Main Fairest (Levana's Story; The Lunar Chronicles #3.5)
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I found this to be a must read if you are into this series. Love her or hate her, Levana is a compelling character, and I enjoyed learning her back story.
28 September 2021 (04:34)
The author and publisher have provided this e-book to you for your personal use only. You may not make this e-book publicly available in any way. Copyright infringement is against the law. If you believe the copy of this e-book you are reading infringes on the author’s copyright, please notify the publisher at: us.macmillanusa.com/piracy. This book is for the readers. The Lunartics. The fans. Thank you for taking this journey with me. Contents Title Page Copyright Notice Dedication Epigraph Begin Reading Acknowledgments Teaser Copyright Mirror, mirror, on the wall. Who is the Fairest of them all? She was lying on a burning pyre, hot coals beneath her back. White sparks floated in her vision but the mercy of unconsciousness wouldn’t come. Her throat was hoarse from screaming. The smell of her own burning flesh invaded her nostrils. Smoke stung her eyes. Blisters burbled across her skin, and entire swaths of flesh peeled away, revealing raw tissue underneath. The pain was relentless, the agony never ending. She pleaded for death, but it never came. She reached out with her good hand, trying to drag her body from the fire, but the bed of coals crushed and collapsed under her weight, burying her, dragging her deeper into the embers and the smoke. Through the haze she caught a glimpse of kind eyes. A warm smile. A finger curled toward her. Come here, baby sister … Levana gasped and jolted upward, limbs tangled in heavy blankets. Her sheets were damp and cold from her sweat, but her skin was still burning hot from the dream. Her throat felt scratched raw. She struggled to swallow, but her saliva tasted like smoke and made her cringe. She sat in the faint morning light shuddering, trying to will away the nightmare. The same nightmare that had plagued her for too many years, that she could never seem to escape. She rubbed her hands repeatedly over her arms and sides until she was certain the fire wasn’t real. She was not burning alive. She was safe and alone in her chambers. Wi; th a trembling breath, she scooted to the other side of the mattress, away from the sweat-stained sheets, and lay back down. Afraid to close her eyes, she stared up at the canopy and practiced her slow breathing until her heartbeat steadied. She tried to distract herself by planning who she would be that day. A thousand possibilities floated before her. She would be beautiful, but there were many types of beauty. Skin tone, hair texture, the shape of one’s eyes, the length of a neck, a well-placed freckle, a certain grace in the way one walked. Levana knew a great deal about beauty, just as she knew a great deal about ugliness. Then she remembered that today was the funeral. She groaned at the thought. How exhausting it would be to hold a glamour all day long, in front of so many. She didn’t want to go, but she would have no choice. It was an inconvenient day for her focus to be shaken by nightmares. Perhaps it would be best to choose something familiar. As the dream receded into her subconscious, Levana toyed with the idea of being her mother that day. Not as Queen Jannali had been when she died, but perhaps as a fifteen-year-old version of her. It would be a sort of homage to attend the funeral wearing her mother’s cheekbones and the vivid violet eyes that everyone knew were glamour-made, though no one would have dared say so aloud. She spent a few minutes imagining what her mother might have looked like at her age, and she let the glamour settle over her. Moon-blonde hair sleekly pulled into a low knot. Skin as pale as a sheet of ice. A little shorter than she would become full grown. Pale pink lips, so as not to detract from the vibrancy of those eyes. It calmed her, sinking into the glamour. But no sooner had she tested the look than she felt the wrongness of it. She did not want to go to her parents’ funeral in the garb of a girl-now-dead. A tap fluttered at the door, interrupting her thoughts. Levana sighed, and quickly fell into another costume that she’d dreamed up days before. Olive skin, a graceful slope to her nose, and raven-black hair cut adorably short. She shifted through a few eye colors before landing on a striking gray-blue, topped off with smoldering black lashes. Before she could second-guess herself, she embedded a silver jewel into the flesh beneath her right eye. A teardrop. To prove that she was in mourning. “Come in,” she called, opening her eyes. A servant entered carrying a breakfast tray. The girl curtsied in the doorway, not lifting her gaze from the floor—which rendered Levana’s glamour unnecessary—before approaching the bed. “Good morning, Your Highness.” Sitting up, Levana allowed the servant to set the tray across her lap and tuck a cloth napkin around her. The servant poured jasmine tea into a hand-painted porcelain cup that had been imported from Earth several generations ago, and garnished it with two small mint leaves and a drizzle of honey. Levana said nothing as the servant uncovered a tray of tiny cream-filled pastries, so that Levana could see what they looked like whole, before using a silver knife to saw them into even tinier bite-size pieces. While the servant worked, Levana eyed the dish of bright-colored fruits: a soft-fuzzed peach set into a halo of black and red berries, all dusted with powdered sugar. “Is there anything else I can bring for you, Your Highness?” “No, that will be all. But send the other one up in twenty minutes to prepare my mourning dress.” “Of course, Your Highness,” she answered, although they both knew there was no other one. Every servant in the palace was the other one. It didn’t matter to Levana who the girl sent up, so long as whoever it was could properly stitch her into the sleek gray gown the seamstress had delivered the day before. Levana didn’t want to bother with glamouring her dress today in addition to her face, not with so many other thoughts in her head. With another curtsy, the servant ducked out of the room, leaving Levana to stare down at her breakfast tray. Only now did she realize how very un-hungry she was. There was an ache in her stomach, perhaps left over from the horrible dream. Or she supposed it could have been sadness, but that was doubtful. She felt no great loss at the death of her parents, who had been gone now for half the long day. Eight artificial nights. Their deaths were terribly gory. They were assassinated by a shell who used his invincibility against the Lunar gift to sneak into the palace. The man had shot two royal guards in the head before making his way to her parents’ bedroom on the third floor, killing three more guards, and slitting her mother’s throat so deeply the knife severed part of her spine. He had then gone down the hallway to where her father was lying with one of his mistresses and stabbed him sixteen times in the chest. The mistress was still screaming, blood spurts across her face, when two royal guards found them. The shell murderer was still stabbing. Levana had not seen the bodies, but she had seen the bedrooms the next morning, and her first thought was that all that blood would make for a very pretty rouge on her lips. She knew it was not the proper thing to think, but she also did not think her parents would have thought anything better had it been her murdered instead of them. Levana had managed to eat three-quarters of a pastry and five small berries when her bedroom door opened again. She was immediately angry at the intrusion—the servant was early. Only on the heels of her annoyance did she check that her glamour was still in place. This, she knew, was the wrong order of concern. But it was her sister, not one of the faceless servants, who swept into her bedroom. “Channary!” Levana barked, pushing the tray away from her. The tea slopped over the sides of the cup, pooling in the saucer beneath. “I have not given you permission to enter.” “Then perhaps you should lock your door,” said Channary, sliding like an eel across the carpet. “There are murderers about, you know.” She said it with a smile, wholly unconcerned. And why shouldn’t she be? The murderer had been promptly executed when the guards found him, bloodied knife still in hand. Not that Levana didn’t think there could be more shells out there, angry enough and crazy enough to attempt another attack. Channary was a fool if she thought otherwise. Which was part of the problem. Channary was simply a fool. She was a beautiful fool, though, which was the worst kind. Her sister had lovely tanned skin and dark chestnut hair and eyes that tilted up just right at the corners so that she looked like she was smiling even when she wasn’t. Levana was convinced that her sister’s beauty was glamour-made, certain that no one as horrible on the inside could be so lovely on the outside, but Channary would never confess one way or the other. If there was a chink in her illusion of beauty, Levana had yet to find it. The stupid girl wasn’t even bothered by mirrors. Channary was already dressed for the funeral, though the dull gray color of the fabric was the only indication that it was made for mourning. The netted skirt jutted out nearly perpendicular to her thighs, like a dancer’s costume, and the body-hugging top was inset with thousands of silver