Winter's Heart | Teen Ink

Winter's Heart

January 19, 2011
By Kate_Anders BRONZE, Andover, Massachusetts
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Kate_Anders BRONZE, Andover, Massachusetts
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Favorite Quote:
I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.
~William Ernest Henley

Author's note: This is the book I started for NaNoWriMo 2010. I got to 18000 words which I think is pretty impressive. Here it is on inkpop:

Chapter One
A white and brown seagull soared low over hills dusted with snow. A chill breeze carried it up the Orleon River and away from the Endless Ocean. In the summer time sleek trading vessels snaked up river, laden down by exotic goods from the port cities. Now, with the waters of the Orleon glazed with a thin layer of ice, the ships were docked and the merchants spent their days fattening their bellies and trying to please the nobles.
The sun dipped below the horizon as the golden surface of the Lake of Tears spread out before the gull. The City of Eroshia, named for its first queen, lay on an island at the center of the lake. Its delicate spires and ornately carved marble buildings echoed an age long past.
The gull flew over the arching roof of the Temple of Dawn, tucked between soft green leaves in a secluded bay. It dropped low and deposited an offering on the head of a priestess. The priestess yelped and shook her fist in a very unholy manner at the bird.
The bird ignored her shouts and continued on. Four sweeping bridges of white marble connected the city to the shoreline. The gull followed one of the bridges away from the bay. The ports around the edge of the island-city gave way to warehouses, which in turn gave way to shops and small marketplaces. Argons went about their business in the streets. Armor glinted in the fading sunlight as a patrol of city guards marched through the streets, disrupting the peace with their methodical footsteps. As the seagull flew closer to the center of the city, marble mansions with lush gardens replaced rickety wooden houses. The mansions ended a thousand feet from the heart of the city. A broad waterway separated the mansions from a large flagstone courtyard. Four tall walls, each with an imposing gate, surrounded the courtyard, one at each of the cardinal positions. The seagull flew in from the east over a large expanse of grass and gardens. Large stone buildings stood in the vast courtyard. An elegant building made of marble commanded the center of the courtyard. The setting sun illuminated the white stonewalls of the palace. The seagull swooped low over the palace. Below it lay the central courtyard.
A sixteen-year-old girl stood in the middle of the courtyard next to a fountain. She was short with silky black hair, tied back in a thick ponytail, and marble-white skin. She kicked her black leather boot absent-mindedly into the snow at the base of the fountain and placed a hand on her hip. The other stroked the pommel of a deadly curved blade that hung from her belt. Large blue eyes watched the seagull as it flew over the far wall and a small frown curved her delicate lips.
“Kepi?” The Queen of Eroshia frowned down at the Captain of her Elite. The hem of her silk gown was stained with melted snow, but neither she nor her regal air took notice of damaged silk.
The gull flew out of sight over the arching wall on the far side of the courtyard. Kepi returned her gaze to her queen.
“Yes, Your Majesty?” Distraction gleamed in her eyes. The queen’s mahogany hair threatened to tumble out of its intricate bun as she shook her head slightly. A smile smiled curved her lips. Kepi recognized that smile; it was the queen’s motherly smile. She shared it with quite a few people court. Kepi rarely went a day without seeing it directed at her.
“The Council has requested another meeting to be held this afternoon,” the queen explained. Kepi groaned involuntarily. The Council was comprised of the queen’s advisors and the Circle of Seven, the highest-ranking nobles in Eroshia. Council meetings were a grand waste of time. Didn’t anyone understand that putting twenty egomaniacs in a room together and telling them make a decision would instantly result in chaos.
“It probably won’t achieve anything,” Kepi said at last. She wouldn’t be surprised if this meeting were spent discussing the food shortage in the Northern Quarter of Eroshia. That had been touched upon in yesterday’s meeting, but it had turned into an uproarious argument between the Minster of Agriculture and the Minister of Trade that the queen had put an end to with a sharp word and a dismissal.
“Probably,” the queen said with a shrug. Kepi knew she only put up with the meetings to appease the Council. The only thing the Council agreed on was that the meetings were important. Kepi couldn’t help but disagree, adamantly. The meetings were only an excuse to yell at those that it was otherwise frowned upon to yell at. “Though I think it’s safe to say that this meeting will not be about the food shortage.”
“Really?” Kepi asked a tad derisively. “Your Majesty,” she added quickly. The queen laughed quietly and brushed away a lock of hair that had escaped her elaborate updo.
“Yes,” she said. She sighed in a foreboding way. “The General was the one who pushed for this meeting to be held.” Kepi’s eyes bore into the ground. General Hammond. He was the commander of the entire army of Eroshia and he didn’t let anyone forget it, especially Kepi. The only branch of the military Hammond didn’t control was the Elite. Kepi was Captain of one of the branches of the Elite. Neither branch was under Hammond’s control. He saw it as a huge blow to his ego.
Kepi gripped the pommel of her sword. Whatever reason Hammond had requested this meeting, it didn’t bode well for the Queen’s Elite. He didn’t have a problem with Captain Veer’s Elite—since Veer deferred to him without question—but he did have a problem with the Queen’s Elite.
“Well, this should be interesting,” Kepi said darkly. The queen smiled in an appeasing way and gripped Kepi’s elbow, the one connected to the hand that she was using to throttle her sword with.
“There’s no reason to sound so doom and gloom, Kepi,” the queen said, laughter dancing in her hazel eyes. “I’m sure whatever he has to discuss doesn’t concern you and my Elite.” Kepi’s grip on her sword lightened, but her jaw did not unclench nor did her eyes become any less stone cold. The only time she participated in the Council’s customary yelling match was when Hammond spoke his mind. The only thing on his mind was the Queen’s Elite and he never spoke well of them. Kepi didn’t take kindly to those who her insulted her Elite.
“That would be a first,” Kepi said. She didn’t even add a hasty ‘Your Majesty’, but the queen took no notice. Out of the corner of her eye, Kepi could see the worry etched across the queen’s face as she looked down at her.
“Queen Landrieu?” The small voice emanated from behind the queen. Queen Landrieu turned and smiled down at the serving girl. The girl fumbled her curtsy and almost fell, but a strong hand wrapped around her arm.
The girl gasped and looked down at Kepi. Kepi righted her before releasing her arm and stepping back to her place behind the queen.
“What is it, Girda?” she asked. Girda’s eyes flickered between the queen and Kepi as she dry-washed her hands on her apron.
“Forgive me, Your Majesty,” she said in a quavering voice.
“There is nothing to forgive,” the queen assured her. A small smile replaced Kepi’s scowl. Queen Landrieu always had a kind word for her attendants, whether they were one of her serving girls or one of her Ladies.
“The cook asked me to give this to you, Your Majesty” Girda said, and held out a sheath of parchment to the queen. Kepi took the parchment from Girda. The girl gulped and spluttered a hurried apology.
While the queen reassured her once more, Kepi skimmed through the seating arrangement and the menu for that night’s dinner. After an approving nod, she looked away from the Cook’s neat handwriting to see Girda beating a hasty retreat across the courtyard.
“The new ones are always so nervous,” the queen said with her motherly smile. Kepi nodded and handed the sheath of parchment to the queen. The queen looked it over quickly and shook her head.
“Does something need to be changed, Your Majesty?” Kepi asked. Everything had appeared to be in order to her.
The queen stared at the snowflakes that fell from the sky in lazy spirals for a long while before answering Kepi. “What do you think of Herek?” Kepi blinked.
“I don’t know him personally, Your Majesty, but I’ve heard he’s…nice.” That was possibly the lamest answer she could have given, but she honestly didn’t know Herek at all.
“I’ve noticed that he and my daughter have been spending some time together.” Kepi had to refrain from replying with another ‘Really?’. She had thought that the queen had been too wrapped up in more important issues to notice her daughter’s escapade.
Something about Kepi’s face must have clued the queen into what Kepi was thinking. She let out a short laugh and ran a hand over her skirts.
“Kepi, she’s my daughter. I know when she’s trying to sneak around behind my back,” the queen said.
“Tanya doesn’t sneak around, Your Majesty,” Kepi said. She didn’t say it to defend Tanya. She just hated the idea of the queen knowing that the Elite sometimes misplaced her eldest daughter. The queen skewered Kepi with an oh, please look. Kepi shifted under the stare.
“Regardless,” the queen said with a dismissive wave of her hand. “She and Herek have grown close over the year. I would like him to be the guest of honor at tonight’s dinner.”
“Really?” This time she couldn’t help the word that escaped her mouth. The queen nodded and a small smile played at the corner of her mouth. “Of course, Your Majesty,” Kepi said, quick to regain her composure. “The cook shall be informed of the change.”
“One more thing,” the queen said. “Don’t tell Tanya. I would like to tell her at lunch.”
“Of course, Your Majesty.”
“Will you inform Herek?” the queen asked. Kepi gaped at her before catching herself and snapping her mouth shut.
“Your Majesty,” she said through her teeth, “that’s not exactly my job.” The queen raised her eyebrows.
“Kepi, your job is to do as I tell you.” She spoke in a no-nonsense, matter-of-fact way. Kepi knew she was right. The Captain’s job was to do as her queen told her do, but that didn’t mean she liked the idea of being a messenger. “This is important, Kepi, and I want Herek to know that.” Kepi sighed in defeat. The queen’s words had an annoying logic behind them. Kepi dropped her hands to her side and executed a stiff salute.
“Yes, Your Majesty.” The queen nodded briskly.
“You shall inform Herek immediately and then see to the seating chart,” the queen said. “I will expect to see you at the Council meeting.”
“Of course, Your Majesty.” Kepi would never miss a chance to go head to head with one of her least favorite people in the palace. The queen nodded again and walked away across the courtyard. Kepi followed until they reached the edge of the courtyard.
“Jace,” the queen said, speaking to Kepi’s second-in-commander. Jace snapped to attention. The Queen’s Ladies and a small pack of Elite, who had remained at the edge of the courtyard while the queen and Kepi talked, also paid their respects to Queen Landrieu.
“Yes, Your Majesty?” Her voice gave no sign that she had been born in a narrow, one room house in the Quays, the seediest district of Eroshia.
“Will you accompany me back to my quarters? Kepi has an errand to run.”
“Of course, Your Majesty,” Jace said. A teasing gleam entered her eyes as she glanced at Kepi. Since the queen’s back was to her, Kepi was safe to roll her eyes at her.
“Captain?” Kepi’s eyes grew wide. Jace barely managed to stifle a laugh. The queen turned to her Captain, who by then had on a blank face.
“Yes, Your Majesty?” The queen handed the seating arrangement and menu to Kepi.
“I will see you at the meeting.” Kepi saluted and watched as the queen’s entourage followed Her Majesty back inside the palace.
Alone in the cold, Kepi dropped her salute. She had never enjoyed acting stiff and formal, but she was expected to act that way when in the presence of the queen or nobles at court. Though there were exceptions in the last group of people who didn’t earn that façade. Kepi didn’t mince her words around those people.
Kepi left the courtyard in the opposite direction of the queen and her entourage. She would find Herek in the guest’s wing. She turned a corner and entered a hall. It was one of the longest halls in the palace, running its entire length. Everything in the hall was either white or gold. The sunlight pouring through the windows on one side of the hall flashed against the gold and illuminated the white. Kepi made her way down the hall at a quick, unfaltering pace even thought the sunlight reflecting off the vases was blinding her. She didn’t see another soul until she exited the hall through one of the many doors. A serving girl stood a ways down the hall Kepi entered—this one sporting a green and white theme—dusting one of the many vases in the room. As Kepi walked up to her, she somehow managed to fish the girl’s name out of list she had compiled over her twelve years at court.

