I dance. My feet move, one past the other, on the smooth wooden boards. My skirts rustle over my legs, cool silk on my warm skin. The setting sun makes a path of fire across the sea; I can feel its heat on my face, even through my veil. I am surrounded by the scent of flowers and the evening songs of birds, but my only thought is for the grace of my body, for how I may make myself look with each limb arranged just so – and so – and so –
In the gardens of the royal palace in Azeira, amidst butterfly beds and mosaic fountains, at the convergence of four marble pathways, there is a pavilion. It is curtained with purple zahrah flowers and there is no other structure between it and the Stepped Sea, sparkling in the distance.
I was born in this pavilion, under the shade of the flowers for which I was named. I will be married here, and it will be to this pavilion that the servants will carry my bed when the time comes for me to join the gods in their kingdom.
I was born here, but I was born wrong. The mages had promised my royal father a strong, healthy son, but they claimed my mother had been immune to their magics and I was a strong, healthy girl instead. My father had the mages killed, sequestered my mother away for her failure in a distant corner of the palace, and ignored me for the next ten years.
Maybe the next mages were more competent. Maybe my father’s other wives were more tractable in their habits of conception. Either way, once I had four energetic half-brothers, my father experienced a gradual softening of feeling towards me. As I entered puberty, he announced that I was to be educated.
Tutors came from the University; only the best set foot in the Zahrah Pavilion to teach me. I learned the scientific names of the animals, and how to care for them. I learned four foreign tongues, and the identification of the stars. I learned the magics that were my birthright as a princess of Rabiyah; not the hard magics of fire and war my brothers were taught, but gentler magics of grace and persuasion. I learned mathematics, and proved particularly able in its application to the art of alchemy. I learned to dance and to sing; and I learned the enchantments that can be woven with music and movement.
Three days after my seventeenth birthday my royal father came to the pavilion, bringing his guests from Kagisoku with him. This group of hard-faced, fair-skinned men had been in Azeira two weeks already at the invitation of my father, to negotiate a treaty. Even I knew that they could name their terms; they controlled all access to the Stepped Sea from their capital, and could cut off our trade any time they pleased. I resolved to be as sweet and charming as I knew how to be.
I don’t believe that a seventeen year old princess ever has many problems winning people to her side; and one with my talents – never. I played my lap harp and sang for them, then danced, my feet moving softly on the wooden boards and my skirts rustling around my ankles. They applauded, and their stern faces even smiled.
As other musicians moved in, my father commanded that food be brought and gestured for me to sit with him. I was an obedient daughter, as a princess should be, and found myself seated between my father and the youngest of the Kagisoki. I knew what was expected of me. I smiled sweetly, and wove my magics of persuasion with soft words and invisible gestures.
I dance, and I know I am watched. My audience is rapt with attention, and I permit them to be. They only have the privilege of watching me because I allow it. A young boy plays a harp for me, and his sister adds a soaring melody on her flute. I spin and stretch my body; I flick my skirts and I toss my hair. I entwine myself with a magic that whispers look at me, I am the most beautiful thing you will ever see. This is the evening on which my life turns; this is the dance with which I weave my own future. Let it be remembered.
A king never does anything by accident. I have known my father all my life; I should have known this. The young Kagisoki was a prince, the leader of them all. That night he requested my hand in marriage from my father, who was only too happy to grant it – in exchange for many concessions on the part of the Kagisoki.
He told me of my fate the following morning. I should be thankful that he made no lying assurances, no pretense that he had my best interests at heart. He simply explained it as just another business transaction, and I knew that I had been sold.
One morsel of comfort he had for me, bitter though it was.
‘Brennan is his father’s eldest son,’ said my father. ‘You will be Queen of Kagisoku; you will have all the luxury you could wish for.’
Yes, luxury. Luxury in a cold, barbarous land, plagued by rain and snow; where they eat their meat still bleeding and must sleep in furs so as not to freeze.
‘I wish to meet him again,’ I said.
My father could not refuse such a reasonable request; I met with Prince Brennan in my mother’s secluded apartments, chaperoned by her and three other of my father’s wives.
For all his paleness, I saw now that he was well-made, and not too difficult to look at. Although his accent was heavy, he spoke our language acceptably, and was highly complimentary of my hesitant Kagisoki. In fact, he was highly complimentary of everything about me, from my luxuriant hair down to my dainty toes. I almost blushed at the praise he lavished on me; my mother certainly fluttered in pleasure.