sparkles. Her arms were painted with wide gray stripes spiraling up each limb, then coming together to form a heart on her chest. Inside the heart, someone had scrawled, You will be missed. Altogether, the look made Levana want to gag. “What do you want?” asked Levana, swinging her legs out from beneath the blankets. “To see that you won’t be embarrassing me by your appearance today.” Reaching forward, Channary tugged at the flesh beneath Levana’s eye, an experiment to see if the embedded gemstone would hold. Flinching, Levana knocked her hand away. Channary smirked. “Thoughtful touch.” “Less fraudulent than claiming you’re going to miss them,” said Levana, glaring at the painted heart. “Fraudulent? To the contrary. I shall miss them a great deal. Especially the parties that Father used to throw during the full Earth. And being able to borrow Mother’s dresses when I was going shopping in AR-4.” She hesitated. “Though I suppose now I can simply take her seamstress as my own, so perhaps that is no great loss after all.” With a giggle, she sat down on the edge of the bed and snatched a berry from the breakfast tray, popping it onto her tongue. “You should be prepared to say a few words at the funeral today.” “Me?” It was an appalling idea. Everyone would be watching her, judging just how sad she was. She didn’t think she could fake it well enough. “You’re their daughter too. And—” Suddenly, inexplicably choked up, Channary dabbed at the corner of her eye. “I don’t think I’m strong enough to do it all on my own. I’ll be overwhelmed by grief. Perhaps I will faint and require a guard to carry me to someplace dark and quiet to recover.” She snorted, all signs of sadness vanishing as quickly as they had come. “That’s an intriguing idea. Perhaps I can stage it to happen next to that new young one with the curly hair. He seems quite … obliging.” Levana scowled. “You’re going to leave me alone to guide the entire kingdom in mourning, so that you can frolic with one of the guards?” “Oh, stop it,” said Channary, covering her ears. “You’re so annoying when you whine.” “You’re going to be queen, Channary. You’re going to have to make speeches and important decisions that will affect everyone on Luna. Don’t you think it’s time you took that seriously?” Laughing, Channary sucked at the grains of sugar left on her fingertips. “Like our parents took it so seriously?” “Our parents are dead. Killed by a citizen who must not have thought they were doing a very good job.” Channary waved her hand through the air. “Being queen is a right, little sister. A right that comes with an endless supply of men and servants and beautiful dresses. Let the court and the thaumaturges deal with all the boring details. As for me, I am going to be known throughout history as the queen who never stopped laughing.” Tossing her hair off her shoulder, she surveyed the bedroom, its gold-papered walls and hand-embroidered draperies. “Why aren’t there any mirrors in here? I want to see how beautiful I look for my tear-filled performance.” Crawling from the bed, Levana pulled on a robe that had been laid out on the sitting chair. “You know very well why there aren’t any mirrors.” To which Channary’s grin widened. She hopped up from the bed as well. “Oh, yes, that’s right. Your glamours are so becoming these days I’d almost forgotten.” Then, quick as a viper, Channary backhanded Levana across the face, sending her stumbling into one of the bedposts. Levana cried out, the shock causing her to lose control of her glamour. “Ah, there’s my ugly duckling,” Channary cooed. Stepping closer, she grabbed Levana’s chin, squeezing tight before Levana could raise her hand to soothe her already-flaming cheek. “I suggest you remember this the next time you think to contradict one of my orders. As you have so kindly reminded me, I am going to be queen, and I will not tolerate my commands being questioned, especially by my pathetic little sister. You will be speaking for me at the funeral.” Turning away, Levana blinked back the tears that had sprung up and scrambled to reinstate her illusion. To hide her disfigurements. To pretend that she was beautiful too. Spotting movement in the corner of her eye, she saw a maid frozen in the doorway. Channary hadn’t closed it upon entering, and Levana was quite certain the maid had seen everything. Smartly, the servant lowered her gaze and curtsied. Releasing Levana’s chin, Channary stepped back. “Put on your mourning dress, little sister,” she said, once again wearing her pretty smile. “We have a very big day ahead of us.” * * * The great hall was filled with grays. Gray hair, gray makeup, gray gloves, gray gowns, gray stockings. Charcoal jackets and heather sleeves, snowdrop shoes and stormy top hats. Despite the drab color palette, though, the funeral guests looked anything but mournful. For in those grays were gowns made of floating ribbons and sculpted jewelry and frosted flowers that grew like tiny gardens from bountiful poufed hair. Levana could imagine that the Artemisian seamstresses had been kept very, very busy since the assassination. Her own dress was adequate. A floor-length gown made of gray-on-gray damask velvet and a high lace neckline that, she guessed, looked lovely with the cropped black hair of her glamour. It was nothing as showy as Channary’s tutu, but at least she maintained a bit of dignity. On a dais at the front of the room, a holograph was showing the deceased king and queen as they had once looked in their summery youth. Her mother in her wedding gown—barely older then than Levana was now. Her father seated upon his throne, broad shouldered and square jawed. They were artist-rendered portraits, of course—recordings of the royal family were strictly prohibited—but the artist had captured their glamours almost perfectly. Her father’s steely gaze, the graceful way her mother fluttered her fingers when she waved. Levana stood beside Channary on the dais, accepting kisses on her hands and the condolences of Artemisia’s families as they filtered past. Levana’s stomach was in knots, knowing that Channary planned on shirking her duties as eldest and forcing her to give the speech. Though she had been practicing for years, Levana still had the irrational fear every time she addressed an audience that she would lose control of her glamour and they would see her as she truly was. The rumors were bad enough. Whispers that the young princess was not at all beautiful, had in fact been grotesquely disfigured by some tragic accident in her childhood. That it was a mercy no one would ever have to look on her. That they were all lucky she was as skilled at her glamour as she was, so they wouldn’t have to tolerate such ugliness in their precious court. She bowed her head, thanking a woman for her lie about how very honorable her parents had been, when her attention caught on a man still a few persons back in the line. Her heart tripped over itself. Her movements became automatic—nod, hold out your hand, mumble thank you—while all the world receded into a blur of grays. Sir Evret Hayle had become a royal guard in her father’s personal entourage when Levana was just eight years old, and she had loved him ever since, despite knowing that he was nearly ten years her senior. His skin was ebony dark, his eyes full of intelligence and cunning when he was on duty, and mirth when he was relaxed. She had once caught flecks of gray and emerald in his irises, and ever since was mesmerized by his eyes, hoping to be close enough one day to witness those flecks again. His hair was a mess of tightly coiled locks, long enough to seem unruly, short enough to be refined. Levana didn’t think she’d ever seen him outside of his guard uniform, which very precisely indicated every muscle in his arms and shoulders—until today. He was wearing simple gray pants and a tunic-style shirt that was almost too relaxed for a royal funeral. He wore them like a prince. For seven years she had known him to be the most handsome man in the entire Lunar court. In the city of Artemisia. On all of Luna. She had known it even before she was old enough to understand why her heart pounded so strongly when he was near. And now he was coming closer. Only four people dividing them. Three. Two. Hand beginning to tremble, Levana stood a little straighter and adjusted her glamour so that her eyes were a little brighter and the jewel in her skin glittered like an actual tear. She made herself a bit taller too—closer to Evret’s height, though still small enough to seem vulnerable and in need of protection. It had been many months since she had reason to stand so near to him, and here he was, coming to her, with sympathy in his eyes. There were those flecks of gray and emerald, not a figment of her imagination after all. He was not playing the role of guard, for once, but of a mourning Lunar citizen. He was taking her hand and raising it to his mouth, though the kiss landed in the air above her knuckles. Her pulse was an ocean in her ears. “Your Highness,” he said, and hearing his voice was almost as rare a treasure as seeing the flecks in his eyes. “I am so sorry for your loss. The sorrow belongs to us all, but I know you bear the weight more than anyone.” She tried to store his words away in the back of her mind, for retrieval and analysis at a moment when he was not holding her hand or peering into her soul. I know you bear the weight more than anyone. Although he appeared honest, Levana didn’t think he was overly fond of the king and queen. Perhaps his