“Erika.” Even though she memorized the name of every servant in the palace, she wasn’t guaranteed to be correct. She just had to hope she hadn’t mistaken the slight girl with a bob of blonde hair for the other small girl with blonde hair.

The serving girl jumped slightly and knocked the vase off its stand. Kepi lunged forward and caught it before the priceless artifact could shatter. A steady, rosy glow appeared in the girl’s cheeks as Kepi righted the vase.

“I-I’m sorry,” she stuttered. Kepi shook her head.

“No, it was my fault. I startled you.” The girl continued to blush a deep, ashamed red. “It’s Erika, right?” Kepi hoped she hadn’t bungled the name, but the girl nodded.

“Yes, Captain.” Kepi stopped herself before she could sigh. There wasn’t a soul in the palace, save her sister, off-duty Elite who she was friends with, and the queen, who referred to her simply as ‘Kepi’. She had no way of changing that. Palace etiquette would not condone such a thing.

“Could I ask you a favor?” Kepi asked. Erika looked up her. The girl looked to be a year or two older than Kepi, but her eyes shone with delight at the prospect.

“Of course, Captain.” Kepi smiled. It had taken her twelve years, from the day she had set foot in the palace to the day she had taken the Oaths of Duty, to earn the trust and respect of the staff. The Captain was the only member of the Queen’s Elite who was a noble. Since the Elite were considered staff in the palace, they took meals with the servants. The majority of the nobles treated the servants in a disgusting manner, which was why Kepi had had to work so hard to be considered a part of the staff. Many nobles would find this idea abhorrent, but Kepi, as usual, was of a different mindset.

“Could you take this to Cook?” Kepi asked, handing her the sheath of parchment that the queen had left in her care. Erika took the sheath and glanced down at it, but she had the good sense not to go rifling through it until there were several hallways between her and Kepi. “And tell him that the guest of honor has been changed from Lord Bullgerstine to Lord Herek.” Erika’s eyes narrowed slightly as she processed this information.

“Yes, Captain,” she said.

“Thank you, Erika,” Kepi said. She continued on down the hall, leaving the serving girl and her thoughts behind. Kepi knew for a fact that before the lunch bell had finished chiming, the entire palace would know who tonight’s guest of honor would be. There was no way that Kepi could have avoided it, but she knew Tanya would hear from her mother. After all, the queen was going to have lunch with her daughters.

Kepi turned another corner and entered a small door squeezed between two overlarge hunting tapestries. As she climbed the narrow servant’s stairwell, she heard the heavy tolling of the lunch bell. She smiled to herself. Tanya wouldn’t be the only overjoyed by this news. Herek was a favorite not only among the nobles, but also the servants. He would make a good king if it ever came to that.

Kepi left the stairwell and hurried down the hall. She crossed the hall and rapped firmly on the worn oak of Herek’s door. Hopefully he was in. If he weren’t, she would have to scour the palace for him and by the time she found him, he would already know the news.

Fortunately, he was in his room. The door opened to reveal a tall man with close-cropped brown hair and penetrating brown eyes. He shared the same uniform as Kepi though hers had a much more close fitting cut.

“Kepi,” he said with a surprised smile. Even though he was a King’s Elite, he could get away with calling her by her name. Usually though he reframed from doing so unless they were both off duty.

“Darvin,” she replied with a slight nod of her head. She tried to emanate an air of authority, but Darvin took no notice of it. He was about to say something, but Kepi continued talking. “I’m here to see Herek.” The disappointment in his face made her blush. Over the past few months, Kepi and Darvin had been seeing more and more of each other. Darvin was the second-in-command of the King’s Elite, thereby earning himself the duty of guarding Herek. Herek spent a majority of his day with Tanya, even when she was with the queen, so Kepi and Darvin were usually on duty together. Kepi wasn’t so uptight that she wouldn’t participate in a little banter while on duty. Their steadily growing friendship was the fuel for many a rumor, but those rumors had, so far, remained innocent which made them easy to ignore.

“Of course,” Darvin said, quick to wipe the expression off his face. He stepped aside so Kepi could enter. The room she stood in was large considering it was the sitting room portion of a guest chamber. A plush couch and two armchairs stood in front of a lit fireplace. The days were steadily growing colder and in a space as airy and open as the Argon palace, heat was in high demand.

Darvin slipped by Kepi close enough to brush her arm and walked to one of the doors off the sitting room. He ducked inside. “Herek,” he called. “The Captain of the Queen’s Elite is here to see you.” Darvin stepped back outside and looked at Kepi. Curiosity shone behind his eyes, but he was smarter enough to say what he was clearly thinking. Kepi had yet to have a conversation with Herek that was more than a “good day, Captain” on his part and a slight nod on hers.

