I sit there and shiver and by the time I become aware of my surroundings again my cheeks are wet, my body having as little consideration for my desire for dignity as for any others.
I put my ear to the door to check my sitting room is empty first, although it would make no sense for him to linger when he has a palace to take over a crown to steal. Then I let myself change back. I regret it at once, having my skin rearrange itself around my smaller female form doesn’t do anything for the... Leftovers from what just happened.
My clothes go next. I don’t want to be naked, but the need to be clean is too strong to resist. I use a washcloth to scrub off the worst of it and then find practical travel clothes. Riding trousers and boots I have barely used in the last year as Mother grew weaker and needed me close.
I stop for a moment, struck once again by his absence; the sight of his still face, his long hair with only a hint of while and carefully braided, body as still as rock but without the potential for movement that had characterized him when he was alive. I have to clench my eyes shut and lean over my bureau, suddenly overwhelmed with grief—all the more intense because it cannot be shared, because Dzyer does not really seem to care. How could he…? I know they never saw eye to eye, but… Mother loved him, whatever he thought of his impulsiveness; I know it. I could see it in the way any mention of my brother’s prowess on horseback or with a sword brought a smile to his lips—no matter how unladylike the behaviour itself.
And he knew Dzyer’s almost rebellious opposition was nothing but the natural clash of youth and experience. And so did I.
For the first time, body smarting from his violent touch, I wonder if we were mistaken. Does Dzyer really believe I was that much more important to our Mother than he? It is an absurd notion, of course, but at least… At least it would help explain this.
I go through my room slowly, methodically. There has to be something of use, a way out...
But, ironically, my bedchamber is so well secured from outside assault that there is not a single way out of it other than the door. It would seem my predecessors were as naïve as I in matters of treason.
I put my ear to the door once more and listen for any noise. When I hear nothing, I carefully open it and peer outside.
It’s all in vain, this room is as free of paranoia as my bedchamber or perhaps, I’m simply not equipped to see any ingenious means of escape.
I feel hollow and cold, like the emotion that shook me to tears is gone somewhere outside of my reach. I return to my bedside and start going through my chests again in search of… well, anything.
Whether the deficiency is with the world or with the seeking mind, I find nothing to aid in escape or attack. I don’t even keep the mostly decorative daggers and swords I’m gifted, displaying them in the throne room instead.
Dzyer told me off for wasting them so many times...
Food is brought in by my manservant Mikel. She seems terrified, but I make her sit down and tell me about the situation outside.
“We’re all worried, milady,” she admits.
“Has something happened? Has anybody…?”
But there are no bold feats of loyalty to be expected when one gives up one’s palace. “No, no, everybody is fine,” Mikel reassures me. “Lady Saalam is confined to his rooms, but everybody else… We… Princess Dzyer asked us to do our jobs and… to let him take care of everything.”
“Why do you look so upset, then?”
“For your sake, milady!” she says, indignant like only the young can be.
“Oh, do I look…?” I glance down at myself, suddenly worried there is some sign of what occurred. But the clothes should cover it all up, and...
Mikel lowers her eyes, timid in a way quite out of character for the boy who insists on waking me singing every morning. “There… may I speak plainly?”
“There are marks on your neck, milady.”
I owe her no explanation, but I’m so horrified that she might guess that I give her one. “We fought. I was… I was upset, naturally.”
“Of course, milady,” she replies, eyes still down.
“Thank you for the food, Mikel.”
“Is there anything else my lady needs?” she asks, glancing around. I see in her face when she notices the spilled wine but she does not insist on cleaning it then, just waits for me.
I don’t need to look; I know exactly what I have been craving. “Some water for bathing.”
I make her tidy up the sitting room while I bath; needing to know there will be some sort of warning if I am to be barged into, even if she cannot be reasonably expected to stop anybody. Mikel’s never needed to be told to do her job before so I know I am giving away my unease with this request, but without Dzyer to trust, questioning Mikel’s simple devotion is beyond me. I am glad I refused her help in the bath, though. Mikel has helped me with the task often in the past, but I do not want anybody near my naked body just now. When I see the bruises already colouring up around my arms and thighs, I realise it was an even wiser decision that I assumed. If anybody saw these... Would they know? Or would it be too fantastical for them to guess? Not that I have anyone to tell, of course.
