of skipping some rituals—or even controverting them—as a test. But the risk of finding my way into even worse trouble always seemed too great, especially just to satisfy my curiosity.
So I followed the dance steps, allowing the Morning Glory to take my head scarf, which she would keep as a memento. In my rare whimsical moments I imagined thousands of my scarves, stained from the oily sweat of sleep, enshrined in towns, cities, and villages across the realm. I really didn’t want to know what they did with them.
I only wished the nebulous comfort of the orchid ring had enough magic to silence the rest of the world, to banish the nightmare images that clung to my thoughts in sharp-edged fragments, refusing to disperse.
As my ladies and Glory helped me into my bath, I used the quiet to clear my mind. They washed, dried, then oiled me from toe to scalp. A practical aspect to the custom—the Glory could attest to my continued good health, my nakedness hiding nothing, dispelling the rumors that I was anything but a human woman for those spies of Anure’s in my court. Not that any Glory would say so if she detected otherwise, which was why every one was carefully chosen for her connection to true Calanthe. A discretion and loyalty that cannot be shaken.
The daily sameness of the bathing ritual usually allowed me to order my thoughts—and my plan of attack—for the day. But missing the dreamthink left me in the grip of the nightmare images. If only I could wash them away, too, along with the sticky dregs of the night.
These dreams had been more specific than usual. A wolf fighting heavy chains, howling in hoarse rage, shedding fire and ash as the sea churned beyond, bloodred and crimson dark, bones tossed in the waves, white as foam. Then the tower that fell into a pile of golden rubble, then to fine sand, the grains sliding against one another with soul-grinding whispered screams.
I often got fragments like that—memories of the forgotten empires and abandoned kingdoms, mourning their lost kings and queens, forever replaying their deaths and destruction.
But in these dreams, I’d been present. I’d stepped close to the wolf, ignoring the falling tower, the distant cries of the flowers as they burned, shedding crimson petals into the sea to stain the waves, and put my hands on the wolf’s chains. He savaged my bare hands with his fangs, my blood running into the sea also, staining it. Screaming with the pain, Calanthe fell in fire and ash while I ignored Her cries and persisted in my foolish task. Breaking my fingers on the wolf’s manacles, I tried to free it, knowing it would be the death of me, the ruin of all I loved and had vowed to protect. Then, in place of the wolf, a voiceless man stood, holding out an empty hand. A demand. A question.
None of it made any sense. There was nothing I could do to help the world.
I’d considered asking my diviners for their interpretation, but some quality of the dreams made me afraid to describe them aloud. If I knew any wizards, I’d ask them. Calanthe spoke to me in Her own ways that even my brightest philosophers could never understand—especially those not born on the island. No matter how many invitations I sent to bring the best, brightest, and most creative to Calanthe, no one had ever answered the call who could answer my questions.
The land communicates in images and symbols, in the blooming of the flowers and the fall of the rain, the songs of the birds and the swish of fish through the waters, whispering into my dreamthink self, sometimes in the florid movements of the orchid ring. My father only hinted at how I’d have to learn to interpret what Calanthe tells me before he died so precipitously. In this, as with so many things, I was on my own.
I had to consider that the change in the dreams meant something dire.
An omen. A warning.
But of what?
Copyright © 2019 by Jeffe Kennedy