At that moment Herek appeared in the doorway. Kepi gave a slight bow. Only the queen received a salute from her Elite. “What is it, Captain?” he asked. His good-natured smile did nothing to conceal the impatience in his voice. Kepi decided not to be spiteful and prolong the conversation for her own amusement.

“Her Majesty has asked me to inform you that you are to be the guest of honor at tonight’s banquet.” Herek stopped in the middle of running and hand through his mussed up hair. His brows lowered over his currently confused blue eyes. Kepi didn’t understand why he had to think about this so much. At last a slow smile spread over his face. Kepi planted her hands on her hips, the stance she required in any scenario whether she were angry or, in this case, impatient. Kepi might have enjoyed the company of dead fish more than that of Her Highness, but at least Tanya wasn’t a completely fool like the man she had fallen for. Which might have been one of the reasons Tanya appeared so intent on marrying Herek. Kepi was prevented from perusing this line of thought by a jubilant laugh.

“Tell Her Majesty I am most grateful,” Herek said, making a mess of what had once been purposefully mussed hair and now looked simply mussed. Kepi sketched another bow.

“Of course, Lord Herek.” Her words fell on deaf ears as Herek gave another ecstatic laugh and disappeared inside his room. Kepi glanced at Darvin. She had not expected such a response from Herek was found herself worried for his mental well-being. Darvin shrugged and sat down on the couch. He put his arms behind his head and leaned back.

“He’s been waiting for that news for over a month now,” he said. Kepi could tell that Darvin’s comment wasn’t just a comment. He was prying her for information, information Kepi had no reason of keeping hidden.

“According to the queen, her daughter’s suitor most make it through at least six months of courting before he can expect a seat at her right hand,” Kepi said, repeating the words the queen had told her at the beginning of the spring. Kepi had thought it had been an innocent comment at the time. A couple weeks later Kepi had found out that Tanya and Herek were meeting in secret for more than just nighttime strolls. She had always thought that the queen was simply educating her, but maybe, Kepi thought, maybe the queen had seen this coming. Kepi smiled slightly. If that were the case, the queen was not only the most insightful person in the palace, but she was also the most adept at appearing otherwise.

Darvin nodded slightly, though he was not privy to Kepi’s thoughts. “That’s a good rule to standby,” he said. Kepi nodded in agreement. Another delighted laugh echoed from Herek’s room.

“I should probably go,” Kepi said. Darvin laughed.

“I’ll see you at the banquet,” he said. Kepi nodded before turning and leaving the room. She shut the door quietly behind her. The queen expected to see her next at the meeting, but Kepi had been told over and over again to never be away from her queen for longer than she had to be. Kepi trusted the Queen’s Elite with the queen’s life, but Irena had always told her to be with her queen, as that was her duty.

Kepi felt a pang at the thought of her mentor and predecessor, but she shook the feeling away. She set off down the hall. Right now the last thing she needed to be thinking about was Irena. That line of thought only brought upon a deep depression that Kepi couldn’t afford to enter, again.

Kepi quickened her pace, as if she could out run the thoughts. The queen was taking lunch in the Gardens of Dawn, which, naturally, were at the east end of the palace. Unfortunately, the guest wing was at the west end. She wouldn’t be able to reach the gardens by the end of lunch at any pace short of running. As Captain of the Queen’s Elite, she could not afford to run through the halls at a break neck pace. Someone might have thought there was an emergency. So Kepi strode at a dignified yet brisk pace through the palace.

Her calculations had been correct. By the time she reached the Gardens of Dawn, the patio where the lunch table sat was empty. Kepi sighed quietly. Nothing embarrassed her more than asking where the queen was. Kepi ran a hand over her hair, twirling the end of her ponytail around her finger. At least there was a comforting beauty to the view before her. Tall pines flanked the path that led away from the patio. Fountains stood at equal distances down the path. The Temple of Dawn could be seen over the white outer walls, which glowed in the sunlight. At dawn the sight was simply breathtaking.

“Princess Mirelli insisted on taking the queen to the Recital Room to show her her singing.” Kepi jumped and turned around. She wasn’t usually startled and the woman in front of her seemed amused by the fact that she was. The woman was small with grey hair drawn back in a tight bun.

“Hesha.” Kepi straightened her uniform. The princesses’ nurse managed to make everyone feel like a small child. Hesha afforded Kepi a small, indulging smile, which only made Kepi feel like more of a child. “Recital Room, thanks.” Hesha simply nodded. As Kepi hurried away, she glanced over her shoulder. Hesha took a seat at the lunch table and looked out on the view. The queen had tried to be there for her daughters, but when she couldn’t be, Hesha always had been. Kepi felt a little sorry for Hesha. The woman had done so much for the princesses. Now only Mirelli gave her the time of day and even that was becoming more and more infrequent as her tutors monopolized the princess’ time.

Even so the queen would not lay off the old woman, something Kepi was very thankful for. Hesha was one of the palace constants. Losing her would completely alter the palace’s dynamic.

Kepi reeled her thoughts back in as she neared the Recital Room. She had to be focused once she relieved Jace. Irena had always told her that her focus was abysmal.

“Your focus needs more focus,” she would bark at Kepi as she once again caught her off guard. Over the years Kepi had improved in that area, but Irena never missed the opportunity to prove that she was still unfocused.