There’s no aid coming.
The bath helps and so does putting on my own clothes, but not as much as I hope.
After tossing and turning for what seems like half the night, I almost regret refusing Mikel’s offer to sleep in a cot next to my bed, as she does when I’m poorly. I pull back the covers and shift form long enough to push the heavy wardrobe against the bedroom door.
At some point, I must drift off. The sun wakes me like the cruellest of parents, demanding that I confront the reality in which I find myself.
I bury my face into my pillows, pretending it isn’t there.
For Mikel to come in, I have to shift again to push the wardrobe aside. I'm oddly conscious of the fact that once I change out of my loose nightgown, I won't be able to do it again if I don't want to wreck my clothing. It is all the stranger because I can't remember the last time I needed to shift before last night and in the space of a few hours, it seems like the strength of the heavier male musculature has become necessary.
Mikel brings breakfast and the extra pair of hands required to lace up the most regal of my tunics. I feel better in it. Both for its symbolism and how hard it pulls against my body from chest to hips, encasing me tighter than armour ever could.
Her presence is also a welcome distraction from my own thoughts of the future and even darker memories. But I know I'm being childish: a servant's presence would not stop Dzyer from doing anything. It would mean Mikel might witness my brother attacking me, though, and I need her gentle care and compassion too dearly for that.
So I sent her away to her other duties, and I take a book from the shelves to pretend to myself that I am doing anything but waiting. The knock is brief and firm. It is not a servant's almost musical iteration.
He is back.
I think of pretending not to be in, but there is surely a guard posted outside and... I must face him now or I am not sure I will ever be able to.
He waits until I manage to find my voice and ask him in, but remains leaning against the doorway. I do not say anything more, just concentrate on keeping my breathing even and my posture straight despite the way my pulse is roaring in my ears.
Dzyer is more subdued, none of the anger he's been holding onto for so long visible in either his body or face. He only takes a quick look at me before fixing his gaze on my unlit fireplace. Does he… regret it?
Expecting an apology is a waste of time.
“You need to shift into male form,” he tells me, not quite an order, not quite a request.
I balk at that, is he going to pretend nothing happened? That he didn’t… My face burns at the memory, my skin feels raw and my chest hurts. “So you can assault me again?” I demand and my voice actually shakes.
He stiffens up at that. His voice is clipped when he explains, “So I can present you as my heir.”
“Your heir?” I let my disbelief show.
When I finally accepted he'd written the letter, that he'd meant to take the throne for me; I had imagined many things: but nothing like this. He expects me to stay and play heir to him? Does he truly think me so fearful that I will not undermine his authority? Or is this just to add insult to injury, one last humiliation to truly bring his victory home?
“You didn't have a problem with me being yours all these years,” he replies evenly. But I know Dzyer; he’s biting his tongue to sound that rational. He is still not looking at me, and he's barely holding on to his emotions.
For a moment, I hesitate. He changed the rules of the game yesterday: now the price for angering him is no longer his screams followed by his silence. But this is not simply about me: Marcen can't suffer for our sake, for whatever mistakes I made out of ignorance and Dzyer out of resentment.
“I didn't decide that. You were named my heir when I was a baby.”
“Well, I am old enough to make decisions for myself now,” he declares, with all the self-righteousness a teenager can manage to infuse into a single sentence.
“What about me?” I ask, remaining calm. “I'm the eldest, I'm the rightful queen."
“You were going to follow mother’s instructions for the next few decades anyway. It will make very little difference that it’s me telling you what to do.”
“I haven’t been following Mother’s instructions,” I grit out, keeping my voice from raising only by clenching my fists on my lap. “I have been working with Mother to help our queendom.”
He snorts, glancing at me for once. “Is that so? When did you last oppose him on anything?”
“I was his heir; I could not openly oppose him. In private, though—”
“In private?” he repeats, rudely interrupting, “So you let him know you weren’t happy when he forbid me from going south? Am I to believe that did anybody any good?”
“I chose my battles. I did not believe there was any harm in you going. But I also did not think it was unreasonable of him to want you close when he was…” I have to stop and swallow, looking away from Dzyer’s angry countenance.