grief was because he’d not been on duty when the murders happened, so he couldn’t have done anything to stop them. Levana sensed that he was exceptionally proud of his place on the royal guard. For her part, though, she was grateful that Evret hadn’t been there. That some other guards had been killed instead. “Thank you,” she breathed. “Your kindness makes this day easier to bear, Sir Hayle.” They were the same words she had said to countless other guests that day. Wishing she were clever enough to come up with something truly meaningful, she added, “I trust you know that you were a great favorite of my father’s.” She had no idea whether it was true, but seeing Evret’s eyes soften made it as true as she cared for it to be. “I will continue to faithfully serve your family as long as I am able.” The proper words exchanged, he released her hand. Her skin tingled as she let it fall back to her side. But rather than move on to offer condolences to Channary, Evret turned back and gestured to a woman beside him. “Your Highness, I do not believe you have ever met my wife. Her Royal Highness, Princess Levana Blackburn, this is Solstice Hayle. Sol, this is Her most charming Highness, Princess Levana.” Something shriveled up inside Levana, turning hard and sharp in her gut, but she forced herself to smile and offer her hand as Solstice curtsied and kissed her fingers and said something that Levana didn’t hear. She knew that Evret had taken a wife some years ago, but she had given this fact little consideration. After all, her parents were married, but that had seemed to create no great affection between them, and what was a wife in a world in which mistresses were as common as servants, and monogamy as rare as an Earthen eclipse? But now, meeting Evret’s wife for the first time, she noticed three things in quick succession that made her reconsider every thought she’d had about this woman’s existence. First, that she was profoundly beautiful, but not in a glamoured sort of way. She had a cheerful, heart-shaped face, elegantly arched eyebrows, and honey-toned skin. She wore her hair loose for the occasion and it fell nearly to her waist in thick, dark strands that held just a bit of a curl. Second, that Evret looked at her with a gentleness that Levana had never before seen in a man’s eyes, and that look sparked a yearning in her so strong it felt like agony. Third, that Evret’s wife was very, very pregnant. This, Levana had not known. “It is lovely to meet you,” Levana heard herself saying, though she didn’t catch Solstice’s response. “Sol is a seamstress in AR-4,” Evret said with pride in his voice. “She was commissioned to embroider some of the gowns worn today, even.” “Oh. Yes, I … I seem to recall my sister mentioning a seamstress in town who was becoming quite popular…” Levana trailed off as Solstice’s entire face brightened, and the look only further solidified her own hatred. Levana remembered nothing more from their brief conversation, until Evret placed his hand on his wife’s back. The gesture seemed protective, and only as they continued on did Levana notice a fragility to Solstice that had at first been hidden by her beauty. She seemed a delicate creature, exhausted from the funeral or her pregnancy or both. Evret looked concerned as he whispered something to his wife, but Levana couldn’t hear him, and Solstice was batting his attention away by the time they’d reached Channary. Levana turned back to the receiving line. Another mourner, another well-wisher, another liar. Lies, all lies. Levana became a recording—nod, hold out your hand, mumble thank you—as the line stretched on and on. As her sister became less and less interested in pretending sadness and her giggles and flirtations tinkled shrilly above the low-voiced mutterings of the crowd, as the holograph of her parents accepted their wedding vows. Monogamy. Faithfulness. True love. She did not think she had ever witnessed it, not beside the fairy tales she’d been told as a child and the fanciful dramas sometimes acted out for the court’s entertainment. But to be so cherished—what a dream that must be. To have a man look upon you with such adoration. To feel the press of fingers on your back, a silent message to all who saw that you are his and he—he must be yours … When a woman with gray antlers on her head saw the tears beginning to glisten in Levana’s eyes, she nodded understandingly and handed her a crisp gray handkerchief. * * * Levana convinced herself that it was boredom that drove her out of the palace three days after the funeral, still dressed in gray for the third and final day of mourning. She told herself that she wanted something bright and beautiful to wear when the mourning period was ended and all the kingdom rejoiced as their new queen took the throne for the first time. She told herself she needed a new pair of embroidered slippers for the coronation, or perhaps a finely spun scarf for her waist. Nothing in her wardrobe would suffice for such a historic occasion. If she’d made up a story to tell to the guards at the maglev platforms, it was in vain. No one stopped her or asked where she was going. AR-4, the most popular shopping district in Artemisia, was bustling with court families and nobles and their servants, all dressed in shades of gray, all making their arrangements for tomorrow’s festivities, but no one recognized Levana, who was wearing the glamour of a dark-skinned goddess, tall and lithe, with a gracefully elongated neck and edged cheekbones. She did not bother with hair, not wanting to distract from the glamour’s perfectly sculpted head and figure. Only the silent palace guards that followed in her wake would have given away her identity, but the street was too crowded for anyone to notice them or the girl they were tracking. She paid no attention to the cobblers or the dressmakers, the milliners or the jewelers, the art galleries or the candy shoppes. She knew precisely where she was going. She counted the streets that she had seen on the holographic map that morning. Her eye caught briefly on the crescent Earth that could be seen in the black sky beyond the dome’s protective sphere, but lost sight of it as she turned the corner into a lovely little side alley. The scent of roasting coffee from a small café followed her as she trotted around the flowering window boxes and stone-carved benches that lined the alley. Though it wasn’t fully deserted, it was serene compared with the bustle of the main street. There was the shop, just where the map and directory had indicated. A simple sign hung over the doorway, showing a needle and thread, and the paned window displayed an assortment of different yarns and fabrics. As soon as she saw it, Levana realized that her stomach had knotted itself since turning into the alley. She was nervous. And over what? The wife of a palace guard? A mere seamstress? Ridiculous. She gestured for her guards to stay outside, braced herself, and pushed open the door. She found herself in a well-lit showroom. A quick scan confirmed that no shopkeeper was present, but a second door was cracked open, leading to a back room where she could hear the whir of mechanical looms. Two holographic mannequins in the corners were modeling a variety of garments—everything from lingerie to ball gowns, three-piece suits to crocheted stockings. Every piece was magnificent. It was easy to see how even this insignificant shop in a tiny alleyway in AR-4 was building such a quick reputation for itself among the families. Levana paced around the showroom. It wasn’t large, but there was a lot to see. Shelves stacked with embroidered towels, bed linens, and window draperies. Silk scarves so delicate they felt like spiderwebs. A dress form wore a corset-style bodice that appeared to have been woven entirely of fine silver thread and tiny sparkling gems—it was jewelry as much as it was clothing. Then she spotted a quilt that hung on one wall, large enough to take up almost the entire space. Levana stepped back to admire it, enchanted. Earth. And space. Pieced together from shredded fabrics of all different sizes and shapes, the edges left raw where they’d been seamed together. Shining forest greens and rough-textured desert browns, shimmering ocean blues and velvet ebony blacks, all stitched together with gold thread. Every segment of the quilt was embroidered with whimsical patterns of ivy and flowers, elaborate spiral curls and glowing starbursts, and though it seemed like it should have been chaotic and excessive, the consistency of the gold thread grounded the piece. Made it beautiful and somehow serene. Levana knew very little about quilting or embroidery, but she could tell, instinctually, that every tiny stitch had been done by hand. “Hello.” Levana gasped and checked—first—that her glamour hadn’t faded with her distraction, before turning around. Solstice Hayle stood at the door to the back room, a smile on her lips and an embroidery hoop holding a swath of white cotton in her hand. A needle had been secured in the corner of the material, dark maroon thread strung through its eye. “Can I help you?” She looked like the embodiment of kindness, in a way that made Levana instantly defensive. “Yes. I—” She hesitated, forgetting why she was there. What had possessed her to come to this shop, to see this beautiful woman and her enormous stomach and all the lovely garments she made with her own skilled fingers? She swallowed down the rising despair. Remembered that she was beautiful too, so long as