Kepi shook her head. These thoughts were helping. She walked down another empty hallway. This one combined purple and white in a stunning fashion. At last she reached the doors to the Recital Room. She slipped through one and shut it quietly behind her. The room before her was open and airy. Bay windows stood along both walls. The high arched ceiling was painted a soft sapphire blue with gold highlights. The palace of Eroshia was known for its gorgeously colored rooms.
Kepi had made almost no noise upon entering and yet eighteen pairs of eyes fell on her. The Elite saluted her. Kepi waved the salutes away and looked around the room.
The Recital Room was long, but the queen and her party only took up a small portion of it. Her Majesty sat on the ornate, white piano mention next to her eldest daughter. Even playing the piano, Tanya held herself with a haughty air. As her nimble fingers danced over the keys, she tossed her head, allowing her honey brown hair to ripple over her shoulder. Three Elite were stationed behind the royals. Kellra made leaning against a column behind Mirelli look like crouching, on the verge of pouncing. Divianna and Jace had a less dramatic air surrounding them as they stood behind their charges. Relaxation wasn’t present in a single bone of their bodies. To the untrained eye, rest of the Elite appeared to be scattered around the room when in reality they were stationed at precise intervals. The Queen’s Ladies were no longer present and neither were the ladies-in-waiting to the princesses.
The center of attention came in the form of slight girl of only seven years. Her soft brown hair was piled expertly on top of her head. Her narrow face shone as she sang, hands clasped at her waist. Princess Mirelli was a spitting image of her mother. Even her voice matched the queen’s, though a little higher in pitch. This was obvious now as the little seven year old sang her heart out.
Kepi moved quietly across the room. She didn’t want to interrupt the impromptu concert. Jace slid away from the bench and stood back against the wall. Kepi took her place behind the queen. Divianna glanced at her with her dark, angled eyes. Kepi didn’t even bother forcing a polite smile. Divianna despised all nobles indiscriminately. Kepi had tried to be seen as any other Elite, but Divianna’s feelings could not be altered. The queen didn’t look away from her daughter. The seven-year-old’s voice was entrancing in its beauty and Kepi had a hard time paying attention to the surrounding room.
The last note resonated through the hall. Before it stopped echoing, the queen was applauding. Tanya took her fingers away from the keyboard and swept her hair away from her face. She glanced over her shoulder at Kepi. Kepi had found it only fitting that the Elite who hated her the most would be paired with the woman who held dead fish in a higher regard than she did Kepi. She needed to split those to up; they were the perfect allies. But Divianna had been in charge of Tanya for three years and Kepi had been in charge for six months. Such a drastic change would not be received well and besides Kepi had more important things than her safety to worry about. She had the queen’s safety to worry about.
Tanya’s eyes skimmed over her as if she weren’t there. Kepi’s face remained neutral. Tanya was as irrational as she was vain. Kepi couldn’t find a reason behind her animosity, but then again she couldn’t find a reason for her own enmity towards the heir.
“Mirelli, that was beautiful,” the queen was saying. Kepi quickly looked back at the queen. Today her focus could really do with more focus. The queen was on her feet, kissing her daughter on both cheeks, which almost matched the red satin curtains that decorated the windows behind her.
“Thank you, Mother,” she giggled. The queen kissed her on the forehead.
“And you did wonderfully on the piano, Tanya,” the queen said, holding out her hand. Tanya took it and allowed herself to be drawn into a family hug.
“Thank you, Mother.” Tanya didn’t share Mirelli’s giddy excitement. The queen hugged her daughters for a moment longer before letting them go. Tanya took a few steps away from her mother and sister. Any farther and her retreat risked being noticed. The queen smiled at her daughters. Mirelli caught sight of Kepi.
“Kepi!” she cried. She bounded away from her mother and threw her arms around Kepi. The girl’s head could rest comfortably on Kepi’s shoulder, a fact that Kepi was acutely aware. At least she wasn’t stout on top of being short.
“Your Highness,” Kepi gasped, taken aback by the girl’s enthusiasm. She didn’t know why she was surprised. Mirelli was enthusiastic to begin with and she had taken a liking to Kepi.
“Did you hear me sing?” Mirelli asked. Unlike her sister, this question wasn’t asked because she needed a good ego fluffing.
“Yes. You were wonderful, Your Highness,” Kepi said, hugging her back. Mirelli looked up at her. Her cheeks were still a pleasant pink. She stood up on her tiptoes.
“You know you can call me Mirelli,” she whispered. Kepi laughed.
“I know, Your Highness.” If Kepi started calling Mirelli by her first name, she might call Tanya by hers. And pleasant enthusiasm wouldn’t be the tone she took. Mirelli laughed and bounced back to her mother. Kepi straightened up and looked at the queen. She slipped her hand in Mirelli’s.
“Is everything set?” she asked.
“Yes, Your Majesty,” Kepi said. Tanya very rarely spared Kepi a glance and so she was always aware when she did. Kepi glanced at her. Tanya didn’t bother looking away. She could have appeared a little more excited. Kepi had after all just informed her lover that he would be the guest of honor. This was a milestone on the road to marriage. Instead, Tanya skewered Kepi with her usual cold look.
“How did he receive the news?” the queen asked. Kepi looked back at her.
“He seemed excited.” That was grossly understating it, but Kepi had played down Herek’s reaction for Tanya’s benefit, or the opposite of it. Kepi wasn’t strictly opposed to Tanya and Herek as a couple, but after that thought in Herek’s chamber, Kepi couldn’t help but think that Tanya had an ulterior motive to being with Herek. He was a dud and she was the heir to the throne and, how ever much it irked Kepi to admit, a damn good Politian. Kepi didn’t usually see the best in people, but this was more than just an inclination; this was growing into the firm belief that Tanya just wanted a husband she could put on display for the benefit of all those who opposed Queen Landrieu’s solo rule.
“Wonderful,” the queen said. Kepi glanced between mother and daughter. The queen had clearly taken Kepi’s word as meaning Herek was overjoyed—which he was. Tanya was taking this news a little differently. Her cold eyes seemed to examine Kepi’s words from every angle. Tanya enjoyed it when things went along with her plans. If she believed for just a moment that Herek was not as committed to their relationship as she was, she would uncover the truth by any means necessary even if she had to confront him face to face. Kepi wasn’t a relationship expert, but she was fairly certain hounding your lover for information on how committed they were was not recommended.
“Mother, can I stay for the dancing tonight?” Mirelli asked, tugging on the queen’s hand. The queen looked down at her and smiled.
“I think we can push your bedtime back a little bit tonight.” Mirelli squealed with joy and hugged her mother tightly. The queen glanced up at Tanya. “Will you take Mirelli with you when you go to get that last minute fitting done?” Tanya tossed her head again.
“Yes, I was going to go there now,” Tanya replied. Cool reserve was etched across her face. Even in the company of her family, Tanya didn’t act any less haughty and aloof, one of the many reasons why Kepi found her unbearable to be around.
Mirelli ran over to her sister and caught her hand. She began bombarding Tanya with questions about her dress. What was the color? What was the style? Who was the tailor? What was the cut of the bodice? Tanya led Mirelli out, but she wasn’t able to cut off her stream of questions.
Divianna trailed out after Tanya, leading a pack of six Elite. She didn’t cast Kepi a second glance. Kepi placed her hands on her hips and watched her go. Kellra pushed herself off the wall.

“Good luck at the meeting,” she whispered in Kepi’s ear. Kepi looked up at her.

“Thanks,” she muttered. She would need it. Kellra slipped out after her charge. Another six Elite accompanied her out. The queen continued smiling after her daughters. At last she turned to Kepi. Kepi dropped her hands to her side.

“The Council meeting is scheduled to start soon,” the queen said. She didn’t seem in the least bit surprised that she was talking to her Captain instead of the second-in-command. Kepi nodded. A feeling of uncertainty had settled over her since Kellra’s comment. She wouldn’t let the feeling show unless she wanted to be eaten alive at the meeting.

The queen led the way across the Recital Room. Kepi, Jace, and the remaining Elite followed close behind her. The enormous room echoed their footfalls, making it seem like there was an entire platoon crossing the hall.

When they reached the double doors at the end, Jace and the youngest of the Queen’s Elite, Brigitte, peeled off from the group and held open the massive oak doors. The queen smiled at the two as she passed through. Jace cast Kepi a lopsided grin as if holding a door open was the biggest joke in the world. Kepi rolled her eyes. With Jace, everything was a joke.

“Herek seemed excited, did he?” the queen asked as they walked down one of the palace’s many color coordinated hall. Kepi gripped her sword hilt. She hoped the queen wouldn’t guess her motives. Kepi wasn’t obsessed with political intrigue the way most of the palace was, but she did try to have a finger in a few pies. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t survive court life.

“Darvin said he has been looking forward to this for some time,” Kepi replied. She had learned from her twin that indirect answers were better than fibs, especially if you were as bad at lying as Kepi was. The queen’s brown eyes locked onto Kepi. If there was one thing Kepi was good at, it was keeping a straight face. At last the queen’s eyes left her face and returned to the hallway in front of her.

“I’m glad,” the queen said. “I had hoped that Herek was as committed to this as Tanya is.”

“That would make Tanya happy.” The queen nodded, her motherly smile in place once more. “Your Majesty?”

“Yes Kepi?” Kepi rotated her grip on her hilt. Uneasiness always left her a little fidgety.

“Do you think Herek would make a good king?” she asked at last. The Elite behind her hadn’t made a sound, but she knew they were listening closely; however, Kepi wasn’t worried that the queen’s answer would spread through the palace like wild fire. She trusted the Elite at her back more than any of the other Elite on her force, save for Kellra.

The queen remained quiet as they passed by a group of servants working hanging a tapestry. The servants stopped their work and paid their respects to the queen as she passed. The queen smiled in recognition of them as she led her small group down a small flight of stairs.

“No,” the queen said at last. Her voice was barely above a whisper. Kepi tightened her grip on her sword. “But I do believe he will support Tanya in her every decision.” Kepi believed that too, but it wasn’t a comforting thought. Herek had many friends in the palace his backing of Tanya would mean a majority of her ideas would come to pass. Kepi did not favor a majority of her ideas.

“I think so too.” The queen looked at her. It wasn’t a secret that Kepi and Tanya sometimes went to head on certain topics. Kepi found herself hoping once more that the queen didn’t know she didn’t support Tanya’s choice of men.

Before the silence could grow too foreboding, the group arrived in the front hall of the palace. The main staircase, made of a worn down white marble, led up to a landing where it parted in two directions. At the top of the stairs, a balcony ran around the hall. Columns of white marble supported the balcony on the ground floor. A deep blue carpet covered the floor. On the opposite side from where the queen and her party entered stood a set of double doors. These doors led into the Council’s Chambers. Kepi never enjoyed the sight of the wooden doors, carved with the soft waves and birds motif.

