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RIANNA stood at a window overlooking the city lit gold in sunrise. A new day. Red slate roofs and cypress trees were a view she had seen all her life, but not from this height. This was the Tamryllin palace, with its towers. Blackbirds made a whooping spiral, winging around the towers and down, toward the rooftops of the city. She could hear the bells of the Eldest Sanctuary welcoming the sun.
She heard him come in, come up behind her. When she turned, she was struck—as ever—by how handsome he was. How noble he appeared with that strong jaw, the red-gold forelock with a slight curl that fell, appealingly, from the peak at the center of his forehead. He was a picture of nobility—in ways the nobility themselves rarely were.
Elissan Diar smiled a little, to see her. For him it was a rare expression; the man who had conquered Tamryllin and seized its throne showed a stern countenance to most.
By now she had often seen his smile turned to her.
“What are you thinking?” he asked.
“A good morning to you, too,” was her sharp reply, and he laughed.
A part of her was immediately ashamed. Rianna knew she had been disingenuous in her sharpness.
She’d known he would like it.
“What has you gazing out so pensively?” he said, and joined her at the window. She was seated on a cushioned bench. He took a place at its other end. Despite his powerful frame, there was yet a distance between them. A proper distance, one might say.
She thought she read the question behind his question. He’d wonder whether she was thinking of her husband. “I was remembering my girlhood,” she said. “Of the view from my father’s house. And how … I was happy there.”
“We never forget where we are from,” he said. “Nor the places where we were happy.” He spoke with a soft clarity, as if visited by memories of his own. “I’d fain see you happy once more, lady. It would become you even more than melancholy already becomes you.” He smiled again. “I doubt there is any mood which does not suit your face. I would consider it a gift if I might see them all.”
Rianna let a silence fall. She heard the faint, busy chatter of the blackbirds. The bells had ceased. Finally she said, “You have seen much in your travels, is that not true?”
He picked up on her meaning. It unnerved her, a bit, that he often did. “I have seen queens adorned with gems and cloth of gold,” he said. “Beauty to make a man weep. Yet none to match Lady Rianna, in her plain grey dress.”
She waited. She was interested to see if he would say what most men would have said by now. The obvious thing. Your husband is a fool. But this was the man who had conquered Tamryllin by means of enchantment. Who had moreover succeeded in winning over the people of Tamryllin in a short time. Rather than executing the royal family, he’d had them exiled—a gesture of magnanimity. He’d pointed to the destruction in Majdara, the chaos of civil war on the border, as a reason for new leadership.
For Kahishi was at war. The Court Poet somehow in the midst of it. All the more reason for the capital to surrender to Elissan Diar and his Chosen. Tamryllin’s palace guard had been overcome by magical attacks. Rumor had it that warriors had suddenly appeared in every corridor, overpowering the guards within moments.
Once he assumed control, Elissan Diar attended first to stifling dissent, while at the same time put in action a plan to win the hearts of the people. He lowered taxes, including that which was most reviled—the tax on olive oil. This perfectly coincided with trade tariffs rising as a result of the border wars. Thus Elissan showed himself a man with the people’s interests in mind. It helped that King Harald had been unpopular and weak; that the Court Poet, the true power behind the throne, was in Kahishi.
A man who had accomplished all this, in so short a time, would know better than to speak of Ned. He would not be so crude. He would rely upon her to remember in every bone what her partner in love and life had done: that Ned had had, if the rumors were true, a passionate liaison with the queen of Kahishi, Rihab Bet-Sorr—said to be lovely beyond description. He’d done that, and then helped her escape the palace, and had run off with her.
He’d done that.
Elissan did not need to remind Rianna of any of this. She was yet married to Ned Alterra, which made her one of the nobility. It meant she had become, in this new way of things, a lady-in-waiting to Elissan’s daughter, Sendara.
“Plainness suits a married woman, and mother,” said Rianna, looking down at her lap. “I am done with frippery.”
He laughed. “Oh, my lady,” he said. “With every word you please me more.”
“I must see to my lady Sendara,” she said, rising. With his back to the window, Elissan was edged in sunlight. “If my lord will excuse me.”
“Wait,” he said.
“Please, Rianna. Call me by my name. Do that for me.”
She nodded, a curt gesture, and departed.
* * *
SENDARA’S hair was a curtain of red-gold to her waist. The task of brushing it out fell to Rianna, most mornings. The girl looked nervous. She kept smoothing her skirts, fidgeting with the cross-ties on her sleeves, which were the fashion. Rianna could read her well enough. Once, she had been that girl: desired by all, cherished by her father. Though not precisely that girl—there was a chilly self-centeredness to Elissan’s daughter that repelled Rianna, despite that she knew she ought to have compassion. The girl had lost weight; it gave her a ravaged, hungry look beyond her years. All at court knew that Sendara was consumed by her feelings for her father’s closest advisor, Etherell Lyr. While he, though displaying the requisite devotions as her intended, was oddly distant. A distance that intensified Sendara’s craving. That may have edged her voice when she hissed, “Watch it, fool—you’re hurting me,” as Rianna worked at a knot in her hair.
Etherell had not been to see Sendara Diar more than briefly for at least two weeks. She kept eyeing herself in the glass. The dress she had chosen was red, cut low. Once Sendara asked, as she turned this way and that before the glass, “Do I look pretty?” Struggling to look defiant, even though Etherell Lyr was not there to witness it, and these women who waited on her were, as far as Sendara was concerned, no better than servants.
Rianna spoke the truth, though without warmth. “You are beautiful.”
There were other things she could have said. About men, and about power. Elissan Diar was to be crowned King of Eivar. Preparations for the coronation were under way. As the king’s daughter, Sendara was a desired commodity beyond her beauty. Etherell might love her; he might also, more plausibly, have other motives. But Rianna was not here to say those things, and besides—she didn’t think the girl would receive them well. There was a row of severed heads on pikes by the palace gates. It would not be wise to anger Elissan Diar’s daughter. Or be heard to speak poorly of Etherell Lyr, who was in high favor with the king. Elissan may be intrigued by Rianna now, but she knew how expendable was women’s beauty. She combed the hair in silence.
* * *
OFTEN her thoughts went to the day the city fell. Though that had not been the outcome, exactly—the coup had left Tamryllin outwardly the same. At least, to begin. She’d known, when she heard who had taken the city, what it could mean. There would be changes, significant ones. It was important to appear loyal. It was important to come to grips on her own with these events, before someone else could dictate the terms. She knew this even before the executions began.
Copyright © 2020 by Ilana C. Myer