her glamour held. Remembered that she was a princess. “I need something for tomorrow,” she said. “To wear to the coronation.” Solstice nodded. “Of course. I’m afraid anything constructed brand-new for the occasion would have to be rushed, which I try to avoid. But perhaps we can find something you like here in the showroom and alter it to fit your tastes.” She set aside the embroidery hoop, her hand moving to rest on her stomach as she waddled around the room. “Were you wanting a gown? Or perhaps some accessories?” After a moment’s thought, Levana answered, “Do you have any gloves?” She already had plenty, but gloves wouldn’t have to be sized. And she liked wearing gloves. They made for one less thing she had to hide with her glamour. “Oh, yes, I have a wonderful assortment of gloves.” Balancing with one hand on the edge of a wooden dresser, Solstice bent over to pull out one of the lower drawers. It was filled with women’s gloves, each neatly folded atop a layer of tissue paper. “Will you be wearing a glamour for the occasion?” Levana stiffened. “What do you mean?” Solstice glanced up in surprise, and Levana sucked in a breath, realizing that her palms were sweating. She was suddenly angry. Angry that this woman was so effortlessly pretty. Angry that tonight she would sleep beside her doting husband. That soon she would hold a wrinkled, wailing baby in her arms and that child would never question whether it was loved, or whether its parents loved each other. Nothing Levana wanted had ever come that easily. Solstice must have noticed a darkness lurking in Levana’s eyes. She stood up, her expression showing the first hints of caution. She was breathing heavier than before, as if the small motion of opening the drawer had exhausted her, and there was a bead of sweat on her upper lip. She certainly was a fragile thing, wasn’t she? And yet her gentle smile never left. “I only meant that if you’ll be using a glamour, we can pick out a color that will complement your chosen skin tone. Or … if you already know what gown you’ll be wearing, we can coordinate the two.” Trying to smother the envy that had stoked inside her chest, Levana looked down at her hands. The long, slender fingers and flawless skin that weren’t really hers. Wetting her lips, she met Solstice’s gaze again. “What would you choose for yourself?” Solstice quirked her head to one side, reminding Levana of the small birds in the palace menagerie when they heard an unfamiliar sound and mistook it for a predator. Solstice returned her attention to the drawer of gloves. “Well…,” she said uncertainly. “I’ve always been fond of jewel tones, myself.” Crouching again, she peeled back a couple layers of tissue paper and emerged with a set of silk gloves in rich sapphire blue. Though the gloves themselves were undecorated, their tops were rimmed with small gold chains and each had a tiny metal clasp. Levana guessed that they would reach almost to her shoulders. Solstice held the gloves against Levana’s wrist, showing the contrast with her dark skin. “What do you think?” Pressing her lips together, Levana ran her thumb over the gold clasps. “What are these for?” “It’s part of a new design I’ve been working on. It’s meant to be a set. See, they go with this necklace…” She led Levana to a jewelry counter lined with chains and beads and fasteners, and gestured at a gold collar. At first Levana assumed it was made of metal, but when she picked it up, she realized that it was tightly woven gold thread, intricately braided together and flexible in her grip. Two more clasps were attached to it on opposite sides. Sol continued, “I have small filigree chains that connect it to the gloves, see?” Levana did see. It was beautiful and unusual, two things that were always popular in court fashion, but not gaudy as Levana found so many of the trendy pieces to be. She trailed her fingers over the braided threads and imagined wearing it on her neck. How regal she would look. How it would accentuate her throat and collarbone, how the deep blue silk would look so stunning against her honey skin and rich brown hair. Only then did she realize that in the fantasy, she looked like Solstice Hayle. She set down the necklace, and Solstice gestured back to the dresser. “Would you like to see the other gloves?” “No,” said Levana. “I’ll take these. And the necklace too.” “Oh—wonderful! Will you … do you want to take them with you today, or did you want them to be personalized?” “Personalized?” Solstice nodded. “That’s what I specialize in—the little flourishes that, I like to think, set my shop apart from all the other seamstresses in Artemisia. If there’s a particular design you’d like embroidered on the gloves, I should be able to have them done by tomorrow morning. Some of my clients like to get their favorite flower, or their initials…” Levana glanced at the quilt of Earth that hung on the wall. “You did that, didn’t you?” “Yes, I did.” Solstice laughed, and her laughter was surprisingly giddy, like a child’s. “Although it took much longer than a single evening. Do you like it?” Levana frowned. She did like it, very much. But she didn’t want to say so. “You can embroider the gloves for me,” she said. “I want the design to be something whimsical, like you did in the quilt. Maybe something with an L in it, but nothing too obvious.” “An L? Like Luna.” Her smile was back, as warm as ever. “I’d be happy to. Shall I have it delivered in the morning?” “Yes.” Levana paused, before squaring her shoulders. “Have it delivered to the palace. Address it to Princess Levana, and I will let the stewards know that I am expecting a delivery. They will see that you receive payment.” Solstice’s smile froze, her eyes caught between surprise and panic. Levana knew the look well, the look when any of the palace servants realized they’d been in the presence of royalty and their minds skittered to recall if they’d said or done anything worth punishing. Gathering herself, Solstice gave a half curtsy, using the countertop to keep her balance. “I am sorry I didn’t recognize you, Your Highness. It is such an incredible honor to be in your service.” Heated by the knowledge of her power over this insignificant woman and her insignificant shop, bolstered by the thought that it was, indeed, an honor to serve her, Levana was tempted to demonstrate her authority. She imagined demanding that Solstice kneel to her, knowing it couldn’t be easy in her condition. Or threatening her business’s reputation should she be displeased with the gloves when they arrived. Or suggesting that Solstice give her the marvelous quilt of Earth, as a royal tithe, or a symbol of gratitude, and watching her struggle to give up something that clearly had so much value—to her, and to her livelihood. But Levana buried the fantasies before her tongue could betray her. Solstice would surely tell her husband, and then Evret Hayle would never again refer to Levana as Her most charming Highness. She gulped, hard, and forced a smile for the first time since stepping into the shop. Perhaps this was why she’d come. So that Solstice would tell her husband about the princess’s unexpected visit, and that Levana would even be wearing one of her designs to the coronation. Levana’s heart warmed to think that Evret would know what a generous princess she was. She wanted him to think about her, even if only for a moment. She wanted him to admire her. And so, she lied. “The honor will be all mine,” she said, “in wearing such an exquisite piece. I can see why Sir Hayle has sung your praises so highly.” Solstice flushed with all the joy of a woman in love, and Levana left, quickly, before her own bile could burn her throat. * * * By the next morning, on the day of Channary’s coronation, it seemed that all of Luna had been granted permission to pretend that the assassinations had never happened, that the memories of King Marrok and Queen Jannali would live on peaceably in their history texts, and that young Channary would make for a most fair and just ruler. Levana wasn’t sure how many people believed this, and no doubt those who did had never met her sister, but Channary’s right to the throne went unquestioned even by her. They were, after all, the only known heirs of the Blackburn bloodline, that distant ancestor who had been first born with the Lunar gift. Channary, as the eldest royal daughter, would be queen, as her son or daughter would rule next, and the generation after that, and the generation after that. It was how the crown had been passed on since the day Luna became a monarchy, since the day Cyprus Blackburn created his own throne. Levana would not be the one to disrupt those values now, no matter how much it irked her to know that silly, vapid Channary would spend more time batting her lashes at handsome servants than discussing the economic difficulties facing their country. But Levana was only fifteen years old, as she was so often reminded, so what did she know about it? Nothing at all, is what Channary would say, or any one of the thaumaturges who were preparing to swear fealty to her. Their bias seemed to ignore the laws, that Lunar royalty could rule as young as thirteen, with or without the advice of a council. Levana stood on the third-level balcony, staring down into the great hall where the funeral had been, where her sister had sobbed until she could hardly breathe and then fainted, or pretended to faint, and was carried away by—of all the guards—Evret Hayle, who was standing nearby when it happened. Where Levana