Like last time, Jace and Brigitte stepped forward to open the double doors. The queen swept inside. Regality emanated from her every pore. Kepi straightened her shoulders and followed her inside.

A circular table dominated the room beyond the doors. It was made of heavy oak, as were the floor and columns surrounding it. The room had been designed with a purpose. It boasted none of the lavish colors that the other rooms in the palace did.

As the queen entered, the room was filled with the rustle of skirts and the creak of chairs as the room’s occupants rose to greet the queen. It was frowned upon to arrive at a council meeting late, which was why the Circle and the advisors were already present. Only the queen could arrive late, though, as Queen Landrieu had once told Kepi, she arrived exactly when she meant to, which was usually on time.

The chatter, which had filled the room, was silenced. The queen swept to the back of the room. Kepi followed behind her. The rest of the Elite spread out around the room. A handful of King’s and Queen’s Elite stood around the room already. Kepi managed to beat the queen to her chair without looking in the least bit rushed, a skill she had perfected with practice. She pulled out the cushioned chair and the queen sat down. As soon as she was settled, the rest of the occupants settled back in their seats. Kepi sat down on the queen’s left. Jace slipped across the room and stationed herself behind the queen.

Kepi glanced around the table. There were only three faces that caught her interest. Captain Veer sat next to her. He gave her a polite nod when her eyes fell on him. Veer was of noble blood, but his family wasn’t one of the big name families. He had become Captain of the King’s Elite to raise his family’s prestige. Kepi’s lips twitched. The expression was something close to a smile, but there was no warmth in it to back that description up.

The other two faces belonged to two of Kepi’s least favorite people at court. General Hammond lounged in his chair on the opposite side of the table. There was an arrogant smirk on his lips as he gazed around the table. Unlike Veer, he did not treat Kepi with a nod. He leered at her. Kepi’s lips curled up. He refused to acknowledge the sixteen-year-old girl as his equal. He still didn’t know whom he was messing with. Kepi might not enjoy politics, but she still played the game, and well.

The final face belonged to a slender woman with soft blonde hair and dark blue eyes. She sat across from Kepi as well, though the other members of the Circle of Seven flanked her. Charla’s blatant dismal of Kepi’s glance only deepened Kepi’s dislike for the woman.

Kepi’s survey of the room had lasted only a matter of seconds. She didn’t need to waste any more time on those three until the debate began. The man beside the queen, the eldest member of the Council and a member of the Circle of Seven, wrapped his mallet on the table.

“Thank you, Lord Quentin.” Lord Quentin nodded. His silver hair caught the light of the candles on the wall. He was possibly the only member of court who didn’t give politics a second thought. He was only here out of respect for his age and wisdom over the years. “General Hammond called this meeting, so I will allow him to us off. General?”

“Thank you, Your Majesty.” Hammond seemed to swell with arrogance as all eyes fell on him. He straightened up and adjusted his uniform. Here it comes, Kepi thought. “One of my many roles as General of the Armies of Eroshia—” Kepi rested her forehead in the palm of her hand. Hammond took every opportunity available to remind people of his title. “—is to review the wages of our soldiers. Due to the amount of money being put to other wages,” Hammond continued, glancing pointedly at Kepi. She resisted the urge to roll her eyes to the heavens. Instead she kept them fixed on Hammond. “My soldiers have not received the amount they deserve. These men put their lives on the line for this nation. They should be rewarded properly.” His voice increased in authoritative righteousness as his little speech came to a close. Several heads were bobbing up and down in agreement. Unsurprisingly Veer was among this group.

Kepi looked at the queen. Her lips were turned down in a frown as she looked at Hammond, but she too was nodding.

“I understand where you are coming from, General,” she began, “but there are other people in the employ of the government who need to receive their wages.” Hammond’s fist collided with the table with a loud crack. The first few times this had occurred, Kepi had stiffened in shock, but she had soon come to realize that Hammond employed this technique for dramatic effect.

“You’ve hit the nail on the head, Your Majesty,” he said. “I called this meeting so it could be put to a vote. We should focus the wealth of the treasury on the people who deserve their salaries, who earn their salaries. Some people don’t.” Kepi released a small sigh as Hammond’s eyes fell on her. His constant attempt to have the Queen’s Elite dismissed had gone beyond tiring. Now it was irritating.

“And who do you propose we lay off?” the queen asked. She didn’t need to. Everyone in the room knew whom Hammond wanted to get rid of. Quite a few pairs of eyes fell on Kepi. Hammond was still boring holes into her skull.

“Your Majesty, I pray you aren’t insulted by my words, but I strongly believe your Elite have been sapping funds from my soldiers. Captain Veer’s Elite does a fine job of insuring the safety of the people at court. Captain Kepi’s Elite, on the other hand, is redundant.”

“Redundant?” Kepi repeated, leaning forward in her chair and planting her fists on the table. It had not been Hammond’s word choice that brought on such a strong wave of anger, but his pretentious tone of voice. Kepi’s cheeks warmed slightly. The tendons on her jaw jumped into sharp relief. “Have you no understanding for the system? The King’s Elite protects the lords of court this Council decided were deserving of the protection and the Queen’s Elite protects Her Majesty and her daughters. This system has been in place for a hundred and fifty years. Are you suggesting that Veer and his men should be the ones who protect the queen and her daughters as they bathe?” A rush of whispers spread through the room. The queen’s cheeks were stained with a pink glow. Before Kepi could continue with her tirade, Hammond interrupted her.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said as if he spoke to a small child. “I am merely saying that Her Majesty’s protection should be in the hands of people better suited for the job.” Another bout of whispering filled the room. The implications of his word were clear as day; protecting the queen was a man’s job. Kepi’s fists trembled so much that she had to remove them from the tabletop. Whenever Kepi was forced onto the defensive, she responded by going on the offence. This tactic worked in a sword fight and in a heated discussion such as this one.

She took a steadying breath and tossed her ponytail over her shoulder. She had been saving the information she was about to use against Hammond for a special occasion. This situation fit the bill.

“Let me get this straight,” Kepi said, cocking her head to the side as if she were thinking hard. “You are saying that Her Majesty’s Elite should be dismissed so that you can afford the nightly visits from your prostitutes? I wonder what your wife thinks of that.” A drop of water could have been heard plopping onto the floor. There was no way to respond to this news other than to stare at Kepi in stunned silence. Kepi tilted her head to the other side. Perverse pleasure filled her. Hammond’s face fit the description of ‘beet red’ perfectly. His meaty hand clenched into fists. Every muscle in his body quivered. Kepi leaned back in her chair. “I just wanted to get the facts straight.”

Hammond exploded to his feet. His chair flew back from the table. Unfortunately for little Briggy, she stood directly behind him. Only a quick hop to the side saved her from being plastered against the wall.

“You lying little tramp,” Hammond bellowed. “Spreading dirty lies. You’re as bad as your sister.” The last word was spat across the room in Kepi’s face. Kepi burst from her own seat. Her chair toppled backwards. She didn’t even notice Jace catch it.

“Do not bring my sister into this, you adulterous pig,” Kepi snarled. Her hands pressed against the table and the tight fabric of her uniform top spread over her coiled muscles.

“Enough.” The queen’s voice cracked like a whip through the tension between Kepi and the general. Kepi stood up straight, letting her arms fall limply to the side. Jace pushed her chair against the back of her knees and she dropped back down into her seat. Jace leaned forward and gripped Kepi’s shoulder with a strong hand. Even though Briggy was closer, one of Veer’s men brought over Hammond’s chair. Kepi caught her eye and smiled. Briggy blushed. Hammond sat back down, but his face was still a disturbing shade of crimson.

“It seems this Council is incapable of having a polite conversation,” the queen said, brushing loose hair off her forehead. Kepi’s anger dimmed slightly in the light of her own hypocrisy. Her eyes fell on Charla, who was watching her with small smile on her face. Annoyance flashed through Kepi and she quickly looked away. “General Hammond, I respect your wishes, but I stand by my Captain on this matter. My Elite will not be dismissed as long as I am queen.” The finality of her words ended the discussion. Hammond rolled his shoulders and straightened his dark green uniform top. “Unless there are any objections, this meeting will end now.” Objection was written all over Hammond’s face, but he didn’t speak. The queen gestured to Lord Quentin. He brought his mallet down on the table and the meeting officially ended. The Council members stood and began trickling out of the room. Kepi began to rise, but the queen laid on hand over hers. She sat back down.