“What battle did you win?” my brother asks me softly.
“Yours,” I confess. It hurts to say it almost as much as it hurt to do. I even promised myself never to tell him this when I did it. But I need the leverage too badly to hold onto my pride. Marcen needs it. Dzyer is not ready to rule, even if he was… no one will accept him as our rightful monarch.
“Mine?” Dzyer asks.
“Mother did not want you to join the military,” I remind him. “But I could tell you needed… something. And it was your choice and we have very little of that as it is. So I insisted, and I argued that we needed someone with military training in the inner council. In the family,” I stop, pressing my lips together to keep myself from tears. I feel so stupid now. How could I have been so blind? So stupidly devoted that I imagined my devotion was returned? I have always known I could not divide my loyalty; that Marcen deserved it all. But my family was Marcen. They were safe. They were necessary and doing everything I could for them was the same as doing everything I could for my queendom.
Dzyer shakes his head, taking a step back and half turning away from me. “Even that…” he starts but stops. I raise my eyes to his face, confused by the barely supressed anger in his voice. “Even that you would take from me?”
“Take?” I repeat. All those years of keeping this secret, assuming he'd be grateful, and now...
“Yes, take!” he snaps, eyes meeting mine only for him to turn his head away again. “Take my accomplishments and tell me they are only possible because of you!”
He cannot even bear to look at me.
It’s better than him hurting me, of course, only…
“That’s not—that’s not what I meant,” I explain, gaining confidence as I go. “I did it because it was right and it was something.” He should be ashamed of himself. I did nothing but try to look after him, protect him and he… “I’m not asking for your gratitude; I am giving you the example you asked for. I have more if you want them!”
“I do,” he grits out.
“What about when I negotiated the treaty with Lambia?”
He snorts, glancing my way for long enough for me to catch sight of the blue of his eyes. “Ten acres of useless land? What about when the taxes went up to cover the expenses of that expedition and we had to send our own army to the southern provinces to keep the peace?”
It had been two summers ago and Dzyer had objected heartily to marching on our own, but military presence had proved enough to dissuade any subversives, just as our mother had hoped. I had relied on the queen’s experience and I had shown him the respect his position entitled him to, but I had never been quiet and much less compliant.
Dzyer had simply never understood the value of negotiation and compromise to improve things. Years before he held a sword outside a training field, he had always favoured open conflict. Clear lines and goals. Not something to be found in a throne room or council chambers. It was exactly why he was so ill-suited to become queen.
“Useless land?” I repeat. “Have you forgotten that we were on the verge of war?”
“It was never that bad.”
“It was that bad, and worse. I was in Lambia, since you value first-hand accounts so dearly! I heard the way they speak of us in their court, in their streets…” I shake myself, it had not been an easy experience to overhear how disgusting they found my ability to shift from one sex to the other, even when it wasn’t something I did. “It is still that bad,” I tell Dzyer. “But my time there helped me understand them and reassured their queen that we could understand each without need for violence. The land was merely a gift symbolizing that understanding.”
“It is funny, is it not?” he asks archly. “How all your supposed accomplishments are ones that cannot be proven?”
I almost scream with frustration. It is not ‘funny’. It is exactly the way it’s meant to be. A diplomat’s job is to avoid conflict and encourage reconciliation. Except for marriages, political alliances are not flashy and manoeuvring must be kept quiet if the people being manipulated are not to find out. I cannot prove my innocence, but none of my supposed crimes seem to explain the severity of my punishment.
“Is that what that was?” I ask. I just want to know, I just need to know. If I have hurt him badly enough for him to… “Punishment because I didn't protect enough villages and forgive enough taxes?”
“That was...” For the first time Dzyer shows uncertainty, for the first time I see him beyond his anger. “That was between you and me. It didn't have anything to do with the throne.”
I know I won’t like the answer, but I must have some justification. Something, anything, to make accepting it a little easier. He is still standing outside the room and I feel every inch between us. Every time he shifts in place, I want put some furniture between us. It is only the knowledge that it would be a pointless display of fear that keeps me on my seat. “Then why?”