had been left alone to blunder through an unprepared speech of lies and fake tears. The grays were gone now, replaced with the official colors of Luna—white, red, and black. An enormous tapestry hung on the wall behind the dais, depicting the Lunar insignia in shimmering, handwoven threads, a design that had originated back when Luna was a republic. It depicted Luna and the capital city of Artemisia in the foreground, with Earth—once their ally—in the distance. It was a majestic piece, but it was impossible for Levana not to think that it would have been even more stunning had it been made by the fingers of Solstice Hayle. Though countless servants were toiling away in preparation for the ceremony, and her sister was no doubt being fitted into her gown at that moment, Levana was glad for the temporary serenity in the empty hall. She had selected a simple sapphire-blue dress to match the gloves delivered to her chambers that morning. They arrived in a white box, wrapped in crisp tissue paper and accompanied by a little note from Solstice, which Levana had thrown away without reading. The gloves were even more beautiful in the daylight that poured through the palace windows, and the embroidery was more delicate and exquisite than she’d imagined. The threads began with flourishing Ls placed covertly on her palms, before curling around her forearms and past her elbows like living vines that then blended perfectly with the chains that continued on to her neck. She almost felt like a queen standing there, and she couldn’t keep away a fantasy that she was the one being crowned that day. She hadn’t yet decided on an acceptable glamour for the occasion, so in that moment, she became her sister. Twenty-two years old, mature and elegant, with those ever-smiling eyes. But no. She didn’t want to be Channary. She didn’t want her beauty, not if it came with her cruelty and selfishness as well. No sooner had she thought it than another woman flashed through her thoughts. I do not believe you have ever met my wife. Trying on the glamour of Solstice Hayle felt like something taboo and reprehensible, and strangely right in the very wrongness of it. Levana thought of her flawless complexion and the ringlets of dark hair draped over her shoulders, of her almond-shaped eyes and the way her lips had a just-kissed hint of rouge to them, though the idea that the redness was caused by a kiss was quite possibly a product of Levana’s own envy. She thought of Solstice’s thick, flirtatious eyelashes, and how she had seemed to glow with happiness, even on a day of mourning. She thought of Solstice’s stomach, plump and round with the promise of a child. Evret’s child. Levana settled a hand on her own stomach, incorporating the pregnancy into the glamour. What must that feel like, to have a living creature growing inside her? A child created by love, not political advantage or manipulation. “Levana, are you up—” Gasping, Levana spun around as Channary crested the top of the staircase. Her sister saw her and paused. “Oh, you’re not…” Channary hesitated, her eyes narrowing. It was an expression that Levana had seen a thousand times. No matter how confident she was becoming in her glamours, Channary always saw through them. She would never explain what Levana was giving away, whether it was the way she held herself or a particular expression or some other tell, like a gambler’s tick. But Channary had a special knack for discovering it. Sensing that Channary hadn’t yet made up her mind about the pregnant woman loitering on the great hall’s upper balcony, Levana dipped into a humble curtsy. “I do beg your pardon, Your Highness,” she said in her meekest voice. “I should not be up here. I was only waiting for my husband to get off duty and thought I would come to admire the decorations.” Thinking she had already said more than a real seamstress would, Levana curtsied again. “May I take my leave of you, Your Highness?” “Yes,” said Channary, still hesitant, “and don’t let me catch you up here again. This isn’t a playground for the desperately bored. If you need something useful to occupy your time while you’re”—she gestured at Levana’s stomach—“reproducing, I’m sure my lady’s maid can find something for you to do. There will be no idleness under my rule, not even for women of your condition.” “Of course, Your Highness.” Keeping her head bowed, Levana ducked around her sister and darted toward the steps. “One more thing.” She froze, a mere three steps lower than where Channary stood, and dared not meet her gaze. “You are Sir Hayle’s wife, aren’t you?” “Yes, Your Highness.” She heard a soft footstep, and another, as Channary came to stand on the step above her. Curious, Levana dared to glance upward, regretting it the moment she saw Channary’s smirk. “Do tell him how much I enjoyed our time together after the funeral,” said Channary, her voice lilting over the words like a stream bubbling over worn stones. “He was such a comfort to me, and I hope we can enjoy each other’s company again soon.” Her tongue darted through the corner of her mouth as she admired the fake pregnancy bump. “You are a very lucky woman, Mrs. Hayle.” Levana’s jaw fell, horror and indignation filling her head as quickly as hot blood rushed to her face. “You’re lying!” Channary’s insinuating look turned immediately to arrogance. “It is you!” she said, laughing delightedly. “What in the name of Luna are you doing impersonating a guard’s wife? And a pregnant one at that!” Balling her hands into fists, Levana turned and marched down the steps. “I’m only practicing!” she called over her shoulder. “Practicing your glamour?” Channary said, traipsing after her. “Or practicing for a life of eternal loneliness? You must know you’re not going to catch the eye of anyone in court by prancing around as a poor, pregnant woman. Or—oh!” Faking a gasp, Channary clapped a hand over her mouth. “Are you hoping that Sir Hayle himself sees you like this? Do you have fantasies of him mistaking you for his beloved? Swooping you into his arms, kissing you breathless, perhaps even … reenacting what led to your present condition?” Smothering her embarrassment, Levana kept a firm hold on the glamour of Solstice Hayle, in part for the principle of it. Channary thought that if she taunted Levana enough, she could control her decisions, and Levana refused to let that be true. “Stop it,” she seethed, arriving at the first landing. She rounded a carved column to continue down to the ground floor, her hand rested on her stomach like a real pregnant woman might do. “You’re only jealous because you never have any originality with your—” She froze halfway down the steps. Two guards stood at attention on the lower landing. One of them was Evret Hayle. A shudder pulsed through her, from her very empty womb up through her chest and vibrating down through her gloved fingertips. Despite all his training, Evret was failing at keeping his expression stoic and disinterested. He gaped at Levana—Solstice—and he tried so very, very hard to look professional, but it was conflicted and confused. “Solstice?” he stammered, brow furrowed as he took in the beautiful blue dress that pulled tight over her stomach, the elaborately embroidered gloves that he’d no doubt seen his wife working on the evening before. “You’re supposed to be resting. What are you doing here?” Levana gulped and wished and wished and wished that she were truly his beloved. “Oops,” said Channary. “I guess I should have told you he was down here. Completely slipped my mind.” She drifted down the steps until she was standing beside Levana and placed a hand on Levana’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, you silly man. This is my baby sister, only pretending to be your wife.” She dropped her voice into an exuberant whisper. “Between you and me, I think she might have a bit of a crush on you. Isn’t that just darling?” Levana felt a sob in the base of her throat, clawing to get out, and knew it would succeed if she stood there a moment longer. She tried to figure out what was the worst part of this moment. That Evret had seen her impersonating his wife, or that he might have heard Channary’s accusations. She decided it was all mortifying. She decided she would rather have been stabbed sixteen times in the chest than have to live through this one excruciating moment. Shoving Channary away, she hid her face—her beautiful, flawless, beloved face—and ran from the hall. Ran as fast as she could, ignoring the protective guards that hastened to keep up with her, ignoring the servants that threw themselves against walls to be out of her way. She started ripping off the gloves the second she reached her private chambers. One of the chains snapped. The hem on the other glove ripped. She unclasped the gold-braided necklace, nearly choking herself in her need to get it off. The dress was next, and she didn’t care if she shredded it. She wanted to ruin it. Soon, the gown and the gloves were wadded into a tight ball and thrust into the corner of her wardrobe, and she knew she would never put them on again. She was so stupid. Such a stupid, stupid girl. For ever thinking she could be admired. For ever thinking she could be beautiful, or adored, or noticed. For ever thinking she could be anything at all. * * * Levana attended the coronation ceremony in head-to-toe white, under the guise of a waxen-haired princess with skin so pale as to be almost invisible, her faded glamour hiding the tracks of her tears. She sat in the front row and praised