When the room had finally cleared, the queen turned to Kepi. Her face was one of understanding, but Kepi knew a reprimand was coming. She looked away from the queen and studied the smooth surface of the table.

“I understand that that was a difficult topic for you,” the queen began, “but were those accusations truly necessary?” Kepi looked back at the queen. A sardonic comment was poised on the tip of her tongue, but she didn’t voice it. The queen sighed. “His reaction was amusing.” Kepi grinned. That it had been, though hers had probably been just as amusing to some people who had witnessed it. That was a sobering thought. Her smile dropped. The queen caught sight of her expression and patted her hand.

“Begging your pardon, Your Majesty,” Jace said. The queen looked up at her.

“Yes, Jace?”
“Mistress Pinshare asked for you to meet her this afternoon,” Jace said. Formality clung to her words. Away from the queen, Jace’s words burst with emotion, but like so many others she watched her tone around Her Majesty.
“Of course,” Queen Landrieu said. “Thank you for reminding me.” She stood up. Kepi was quick to follow. Jace stepped back. The queen led the way out of the council room.
“By the time this dress is completed, it will be time for the banquet,” the queen said with a small laugh. Kepi forced a smile. The banquet. She had almost forgotten in the heat of the moment that she would be spending the night on her feet listening to incessant gossiping. At least she, Jace, and Kellra had the night off. Jace had insisted that they go down to the Trade Post. Kepi hadn’t needed much convincing. The hustle and bustle of the tavern would take her mind off the meeting.
Kepi’s thoughts wandered off to her sister. She had the night off tonight. Kepi sometimes envied Dana, but then she remembered her twin was forced to glide about in fatally tight dresses. Dana enjoyed everything that came with being a lady.
Especially the intrigue and manipulation.

Chapter Two
“Isn’t it beautiful?” Dana looked up at the sound of the familiar voice. Christine smiled down at her. The two ladies had been friends for six years. There wasn’t a day the two had spent without seeing each other at least once.
“Yes, it is.” Dana tried to sound as excited and reverent as her friend. She fell short. The room was decorated in a winter theme. Ice statues reflected the light of the chandeliers and soft white curtains flanked the windows. Dana let a small sigh escape her lips as she looked around her. These decorations were nothing in comparison to those she had seen in history books. A century ago there would have been twice as many ice statues and the candelabras on the table would be solid silver instead of gilded metal.
Christine sat down in the chair next to Dana. Dana had asked the queen if she and Christine could sit next to each other. The queen hardly ever said ‘no’ and this time had been no exception.
“How’s Kepi?” Christine asked. Though Kepi had been at the palace for most of their childhood, she had come back for the annual summer ball. It was there that she too had met Christine.
“She’s doing better,” Dana said. She had to monitor her words especially when Kepi was concerned. There were too many prying ears around who would love to spread a juicy rumor about Kepi that could destroy her reputation. Kepi might be a noble descended from one of the most powerful families, but she was still the Captain of the Queen’s Elite.
Christine nodded, sending her perfect blonde curls bouncing. “I’m glad to hear it.” Dana nodded too. Kepi had only been Captain for six months. The reason behind her sudden installment had not been discussed between the twins, though Dana knew—everyone knew. She just wished Kepi would open up a little more to her.
Christine laid a hand over hers under the table and squeezed it. “She just needs more time.” Dana sighed.
“I guess,” she mumbled. Much to Dana’s relief, a heavy thudding resonated throughout the hall. Dana and Christine joined the other nobles in rising. Dana looked over at the sound. One of the palace’s many butlers stood in front of the ornate double doors that led out into the main hall. He gripped a gold gilded staff in his hand.
“Now announcing Her Majesty, Queen Landrieu, and their highnesses, Princess Tanya and Princess Mirelli.” As one the nobles of Eroshia bowed. The great double doors swung open. Two Queen’s Elite held the doors open and saluted. Dana glanced up through her lashes as the procession entered. The queen led the way. Her soft green dress glittered in the light of the candles and her mahogany hair glowed. Her daughters flanked her. They were dressed almost identically though Mirelli’s dress was dark blue and Tanya’s was pale gold, and showcased much more of her body than Dana believed was appropriate.

After the royalty, three Elite strode in. Kepi stood in between the other two Elite. She was dressed in her finest uniform with her sword shimmering at her side. Even though her head barely grazed the shoulder of the shorter of the two, there was no doubting who the leader of the group was. Dana’s chest warmed with pride. Her sister may not be ready to talk, but she was certainly ready to be the Captain.

The practiced show of precision wound down as Her Majesty and her daughters took their seats. The rest of the hall followed suite and conversation filled the silence. Her Majesty sometimes prefaced the meal with a small speech, but not tonight since last night she had given one. Dana kept an eye on her sister as she slipped back into her chair. Kepi and the two other Elite she had come in with stood behind their charges. Next to Kepi stood a tall man—though anyone next to Kepi appeared tall, this man in reality was quite tall. Dana recognized him as Darvin, one of the King’s Elite and Herek’s bodyguard. Like the entire palace, Dana knew why Darvin stood up there. Herek sat on the queen’s right as her guest of honor.

A sharp sigh broke into Dana’s thoughts. She looked around at Christine. Her friend’s sharp brown eyes were boring holes into Herek. Dana elbowed her. Christine’s eyes flashed to her face. The anger in her face was quickly wiped away. Dana raised her eyebrows.

“I thought you were over that,” she said. The hum of conversation made it easy to have a private conversation, but Dana still pitched her voice low.

“I am,” Christine muttered. “I just hate to see him playing with another girl, even if she is Tanya.” Christine had had a crush on Herek since she was ten. Four years later her crush became reality only for that reality to be thrown in her face when Herek got bored. Dana had stood by her side for the month it took her to recover from the trauma. She hated how one boy could have so much power over a girl.

“You think he’s playing her?” Dana asked, glancing up at the head of the table. Herek was conversing with the queen. Charm rolled off him in waves. Dana felt sickened at the sight—she had never liked Herek—but the queen seemed to be enjoying is company.

“I know he is,” Christine insisted. Before Dana could reply, the first course rolled in. A servant stepped up between them and placed a steaming bowl of soup on the table. She ladled an ample amount into each of their bowls.