“I wanted to,” he tells the ground at his feet. It is not an offering to the Guardians, it’s a sacrifice. “I have wanted to for so long…” I grit my teeth to stop myself from flinching. “Once I kissed you, I just… I had tried to ignore it for so long. I almost believed myself. And then all it took was a kiss and I knew it was a lie,” he continues. “I tried to pretend I didn’t… and I tried… I tried other people, but I couldn’t.”
He’s said so much, and so little that makes sense. “What?”
“I tried whores, and nobles, and men, and women, and Andrel even,” he lists, like I want—
“Andrel?!” The sole idea turns my stomach.
“He can shift,” Dzyer says, like that explains anything.
“You had sex with Andrel?” I repeat, incredulously.
“I tried to," Dzyer says, shoulders hunched and voice low. I almost wish he'd shift into maleness so I wouldn't need to feel sorry for him while he tells me this. I know his face too well to miss the anguish in it. "I couldn’t.”
“I am not surprised,” I sneer, there's little love lost between me and our cousins. “Was it because he can shift or because he is...?”
Family. But the word gets stuck in my throat. This is so wrong, so completely unnatural...
If he knows what I mean, he dismisses it, “What difference does it make? It didn't work.”
On reflection, it’s probably not my best idea to say, “You could have told me.”
“To what purpose? To further humiliate myself? Give you a little more power?”
The sadness turns to anger like he’s been struck by lightning, and he snaps at me again, then takes a further step back.
“So I could help!” I get to my feet, forgetting all about my plan to stay down and demonstrate I don't need to look down at him to show him his place.
There are no guards outside, I notice absently.
“Help how? Sleeping with me?” he asks disdainfully and even so, I can hear the agony underneath. He’s thought about it, I can tell. “I would have never done that to Mother.”
The thought of what Mother would think of this is like a dagger twisting in my gut. I deny it at once. “No! Help you understand the inclination, surely there's some reason—”
“There is a reason,” he interrupts and takes a step forward. I tense, frozen in terror. That's how he sounded when... “You,” he says and just as suddenly he sounds dejected again, like all hope has vanished from the world. He is still a step closer but… “I told you; you are the centre of the world.”
I cannot think what to say to that, this time said so differently, resignation coming through in every word. Even now my heart aches for him, his pain echoing in me, leaving me feeling helpless and vulnerable. Even now, after what he’s done.
“It wasn't worth it,” he says before I can think of a response. “I was angry, and I wanted to hurt you, but the way you looked… I will never apologize for taking your crown, but I am sorry for this, I will... I never want to think of it again and I don't think I'll ever be able to stop,” he is looking down and if I know him at all, the half apology is sincere.
Be that as it may, I cannot forgive him, so I say nothing.
After a few moments of silence, he turns and leaves.
I am thinking over my still unread book when he returns some time later. Once again, he stays by the doorway, door propped open. Is he doing it for my benefit or his? If he were to try to close that door, I would have little chance of stopping it. I’m painfully aware of the fact, but I will not be grateful that he’s made me feel this way.
The only person whose presence in a room I have ever been able to completely forget, not because he’s forgettable but because… Because he’s a part of me. And now…
Dzyer doesn’t look at me, just announces, “You need to find appropriate attire for the coronation, male attire.”
“I don't have any.”
Something about the way I said it must tip him off that I mean it. His gaze slides my way for the briefest of glances before he looks down again. “You don’t have any formal clothes for your male body… at all?”
“I never shift, I don't like it,” I wonder if he assumed I only shifted when he wasn’t around.
“What are you talking about? We are shifters, it’s natural. Is this about...?” he gestures between us, eyes flickering all over the place. “I won’t do it again,” he insists.
I don’t bring up how very little reason I have to trust him right now, but I make note of the implication that it matters in which form I am. It didn’t seem to when he assaulted me.
“That was the first time I shifted since they let me off fencing lessons,” I explain. How is it even possible that he’s missed this about me? Of course, I have missed so much about him.
Perhaps we don’t know each other at all.