her sister when the rest of the gathered Lunars praised her, and knelt when the rest of Luna knelt, and bowed her head with all the others. She refused to look at Channary, not even when the crown was placed on her head or when she took the scepter in her hand or the great white cloak was draped over her shoulders. Not when she drank the blood of her people from a golden chalice or when she cut open her fingertip and let her own blood splatter into an ornate marble bowl or when she spoke the vows that Levana knew Channary would never take to heart. She also did not look at Evret, though he was on duty and stood directly within her line of sight throughout the proceedings. Levana was a statue. A girl carved of regolith and dust. She hated her sister, now her queen. Her sister did not deserve the throne. She would squander every opportunity she had to make a great ruler. To increase the economic potential of Luna. To continue the research and technological advancements that their ancestors had begun. To make Artemisia the most beautiful and enviable city in the galaxy. Her sister did not deserve that scepter. That cloak. That crown. She deserved nothing. But she would have it all. She and Solstice Hayle and all the families of the court would have everything they ever wanted. Only Levana—too young and ugly to matter—would go on living in her sister’s shadow until she faded away and everyone forgot that she’d ever been there to begin with. * * * She turned sixteen two weeks later. The country celebrated, but on the heels of the week-long party that had come from the coronation, the birthday seemed to dissolve into just one more day of royal shenanigans. An illusionist was hired to perform at the feast, and he awed the court’s families with feats of magic and wonderment, and the partygoers were more than willing to be taken with his pretend fancies. Levana attended her own birthday celebration as the pale, invisible girl. She sat at the head table beside her beautiful sister and pretended not to notice how the illusionist turned a tablecloth into a lion and a lady’s handkerchief into a rabbit, and the crowd oohed and aahed and placed jovial bets as the lion chased the rabbit under tables and around their ankles. Then the pretend rabbit hopped up into the queen’s lap, who giggled and went to stroke the long floppy ears, and the creature vanished. The napkin, still held in the illusionist’s hand, was nothing but a napkin. The lion bowed to the queen, before he, too, disappeared. A tablecloth untouched. The crowd was in fits, applauding and laughing. No one seemed to care that every illusion had been centered before the queen, not the birthday girl. After a series of flourishing bows, the illusionist took a tapered candle from one of the tables and blew it out. The crowd fell silent. Levana sensed that she was the only person who didn’t lean forward in curiosity. He let the black smoke curl naturally for a moment, before arranging it into a pair of entangled lovers. Two naked bodies, writhing against each other. The show of debauchery received boisterous laughter from the families, and flirtatious smiles from the queen. It was easy to tell who would be warming her sister’s bed that night. For her part, Levana could feel the heat burning in her cheeks, though she hid her mortification behind the pale-faced glamour. Not that such entertainment was anything shocking, but while the illusion persisted, she could feel Evret’s presence in the room like a gravitational pull. The knowledge that he was seeing the same suggestive show, listening to the same bawdy laughter, possibly thinking of his own relations with his wife, made Levana feel as pathetic and insignificant as a crumb off her own cake. She had not spoken to Evret since he witnessed her impersonating Solstice, which was not altogether unusual—they had shared more words at the funeral than in the entire time she’d known him. But she couldn’t shake away the suspicion that he was avoiding her, perhaps as much as she was avoiding him. Levana assumed he must still be mortified, both at her glamour and at Channary’s accusations. But she couldn’t avoid a fantasy that maybe he was also flattered. Maybe he had begun to notice how his heart fluttered extra fast when he saw her. Maybe he was regretting marriage, or realizing that marriage was as silly a convention as many of the court families believed it to be, and that he loved her … he had always loved her, but now he didn’t know what to do with those emotions. It was a very complex fantasy, which frequently left her even more depressed than she’d been before. The smoke charade faded away to loud cheers, and the illusionist had not finished his bow before every candle flame on the head table exploded. Levana screamed, tipping backward so fast that her chair crashed to the floor, bringing her with it. Though the flames continued to roar above her, bright and flickering, she realized after a terrified moment that there was no heat coming from them. Neither the threatening pulse of fire nor the smell of charred flesh followed. No one else had screamed. No one else had tried to get away. Now, everyone was laughing. Trembling, Levana accepted the hand of one of the royal guards—they alone were not showing their amusement. Her chair was righted, and she settled self-consciously back onto it. The flames continued to burn, every one of them now as tall as a person, and with her terror waning, Levana was able to discern that this was just another illusion. Hovering over the table of wine goblets and half-finished plates was a line of fiery dancers, twirling and leaping from candlestick to candlestick. Channary was laughing harder than all the others. “Whatever is the matter, baby sister?” Come here, baby sister. “You can’t possibly be afraid of a silly little trick.” I want to show you something. Levana found that she couldn’t respond. Her heart was still thumping wildly, and her distrustful gaze was still fixed on the flame-dancers. Their existence, even if only a mental trick created by manipulating her own bioelectricity, made it impossible for her to relax. She could not tear her attention from them. Which was fine. She didn’t wish to see the mocking expressions around her. Hearing the laughter was bad enough. She was only grateful that she’d had enough practice with the glamour of the invisible girl that she hadn’t lost her control. “Is the princess afraid of fire?” asked the illusionist. Though he didn’t stop the illusion, the dancers did stop jumping, instead content to twirl slowly upon each candlewick. “I apologize, Your Highness. I did not know.” “Don’t worry about her,” said Channary, holding a hand toward one of the dancers. “We cannot let her childish fears ruin our fun.” “Ah—do be careful, Your Majesty. The fire underneath is still very real.” To prove his point, the illusionist sent the nearest dancer stepping down off her candle and into Channary’s palm, leaving the very real flame still flickering behind. Again, the crowd oohed its pleasure, and again Levana was forgotten. Don’t worry about her. It was only her birthday, after all. This was only her party. The performance ended with all of the dancers turning into old-fashioned rocket ships that blasted upward and exploded into fireworks. Once the delighted crowd had finished applauding, the dessert course was served. Levana stared down at the chocolate torte with the sugar sculpture that rose up nearly an arm’s length above her plate, a delicate series of curls and filigree. It looked as though it would shatter with a single touch. Levana did not pick up her fork. She wasn’t hungry. Her stomach was still in knots over the explosion of fire. She could feel her palms sweating beneath the glamour, and that was the sort of detail that was hard to ignore and could weaken a person’s focus. Having already embarrassed herself, she would not let these people see beneath her glamour too. “I’m going to bed,” she said, to no one in particular. If anyone had been paying attention to her, if anyone had cared, they would have heard. But no one did. She glanced at Channary, who had called the illusionist over to their table and was feeding him a forkful of chocolate. Levana wondered what the illusionist looked like beneath his glamour. He was handsome now, but beneath the surface, he could be anyone. They could all be anyone. Why couldn’t she be anyone? Why couldn’t she be the one person she wanted to be? Perhaps the trouble was that she could never quite figure out who that person was. She pushed her chair out, reveling in the loud screech of legs on the hard floor. No one looked her way. It was not until she had left the dining hall and was alone in the main corridor that someone stopped her. “Your Highness?” She turned back to see that a guard had followed her into the corridor. Well—three guards, but only two of them were assigned to follow her at a respectful distance and ensure she wasn’t threatened en route to her chambers. This third guard was familiar, but only in the way that she knew he had served beneath her parents for some years. “What is it?” He bowed. “Forgive my intrusion, Highness. My friend, Sir Evret Hayle, asked me to give you this. With joyful birthday wishes.” He produced a small box, wrapped in plain brown paper. Her heart twisted and she found that she couldn’t approach him to take the gift. “Evret Hayle?” He nodded. It’s a trick, it’s a trick, it’s a trick. Her mind repeated the warning over and over. This was something