“Thank you,” Dana said. The servant blinked in surprise, but didn’t say anything. She curtsied and withdrew. Kepi had told Dana that a thank you would go a long way to making friends with the servants; they weren’t usually acknowledged around court.
“Why do you say that?” Dana asked Christine. Christine tossed a curl over her shoulder.
“I know how he works. He flatters you, sends you flowers, dances with you, and then breaks your heart.” Dana frowned. Anger still resided inside of Christine and it was showing through now. Christine very rarely got anger, so it was a shock to Dana to see her friend like this.
“Christine, I don’t want to be mean, but you and Herek were only together for a month. He’s been with Tanya for half a year.” Christine looked over at Herek.
“He has more to gain from being with her,” Christine whispered. Dana’s spoon froze midway to her mouth. She placed carefully back in the soup bowl.
“Christine, you aren’t suggesting…” Dana’s voice trailed off as she looked into Christine’s eyes. Her friend was doing more than suggesting; she believed with every fiber of her body that Herek was seducing Tanya in order to rest the crown of Eroshia from her hands.
“That’s ridiculous,” Dana said, trying to laugh it off. Christine didn’t join in and soon Dana’s laugh trailed off. She cleared her throat and sipped a little of her red wine. When she felt confident that her voice wouldn’t come out as a croak, she said, “Herek’s too dumb to think of something like that.”
“And I thought he was in love with me which made it all the more devastating when he blew me off,” Christine replied with a small shrug. Dana ate a little soup and mulled over what Christine had said. She had never thought Herek was capable of a coherent thought let alone a scheme to win the heart of the heir to the crown and then her crown. Dana looked up at the head of the table, but her eyes fell on Kepi rather than Herek. Her head was tilted ever so slightly in Darvin’s direction as she listened to his whispered words. Her lips twisted as she hid a smile. If anyone could find out what was going on behind the scenes of that too perfect couple, Kepi could. She was a master at uncovering dirty little secrets.
“Excuse me?” Dana looked around. Perched in the chair next to her was a pretty girl with tawny ringlets and round honey-brown eyes. Dana didn’t recognize the face. She glanced at Christine. The slightest shake of her head indicated that Christine didn’t recognize her either. “Are you one of the Queen’s Ladies?”
“Yes,” Dana said, her lips finding their natural position in a small smile. “I’m Dana Serasesian.” The girl blushed.
“I’m Violet Baltow,” the girl said quietly.
“Nice to meet you, Violet,” Dana said. The girl’s blush deepened. Dana recognized the family name. The Baltows were a small family from the southern reaches of Eroshia. They hadn’t been at court for eight years, the longest period of time that a family had been away. In most cases this would have been interpreted as snubbing of the queen, but the Baltows had a very legitimate reason for staying away from court.
“Nice to meet you too,” Violet said. “This is my first time at court.” Her voice held a reverent note as her big eyes drank in everything around her.
“I remember my first time,” Dana said. “I was so nervous I could barely speak.” Violet laughed.
“It’s true,” Christine piped up. “She was so petrified she almost forgot to curtsy when she saw the queen.”
“You did?” Violet gasped.
“Yes,” Dana admitted. “My sister had to elbow me. I almost fell over.” Violet laughed again.
“She tries to blot that memory from her mind, but I always find a way to bring it up,” Christine said.
“You weren’t even there,” Dana said.
“I know, Kepi told me everything in great detail.”
“Kepi?” Violet asked.
“My twin sister,” Dana replied.
“She’s the Captain of the Queen’s Elite.” Violet’s eyes grew even larger from awe.
“Yes, she is.” Violet didn’t seem at all repulsed by the idea of a noble being the Captain of the Queen’s Elite. “Are you interested in being a Queen’s Lady?” Dana asked. The small girl was growing on her. She seemed so open and innocent, above all the turmoil of court. She was a breath of fresh air, but a small part of Dana felt sorry for her, the part that knew court would tear her to shreds if somebody didn’t watch her back.
“Y-yes,” Violet stuttered, blush creeping up her cheeks. Dana smiled conspiratorially.
“I think that can be arranged.” Violet’s mouth fell open as she stared at Dana. Christine smirked. Before the younger girl could catch her breath, the servants swept forward as if from nowhere and replaced the soup with steaming fish.
“Thank you,” Dana said once again to her servant. She was the same one from before and just like before she simply curtsied and returned to her station along the wall.
“You can do that?” Violet had finally wrapped her head around Dana’s words.
“Dana can do anything once she puts her mind to it,” Christine said with a knowing smile.
“Did you hear what she said to General Hammond?” Dana’s head snapped up and she stared across the table. Lord Archibald and his son, Braymer, sat across from her. Dana could put a name to their faces because she had been raised that way. Forgetting a fellow nobles name was a sin in her mother’s opinion. Lord Archibald had been the one who had spoken. Dana’s hand tightened around her knife. News of what had happened at the Council meeting had traveled fast. Her sister had once again managed to insult one of the most powerful people at court. It was unlike Kepi to go a day without infuriating someone.
“‘Adulterous womanizer’ were the words she used, I believe,” Braymer replied, as stiff and formal as his father. Christine shifted uncomfortably in her seat. Dana’s fingernails were digging rivets in her palm as she strangled her knife.
“She’s out of control,” Archibald muttered. “She has no respect for her betters. Hammond was right; the Queen’s Elite should be cut.” Christine laid a gentle hand on Dana’s arm.
“Relax,” she whispered. “There’s nothing you can do. They will always talk, always.” Dana gritted her teeth. She wished she could protect Kepi, but she couldn’t. The rest of the meal passed at an excruciatingly slow pace. Even Violet’s sweet questions couldn’t raise Dana’s spirits.
At long last the empty desert plates were removed. The queen rose first and the guests followed suite. Dana led Christine and Violet through the crowd, into the dance hall, and to an open space by the refreshments table.
“Court is everything I dreamed it would be,” Violet said. She balanced on her toes to look over the heads of the crowd. Her little hands were cupped under in chin as she gaped around her. Christine laughed as she took a sip of wine. It was a soft laugh with a cruel edge to it that made Dana shiver. “Will anyone ask you to dance?” Violet looked between the older girls.
“Hopefully,” Christine said, swirling her glass between her long fingers. Dana looked through the crowd. The queen was speaking with Lady Rosalind of Farpeak. Kepi stood at the queen’s shoulder, her eyes flickering around the room. Dana could tell from the tense set of her jaw that she was ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice.
“I’ll be back in a moment,” Dana said, cutting off Violet in midsentence. She slipped away before either girl could speak. Quickly, she made her way through the crowd. Most of the nobles present were gathered in small clumps, but quite a few occupied the dance floor. Dana slid through the throng of people and walked up behind her sister. Kepi turned when she was still a few feet away. A smile broke through her rigid expression. Dana hurried to her side and wrapped an arm around her waste. She almost never spoke to her sister when she was on duty, but she couldn’t resist it today.
Kepi, still smiling, wrapped an arm around her shoulders. Even so, there was rigidness to the way she stood and her eyes searched the surrounding crowd.
“I heard about your little confrontation,” Dana said. The twins were of a height and Dana could whisper in Kepi’s ear without standing on her tiptoes. Kepi sighed, but it sounded more like a growl to Dana.
“I hadn’t meant to say those things,” she murmured. Her eyes were fixed on the queen’s back now.
“He’s an ignorant fool,” Dana said simply. Kepi gave a short laugh.
“That he is.” The queen was wrapping up her conversation with Lady Rosalind. “I have to go.” Regret spoke through Kepi’s words. Dana nodded.
“I’ll see you later tonight?” Kepi shook her head.
“I promised Jace and Kellra I’d go out with them tonight.” The queen started away through the crowd. “I have to go.” Kepi left Dana and hurried after the queen. Dana stood alone in the middle of the crowded room, staring after her sister. At last she turned and hurried through the crowd.
“Dana.” She turned quickly at the sound of her name. A tall man peeled away from a group of laughing lords and ladies, all of who were about Dana’s age. He hurried over to her. His golden brown hair spiked up randomly and his brown eyes smiled down at her.
“Kendrick.” Dana smiled up at him. The amount of times she saw Christine’s older brothers were too few and too far between. “How are you? I haven’t seen you since the last summer ball.”
“Yes, I was with my father. He took me down to Oria.”
“Christine mentioned that. What were you doing down south?” Dana had never been to Oria, but she had always dreamed of someday going. It was the biggest city in the south and sat at a cultural crossroads, according to the history books she had read.
“My father bought out the local blacksmiths in Oria. He wanted me to get the lay of the land down there. He says he might make me the business owner of the Oria branch.” Kendrick beamed with pride.
“That’s wonderful, Kendrick,” Dana said, putting a hand on his arm. “I know how much you’ve wanted that.”
“Thank you,” Kendrick said. He hesitated slightly and glanced around. “Would…would you like to dance?”
“I’d love to,” Dana said. Kendrick led her out onto the floor. Her heart fluttered slightly, causing a goofy smile to spread over her face. She quickly wiped the smile away. No good ever came of looking love struck.