I never even understood why I needed to shift to learn to swordfight in the first place. It is true that the male form has more bulk and more muscle to put to use in a real fight, but why would I need it to learn the movements? Except of course the division between feminine and masculine activities is not simply about imitating the division of labour for non-shifters. The fight earlier has ensured that I am now very aware of how very little command I have of that body and therefore; how underprepared I am for any physical confrontation.
It is as if the speeches and stories I have been hearing my whole life about the gift of shifting have suddenly crashed into my ordered reality. Even Mother would say it, but it was also she who allowed me to drop my fighting lessons when I reached my thirteenth summer.
The royal line is made of shifters because we are meant to be the woman with the strength of mind and the man with the strength of body in one person. The perfect balance that might never be defeated. Except that for all we do not need choose one over the other, everybody else does and since the mind is undoubtedly superior, so is the female form that allows its greater expression. Because their strength must be beyond question, queens are meant to show no fear and to have no need of the strength of their bodies.
Or at least, it had been an effective argument when convincing our mother to ignore the traditional physical training. Particularly because Dzyer seemed inclined to be my other half in that arena. Something I had pointed out to Mother with ulterior motives but that I had believed stupidly and wholeheartedly.
But Dzyer is not my half; he is a person in his own right. A person I had not thought to shield from, either in body or in mind.
“That cannot be… healthy,” he tells me, shifting in place. It has clearly never occurred to him to be my half or for me to be his. He is whole and I am in pieces.
“I haven’t noticed any problems,” I bite back, trying to keep my body from betraying my anger.
“I never knew…” he says wonderingly, looking at me as if he’s forgotten his transgression, as if he’s seeing me anew. Then he shakes his head. “We will have some made.”
I sigh and stand to look at him. I don’t like having him looming over me, and I am too tired to play the undaunted princess. “What do you expect me to do? Afterwards?”
“Advise me.” The words are clearly rehearsed. I don’t miss that he is only referring to my role as heir, nothing regarding our personal relationship. He is offered an apology but no compensation, no accommodation. Does he believe that regretting it will make me believe I am safe?
“Do you think the people will just accept this?” I challenge, focusing on the job. I can’t even begin to untangle my brother’s psyche.
“They will because you will be by my side and support me. There was no fight and there needn’t be one. There is not going to be one,” he corrects himself, meeting my eyes for the first time. He is serious and intent, and he is not backing down. I know the look, it rarely ends well for whatever or whoever is getting it. “I am willing to give you as much power as Mother did. More, even. I will need you here for the time being to stabilize the situation.”
“And then? You are younger than me, are you planning to die in battle?” I ask, disdainfully.
Up to this point his joining the military, even as a general, has been the biggest disagreement we have ever had. I could never understand why he needed it, why his love for sport had turned to violence. Even as I saw how true it was, how he shone in armour, not simply without but within, eyes bright and feverish with a passion nothing else excited. Mother wouldn’t have given in, but I had. I loved him too well to keep him caged even if keeping him caged would have kept him safe. With me.
I never knew why he wanted to flee, now that I do… Do I regret it? What could I have done differently if I had known? If I’d kept him close enough to—
Dzyer clears his throat, eyes lost somewhere past me. “After that, if you want to marry.” These words are said stiffly but he doesn’t hesitate to go on, “Or go abroad as an ambassador, that would be fine. I know you would not bring civil war to our queendom.”
He knows, he says, and he is right. Oh, and how it rankles that he knows me so well and values me so little.
He nods, as if my silence is answer enough, and abandons the doorway.
I kneel at his feet, trying not to be sick despite my roiling stomach. I have not eaten since last night for exactly this reason but now that I bend over I regret it; my vision swims a little, my limbs feel like they might give up completely and drop me to the ground. A more complete surrender instead of only this staged one.
I knelt in this room before my mother not so long ago and I swore fealty to him and our queendom. My mother is dead. Our queendom stands. It’s all I think of as I bend my head for the crown I have been wearing for years instead of the one I was promised.
He asks me to swear, and I swear.
Is there any magic in these words from the times when magic was in everything? Or is it just in my mind, where I knew my word was my bond before I understood little else? It feels real, it feels like defeat, and surrender. And once surrendered a vow might never be taken back. He bids me stand by his side, and I do.