her sister had set up. Some cruel diversion. But her heart fluttered anyway. Her pulse boiled and rushed. She dared a glance through the enormous doors back into the dining hall. Evret was stationed at the far end of the hall, but he was smiling kindly at her. As she stared, he placed a fist to his heart, a respectful salute that could have meant nothing. Or could have meant everything. It was all the confirmation she needed. “Thank you,” she said, snatching the box away. The guard bowed and returned to his post. It took all of Levana’s willpower not to run to her chambers. A maid was there already, waiting to help her undress and wash for bed, but Levana shooed her out without even bothering to have her dress unpinned. Sitting at her mirror-less vanity, she forced herself to pause and to breathe, so that she could remove the plain paper with utmost delicacy. Her fingers trembled as she undid the fastenings, uncrinkled the corners. Inside the box were shreds of more brown paper and, nestled among them, a small pendant of planet Earth. Silver, perhaps, though it was tarnished and bent. It seemed very old. There was also a card, hand-printed with dreadful penmanship. Your Royal Highness, I hope that giving you a birthday gift will not be seen as overstepping my station, but I saw this and thought you might like it. May you have only happiness in this your seventeenth year. Your friend, and most loyal servant, Evret Hayle A note was added to the bottom, almost as an afterthought, My wife also sends her warmest regards. Before she knew what she was doing, Levana had torn off the bottom part of the card, ripping away the mention of his wife and shredding it into tiny pieces. Then she lifted the pendant from the box and cradled it against her chest, smiling, while she read Evret’s words again and again. Interpreting. Dissecting. Again and again and again. * * * “I’m pleased to report that our bioengineering research and development team has been making great progress these past months,” said Head Thaumaturge Joshua Haddon, standing before the queen’s throne and the audience of aristocrats with his hands tucked into his wide sleeves. “Dr. Darnel believes that the latest advancements in bioelectrical pulse manipulation will result in the successful alteration of natural instincts. With Your Majesty’s approval, the team intends to commence testing on Lunar subjects within the next twelve months.” Channary popped a fried squash blossom into her mouth and waved her hand at the thaumaturge. After swallowing, she licked the butter from her fingertips. “Yes, fine. Whatever they think.” “Then it shall be done, My Queen.” Checking his report, Thaumaturge Haddon proceeded to the next matter of business, something to do with a method for increasing productivity in the textile sectors. Levana wanted to know more about the soldiers. She had heard talk of the ongoing development of bioengineered soldiers for years now. It was a program her father started, perhaps a decade ago, and many of the families snubbed it as a ridiculous concept. Create an army that relied not on their Lunar gift, but on animal instincts? Ludicrous, they called it. Absurd. Monstrous. Her father had rather liked that description, Levana recalled. Monstrous was precisely what he meant to achieve, and the research commenced by order of the king. Though he was not alive to see his efforts come to fruition, Levana was intrigued by his fantasy. An entire army of half-men, half-beast creatures. Soldiers who had the intelligence of humans, but the sensory perception of wild predators. They wouldn’t fight by expected and predictable means of warfare, but rather by the basest instincts of hunting and survival to terrorize and pillage and devour their enemies. The thought gave Levana a chill all along her spine, and not in a bad way. The temptation to control the sort of animalistic strength these soldiers would have made her mouth water. With that sort of power she could forever quiet the mockery that followed her in the palace corridors, the ongoing rumors about the pathetic, ugly little princess. “Fine, fine,” said Channary through a yawn, interrupting the thaumaturge mid-sentence. “Whatever you think is best. Are we almost finished?” Joshua Haddon didn’t seem at all put off by the queen’s lack of interest in public policy and her country’s welfare, though it took all of Levana’s efforts to keep from rolling her eyes. Despite the occasional distracted thoughts, she legitimately wanted to know what was going on in the outer sectors. She wanted to hear the court’s ideas for improvement. Perhaps they could simply send Channary off for her afternoon nap and allow Levana to handle the rest. Though everyone would have laughed her to shreds if she’d suggested such a thing. “Only one more issue to discuss, My Queen, before we adjourn.” Channary sighed. “As I’m sure you are aware, My Queen, our previous rulers, may they rest ever in divine luxury, were in the process of developing a biochemical weapon that we have reason to believe could be quite effective in any negotiation efforts with Earth, especially given our ongoing antagonistic relationship and the possibility that it could someday dissolve into violence.” “Oh, stars above,” said Channary, throwing her head back with an overwrought groan. “Is all this jargon necessary? Out with it, Joshua. What is your point?” The members of the court sniggered behind their dainty hands. Thaumaturge Haddon stood a little straighter. “One of our laboratories has concocted a contagious disease that we believe—though are yet unable to test—would be fatal to Earthens. As our relationship with Earth has been growing increasingly hostile and may continue to worsen if we’re not able to enter into an alliance and reinstate open trade agreements within the next decade, King Marrok thought this disease could be a means of weakening any Earthen opposition, both in numbers and resources.” “And I’m sure my father was entirely correct. You may proceed with your … research. Adjourned.” “I must ask for one more moment of your valuable time, My Queen.” Huffing, Channary sank back into her seat. “What?” “There is still the issue of an antidote.” When he didn’t offer further explanation, Channary shrugged at him. “As tempting as it may be to one day release this disease on Earth with no concerns for repercussions,” explained Haddon, “some strategists, myself included, feel that an even stronger statement would be to let Earth believe the disease is an act of fate, even punishment. And that should we then offer them an antidote as a means to rid themselves of the disease, it could be the factor that ensures any future alliance discussions being swayed in our direction.” “You want to make them sick,” Channary said, slowly and tiredly, “and then you want to make them better? That is the stupidest war tactic I’ve ever heard.” “No, it isn’t,” said Levana. The attention of a hundred members of the royal court turned to her, along with the sudden burning gaze of her sister, peering down from her throne. Levana squared her shoulders and refused to be intimidated. “They wouldn’t need to know that the disease had come from us. It would be the best type of warfare—the type that no one thinks is warfare at all. We could weaken Earth without risking any retaliation.” Tearing her focus from the thaumaturge, she looked up at Channary to find that her sister was spilling venom from her eyes. It didn’t bother Levana, though. She had seen the potential where Channary had not. “And then, once they are so downtrodden as to pose no threat to us in the event of full-on war, we open peaceful negotiations. We make our demands, and we offer the one thing they want more than anything else—an antidote to the disease that has crippled them. It would be seen as the ultimate show of goodwill, not only that we have been using our own resources to develop the antidote, but that we would offer to manufacture and distribute it to them, our previous enemies. How could they say no to any of our requests?” “That is precisely the strategy we suggest,” said Thaumaturge Haddon. “The young princess stated it very clearly, thank you.” Despite the kindness of his words, something in his tone made Levana feel chastised. Like her presence in these meetings was barely tolerated as it was, and certainly no one had invited her to contribute to them. “I suppose I see the potential,” said Channary, toying with a lock of hair. “You may continue with developing this antidote.” “That is precisely the conundrum we’ve crossed, My Queen.” She raised an eyebrow. “Of course there’s a conundrum, isn’t there?” “We have already found a means of developing an antidote, and its effectiveness against the infected microbes has been successfully proven through multiple tests. However, that antidote is developed using the blood cells of ungifted Lunars.” “Shells?” “Yes, My Queen. Shells contain the necessary antibodies for the antidote production. Unfortunately, it has proven both timely and costly to obtain blood samples from shells when their population is so widely scattered throughout the outer sectors, and artificial duplication has thus far not been successful.” “Well then, why don’t you cage them up like the animals they are? We’ll call it retribution for the assassinations of my parents.” A new glint entered Channary’s eyes. “That’s quite brilliant, actually. Let everyone know how dangerous shells are, and that the crown will no longer tolerate the leniency we’ve given them over