The music started up and Kendrick led her along. The steps came naturally and Dana didn’t even have to think of where to put her feet.
“How’s your sister?” Kendrick asked. All fluttery feelings were crushed in an instant. It didn’t matter that Kendrick had gotten over his infatuation with Kepi a long time ago, something close to jealousy always raised its ugly head when Kendrick mentioned her twin.
“She’s fine,” Dana said with a toss of her head. She could never figure out why she felt this way. She didn’t like Kendrick in that way, did she? She wished she could talk to someone about this, but the only two people she would talk to were Christine and Kepi. Talking to Christine about this would just be awkward and Kepi wasn’t exactly going out of her way to find quality time with Dana.
“I’m glad,” Kendrick said. “She wasn’t doing well the last time I saw her.” The last time Kendrick had seen Kepi had been at the summer ball. He had witnessed first hand a Serasesian style mother-daughter argument. Thankfully, said argument had not been held in front of the entire guest list. Kendrick had only stumbled upon it because Dana had been taking him to the library via one of the back hallways. She had never seen Kepi and their mother in such a state. They had been screaming at each other and from the color of their cheeks and the hoarseness of their voices they must have been going at it for sometime. Kendrick had never seen either of them raise their voices. Dana had been surprised he hadn’t gone into shock. Even she had been surprised. Kepi and her mother hadn’t spoken since that fight and Dana still didn’t know what it was about.
“Thank you for you’re concern, but she’s truly doing fine now,” Dana said. Kendrick nodded.
“And how are you?” he asked. Dana’s natural instinct was to respond with a casual ‘fine’, but she didn’t.
“I don’t know,” she said with a small sigh. “So much has been going on and Kepi isn’t talking to me.”
“I thought you said she’s fine.” Kendrick lifted her into the air and spun around before setting her on her feet again.
“She is,” Dana insisted. She flowed naturally from one step to the other even as the dance picked up speed. “We’re just not spending as much time together as we used.”
“Well, she must be busy what with being Captain and all.” Kendrick, ever the rational one. Sometimes Dana liked that in him, but not right now.
“I know that, but she used to make time to see me so we could talk about our days.” Dana hadn’t meant to sound so spoiled and bratty, but she missed her sister and their ridiculous conversations. Kendrick smiled down at her and pushed a lock of hair that had escaped her up do behind her ear.
“I understand. I missed Christine, though her excuse was that we were on other sides of the country.” Dana laughed in spite of herself. “Maybe she needs more time.”
“She’s had six months, Kendrick. And besides she spends time with her Elite friends, but not with me. I’m her sister, her twin.” For some reason being with Kendrick made her want to admit everything that was going wrong in her life. Maybe it was the understanding smile that made her feel safe to tell him everything. “She hasn’t talked to me about what happened. We talk about everything, why not this?”
“Dana, maybe you should make time to talk to her. Tell her how you feel and go from there,” Kendrick suggested. Dana sighed.
“I guess.” The music trailed to a stop. Kendrick and Dana bowed to each other and walked off the dance floor. Dana’s mind was still on their conversation as Kendrick led her over to the refreshments table. She would make time to talk to Kepi. She’d hunt her down and make her talk about this. But what if she doesn’t what to talk, a nagging thought asked. I’ll make her, Dana insisted. She’s my sister; she has to open up to me.
Kendrick handed her a glass of wine. Dana sipped it slowly and stared around the room. Her sister stood on the far end of the room with the queen. Their heads were bowed and they were whispering to each other in a conspiratorial way. Dana sighed, but it sounded more scathing than anything else. Kendrick followed her gaze to Kepi and the queen.
“I heard a lot of rumors about her when I returned, none of them good.” Dana grunted. There had been more rumors about Kepi in the last six months than there had been about Dana in sixteen years. “She might be young and she might be identifying with the common class more than the class she was born to, but she’s won the trust of the queen and the trust of the Elite. She’s a natural born leader.” Usually whenever her sister was praised, she swelled with pride, but this praising came from Kendrick and for some that caused anger to rise inside of her.
“Yes, she is,” Dana murmured, tapping her glass against her lip. She was saved from saying more by the sudden appearance of Christine with Violet close on her heels.
“Hello, big brother,” Christine said as she wrapped her arms around Kendrick’s waist.
“Christine.” Kendrick grinned down at her. “You look beautiful.” Christine giggled and twirled to show off her dress from every angle.
“I’ve always wished I could wear that color,” Dana sighed, momentarily forgetting Kepi. The pale blue silk accented Christine’s sun kissed skin and her golden blonde hair. The color would have washed away the little color Dana had, but she still wished she could wear pale colors instead of her usual ensemble of dark blues and greens.
“Dana,” Christine said flatly, “you look spectacular.” Violet’s head bobbed up and down.
“You do,” she said. “You really do.” Dana blushed under the praise.
“Thanks,” she said, bashfully placing a hand on her warm cheek.
“I’m sorry,” Kendrick said to Violet. “I don’t believe we’ve met.” Violet blushed.
“I’m Violet Baltow,” she whispered. Kendrick smiled, stepped forward, and bowed over her hand.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lady Violet. I’m Kendrick Orlow.” Violet giggled.
“It’s just Violet,” she said. Dana stepped forward.
“This is her first time at court. Christine and I are showing her the lay of the land.” Kendrick smiled as he straightened up.
“Believe me, Violet, you’ve fallen in with the right crowd.” Violet laughed.
“I know.” Kendrick smiled.
“You’ll have to excuse me, but my father wants to introduce me to the Farpeak family,” Kendrick said. “I’ll see you soon.” He glanced at Dana who blushed. She watched him walk away through the crowd.
“Who are the Farpeaks?” Violet asked, hesitation evident in her voice. Christine made a face.
“They’re new at court, only just arrived,” she said before rounding on Dana. “Is the queen really considering making Vivienne a Queen’s Lady?” Violet looked between Christine and Dana. Anger shone on Christine’s face. She wasn’t a Queen’s Lady, though she had always dreamed of being. She was one of Tanya’s Ladies. Christine hated Tanya more passionately than Dana had ever thought possible from anyone other than Kepi. Tanya knew that Christine had once dated Herek and she went out of her way to make Christine’s life miserable. Dana had already tried to work her magic for Christine, but Tanya insisted that she remain on her staff.
“I’m not sure,” Dana began. “The Farpeak family grew wealthy because they own the gold mines in the Farpeak Mountains. They have brought quite a bit of wealth to kingdom’s treasury. It would only be fitting that their daughter be assigned as a Queen’s Lady, something of a repayment.” Christine looked on the verge of spitting. Violet took a small step away from her. “But,” Dana said quickly before Christine could explode, “the queen may simply elect Lord Sadron to the Council as advisor of the treasury.” Christine shook her head.
“No, Rosalind will push for her pompous lout of a daughter to become a Queen’s Lady.” Thereby ruining my chances of ever being a Queen’s Lady. She didn’t speak that part aloud, but Dana could tell that was what she was thinking.
“I could talk to Kepi, see if I can’t figure out what the queen is planning to do.” Christine smiled.
“You would do that?”
“Of course, I would.” Dana laughed and drank the last of her wine.
“Your sister must be very close with the queen,” Violet said. Dana glanced at her.
“She is.” Christine was the one who spoke up. “Though Dana is too. She talked to the queen about table arrangements to make sure we sat together.”
“You did?” Violet’s eyes grew even wider. “You made sure we would sit together.” Christine opened her mouth, but Dana cut her off.
“Yes,” she said with a smile. “The queen had mentioned there would be a few newcomers at court and I offered to sit with one, to help her get acquainted with court.” Christine closed her mouth and smiled into her glass.
“Th-that was so nice of you,” Violet stuttered. Dana thought for a second tears might well up in her eyes. Thankfully her eyes remained dry. Dana shrugged.
“Well, it was a good thing I liked you, or I would have had to drop you off with Regina.” Christine snorted.
“That would have been a cruel punishment even for someone you disliked.” Dana and Christine burst out laughing. Violet didn’t join in.
“Um, who’s Regina?” Dana and Christine sobered immediately.
“Do you see the girl with the blonde hair in the pale gold dress?” Christine asked, nodding across to the girl. She stood at the center of a pack of ladies. All eyes in the group were on her as she tossed her golden hair over her shoulder.
“Yes,” Violet said.
“That’s Regina,” Dana said. “She’s as manipulative as she is vain.”
“You would have left me with her?” she squeaked.
“Only if we didn’t like you,” Dana said quickly.
“And we would have disliked if you were anything like those girls drooling at her feet,” Christine added. They all looked over at the pack.
“Oh,” Violet said. “Well, thank you for liking me.” Dana laughed.
“It’s our pleasure,” she said, hooking her arm with Violet’s. “Now, I believe we have gotten all we could out of this party. Shall we retire to my room?”
“We shall,” Violet said, matching Dana’s high-class voice.
“Count me in,” Christine said. She hooked her arm with Violet’s other one and they left the ballroom.

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