I let them all see, our cousins, visiting nobles and servants—even they are no longer so skittish and unsure. But I do not look. I let my gaze slid right through them, into a memory, the way I learned to do during boring state functions in which I just needed to stand around and be seen. It’s harder now, when I need to avoid thinking of both Dzyer and my Mother yet find pleasant occasions to recollect, but when my life proves too painful a subject I turn to the histories. There’s many a betrayal in those pages, but also great alliances and plots so fiendishly clever even remembering how they were accomplished gives me a shiver of pleasure.
The celebration goes on for hours, and more than once I feel my coolness start to fail me. I can hardly bear to look at Dzyer, crown shining over his auburn hair styled into the same wispy ringlets he always complained about growing up.
I guess this crown is worth the discomfort of dressing up.
But it’s not just the stabbing fury that keeps me turning away from my brother, but the fear that it will overpower me and twist my mouth into a grimace that would reveal to all the extent of my deception. A deception I have sworn on, committed to. A deception I cannot take back, only make worse by exposing.
Among strangers or near strangers, I meet Essire’s eyes. My cousin is wearing an immaculate salmon-coloured gown, simple yet arresting on the soft curves of his figure, but it’s his eyes that surprise me; focused and determined, they are not the eyes of someone enjoying a party. He nods at me and I understand what he means: you are doing well, you can do it. I have not spoken to Essire alone in years, but he knows me too well for me to imagine I can hide my discomfort behind the simple mask of curved lips and a neutral look that others will be unable to glean anything from. I nod back and turn, finding another drink and another old man to whom I can pretend to listen ramble to pass a little more of this interminable evening.
By the time I am allowed to escape back to my rooms, I am desperate. But I do not run. I cannot allow myself that much, servants have eyes and ears, after all, and I truly do not know if I am capable of letting my body go in such a way without dissolving into tears as well. So I walk, firm and purposeful, as if I was still mistress of all that surrounds me, as I still knew my path without question.
Behind closed doors, I tear the strange clothes from my strange body. Then I make myself pick them up before ringing the bell for Mikel.
She and two other servants bring up hot water for a bath and I just watch them pour it in, dressed only in my underclothes and concentrating on holding my body still.
Once they are done, Mikel pauses by the door. “Should I stay?” she asks softly. She knows the answer, it is quite clear; she’s not asking whether she should leave. That would make it seem like I’m asking her for a favour, instead, she’s allowing me the dignity of a casual nod.
She sits in a corner with some laces that need untangling. I close my eyes and allow my body to become myself. I take the rest of my clothes off a little too quickly and almost fall when I get into the water too fast and find it too hot.
I’m scared still, and I wonder if I will always be while I remain here. My mother has been dead for a three and thirty days, the traditional mourning period, and his crown has found a new head; the world keeps going.
For all my warnings, it does not seem to matter to anyone if the head is not the one that was promised.
Maybe I needn’t have worried; after the coronation, Dzyer takes to spending long hours in the council rooms and never seeks me out. In fact, after some days have passed without our paths crossing at all, I realise he is actively avoiding me. The surprised look on his face when I first walk into an ongoing council meeting confirms my suspicions.
“Brother,” he says after a moment. He always called me “Sister” before, when I was the heir and he was the princess. He could do so now if he was kind, and nobody would object. Not anybody in our council, certainly. But Dzyer did not get to be queen by being kind, I suppose.
“Why was I not informed the council was meeting?” I demand, rather curtly. My Mother would have sent me away for using that tone with her. But of course, not only Dzyer is used to irritating me beyond civility but he sees little point in courtesy in general.
“We are discussing military training, milady,” Lady Saalam says placatingly.
“That sounds fairly important to me,” I reply, unforgiving. I do not resent Saalam’s easy acceptance of the new queen, but I’m angry with my brother for promising me a role in his court and then taking even that from me.
“You never attended these meetings with Mother,” Dzyer replies. It almost sounds like a complaint.
“Ah, but you need my advice, milord,” I remind him, relishing using the masculine.
“I am a new queen. I need all the good advice I can get,” Dzyer demurs with a smile, and he is right, what does it matter if he lets me call him “milord” when he is queen?
I swallow my rage and take a seat. It is not my seat and I find it too hard, but I have no choice.