We talked of inconsequential things for most of an afternoon. After the servants had cleared away our evening refreshments, I suggested we take a walk in the gardens and Prince Brennan agreed.
Our chaperones kept a polite distance behind us as we took a turn around the formal terraces – after all, it was not important that they hear our conversation, only that they keep us in sight. I found my tongue becoming more free than it should have been. Brennan was kind enough to permit the first handful of indiscretions to slide by without comment, but then I said –
‘Of course, when I am Queen of Kagisoku – ’
His sudden stillness was enough to stop my sentence.
‘Is something wrong, my prince?’ I asked.
He turned, on the terrace facing the sea, and took my hands on his. Just out of earshot, our four chaperones stopped their pacing.
His voice was soft; so soft it almost hid his accent. ‘Princess Zahrah, my dearest. I am so sorry, but I believe your father has misled you. You will not be Queen of Kagisoku.’
I stared at him; a most unladylike expression, I know, but I was shocked. ‘You are your father’s eldest son?’
He nodded. ‘I am. But I have an elder sister. She will succeed my father. She and her husband will rule Kagisoku after him.’
I withdrew my hands from his. ‘But I will not succeed my father.’
‘No. It is only one way in which our lands differ. I am so sorry, princess. But it is true.’
As he taught me of the rise and fall of great nations, my history teacher would say to me, ‘If you know the mistakes of the past, you may avoid them in the present. Or repeat them, if you see fit. Just be certain of what you do.’
As he taught me the writings of the great thinkers, my philosophy teacher would say to me, ‘All must be weighed; all must be considered.’
I considered most carefully. I resolved to be certain of what I did. Prince Brennan assured me there was no way that my father could have made a mistake; he knew full well the order of the Kagisoki succession. He had lied to me, and I would have to leave the graceful palace by the Stepped Sea for a cold, hard land with no expectation of benefit or reward for myself. Prince Brennan would never inherit his father’s throne; as ambassador for his sister he would carry great responsibility with little privilege.
We constructed our plan in secret, away from the prying ears of chaperones. I had been born in the royal palace and lived there as a girl; I knew all the secret ways and hidden corners. By the time the Kagisoki were ready to leave, ten days later, we were ready also.
No, I was not in love with Prince Brennan. I was not fool enough to believe that such was possible, in so short a time. But I was ready to believe that I might love him, given time, and that was worth some risk. That was worth throwing my lot in with his; after all, my father had made it quite clear that my path no longer lay along the same route as his own.
My father paid dearly for my education. He will pay yet more.
Alchemy is my talent; the combination of the old and everyday into something new and fresh. Alchemy, and the magic of persuasion.
I went to my father in the morning, when the sun was just starting to warm the marble of the garden pathways. I curtsied deeply before him and invited him to a gathering that evening. I promised good food and better entertainment.
His laugh was deep and warm, and his smile was indulgent. Of course he will come to my little gathering. Anything for his beloved daughter, whom he will cherish always, even when she is Queen of Kagisoku.
So he said.
I dance for my father. The last dance of a maiden before she is married. I have requested this of him, before I leave for Kagisoku with my husband-to-be, to seal the new treaty between our lands. I will dance for him one more time. It shall be an alchemy of movement and music – alchemy, at which I have always excelled.
The boards of the Zahrah Pavilion beneath my feet, the silk of my skirts around my ankles, and the setting sun on my face. All are mesmerised by the perfection of my elegance. Even my royal father. I feel that I might laugh.
When my dance is over, I shall serve my father a cup of iced wine. I shall watch him drink it, and then we shall retire to our beds. Tomorrow, Prince Brennan and I shall be married, the first of our many wedding ceremonies, and the most binding. The day after, we shall leave for Kagisoku.
The day after that, a fast rider will catch us on the road, bringing the tragic news of my father’s death. We shall ride straight back for Azeira for his death-rites. None of my half-brothers are yet old enough to rule. Brennan shall claim their guardianship as their brother under the law.
When they do come of age – well, we shall handle that when we come to it. But until then, we shall be Queen and King of Azeira. We shall turn the old and everyday into something new and fresh. Maybe we shall write some new laws. Maybe we will not need to; maybe my brothers will turn out to be imbeciles, or lunatics.
But I will dance in the Zahrah Pavilion, where I was born, and my husband will watch me and fall under my spell, time and again, until the gods decree otherwise.