the years. We can enact a new law if that will help.” Thaumaturge Haddon nodded. “I think this is a wise course of action, My Queen. To date, Thaumaturge Sybil Mira has been the court’s ambassador with the biochemical research team. Perhaps she is a good candidate to begin drawing up a procedure for the best means of obtaining the blood samples.” A young woman stepped out of the line of thaumaturges, dressed in a maroon-red coat, with glossy raven’s-wing hair falling down her back. She was beautiful in the way that all members of the queen’s entourage were beautiful, but there was also something admirable in the way she held herself. A confidence that glimmered. Though her station was beneath the head thaumaturge, her posture and faint smile seemed to indicate that she didn’t much believe herself to be beneath anyone at all. Levana liked her immediately. “Agreed. I deem Thaumaturge … er…” “Sybil Mira, My Queen,” she said. “Mira as the official royal representative of … oh, I don’t know.” Channary sighed. “Ungifted affairs. You have my permission, by royal decree, to do what needs to be done for the betterment of … everyone.” Channary’s fingers danced whimsically through the air as she strung the words together, more like she was composing a pretty-sounding poem than issuing a decree that could impact the lives of hundreds of citizens—thousands, once their families were taken into account. Still, the thaumaturges bowed respectfully when she finished and, finally, court was adjourned. The audience stood with the queen, but before leaving, Channary fixed her sweet smile on Levana. “Dear baby sister,” she cooed. Come here, baby sister. Levana flinched before she could brace herself, but if Channary noticed, she didn’t show it. “I have a fitting with my seamstress this afternoon. Why don’t you come with me? It would benefit you to have some gowns that aren’t quite so … sad.” Levana didn’t need to look down at her pale yellow dress, or to see how the color faded into her pale glamoured skin, to know what Channary was talking about. She had lost interest in being noticed. Let Channary be known for how fair and mirthful she was. Princess Levana would earn respect in the court by being intelligent and resourceful. By meeting the needs of her country when the queen was too busy cavorting with her many suitors to care. “I am not in need of a new gown, thank you, My Queen.” “Fine, don’t try anything on, then. You will make an excellent hat stand while I’m being fitted. Come along.” She smothered a groan, the thought of denying her sister already exhausting her. Channary swooped ahead, and the thaumaturges and aristocrats all bowed. Walking in her sister’s wake, Levana imagined that she was the one they were really bowing to. As she followed her sister into the palace corridor, she spotted Evret coming toward them. Her heart pattered, but Evret didn’t even look at her, merely stopped and saluted the queen as she passed, one fist clapped over his chest. Levana tried to catch his eye, but he stared at the wall over her head, expressionless as a statue. Only when she glanced back a few steps later did she realize he had come to change shifts with one of the other guards. The changing of the guard was fast and smooth, like a well-oiled clock. Gulping, Levana faced forward again, lest she walk into a wall. This could be her chance to thank him for the pendant that was, even then, hanging around her neck, tucked beneath the collar of her dress. She could hear Evret’s boots clacking behind her. Feel his presence tugging her toward him. The back of her neck tingled, and she imagined him looking at her. Admiring the curvature of her neck. His gaze dropping intimately down her back. Her emotions were in tatters by the time they had reached the main corridor of the palace and turned to begin the climb toward Her Majesty’s quarters on the top floor. Channary did not like to take the elevators. She had once told Levana that she felt queenly having to lift her skirts as she went up and down the stairs. It had taken all of Levana’s efforts not to ask if that was the same reason she lifted her skirts all those other times too. “Your Majesty?” Channary paused, and Levana came to a stumbling halt behind her. Turning, she saw a girl not much older than she was, dressed in plain utilitarian clothes. She was breathless and flushed, her hair falling out of a loose bun in messy chunks. “I do apologize for my forwardness, My Queen,” said the girl, panting. She fell to one knee. Channary sneered, disgusted. “How dare you approach me in such an informal manner? I will have you flogged for your disrespect.” The girl shuddered. “I-I do apologize,” she stammered, as if she hadn’t been heard the first time. “I was sent by Dr. O’Connor from the AR-C med-center with an urgent message for—” “Did I ask who sent you?” said Channary. “Did I suggest in any way that I cared where you were sent from or whether you had a message or who that message might be for? No, because I do not have the time to listen to every person who would seek an audience with me. There is a method to having your voice heard. Guards, escort this woman away.” The girl’s eyes widened. “But—” “Oh, stars above, I’ll handle her request,” said Levana. “Go to your fitting, as it is clearly more important than listening to a message from a girl who has run herself ragged trying to get here.” Channary snarled. “You will not speak disrespectfully to me in front of one of my subjects.” Levana flattened her hands against her skirt, to keep them from becoming fists. “I meant no disrespect, My Queen. Only that you seem to have a lot on your schedule today, so please, allow me to assist you with your royal duties.” She nodded at the girl, who still remained on one knee. “What is your message?” The girl gulped. “It is for a royal guard, Your Highness. Sir Evret Hayle. His wife has gone into labor. They fear … the doctor … they have requested that he come see her right away.” Levana felt a clamp tighten around her rib cage, forcing all the air from her lungs. She glanced back in time to catch the dawning horror on Evret’s face. But then Channary started to laugh. “What a shame. Sir Hayle has only just begun his shift. His wife will have to wait until he is relieved. Come along, Levana.” Gathering her skirt, she began marching up the steps. Evret looked from the girl—a nurse, perhaps, or an assistant—to the queen’s retreating back. He seemed cemented to the spot in the middle of the corridor. To leave would be to disobey a direct order from his sovereign. Such an act would mark him as a traitor, and result in what punishment Levana could only guess. But his indecision did not wane. How desperate he must be to defy the queen. On top of that, Levana’s own curiosity was piqued. Babies were born all the time and complications were so rare, and yet, Solstice had seemed so weak … Levana stepped forward. “Sister?” Channary paused, nearly to the top of the stairs. “I am going into town, and require an escort. I am taking Sir Hayle with me.” Her sister’s face was murderous when she turned, but Levana lifted her head and fixed her own glare upon her. She would suffer the consequences later, and she knew very well there would be consequences. But she doubted that Channary would risk being defied in public a second time, and this way she alone would take the blame. Evret would only be following orders. Her orders. The electrified moment stretched on for ages. Levana waited, and imagined that she could feel Evret’s terrified heartbeat pounding into her, even from six paces away. “Fine,” Channary finally conceded, her voice nonchalant, and all the tension seemed to melt away from them. It was a false release, Levana knew. “If you happen to pass down Lake Boulevard, do bring me back some sour apple petites, won’t you?” With a flip of her hair, the queen turned away and continued up the stairs. Peculiarly dizzy, Levana realized that she’d been holding her breath. Only when Channary was no longer visible did Evret break from his watchful position. “My wife?” he said, emotion filling up his voice, his shoulders, his eyes. He walked right past Levana and grasped the nurse’s elbows, lifting her to her feet. He seemed wary and anxious, almost as if he’d been expecting this. “Is she…?” Still pale from her encounter with the queen, the nurse took a moment to comprehend his question, before sympathy creased her brows. “We should hurry.” * * * Levana was left in a waiting room while the nurse escorted Evret down the sterile white hall of the med-center. She saw them pause at a doorway, and Evret’s face was so contorted with worry that Levana wished she could wrap her arms around him and let all of his concerns soak into her. The nurse opened the door and even from this distance Levana caught a shrill scream before Evret disappeared inside and the door shut behind him. His wife was dying. The nurse hadn’t said as much, but Levana knew it was true. It was clear that Evret had been hurried here because it would be his only chance to say good-bye, just as it was clear that it wasn’t a complete surprise to him. Perhaps she’d been ill. Perhaps the pregnancy had already suffered complications. Levana remembered seeing Solstice at the funeral. How she’d looked as breakable as a porcelain vase. The concern on Evret’s face as they’d moved through the receiving line. Levana took to pacing back and forth. A holograph node attached to the wall was broadcasting a silent drama in which all of the actors wore elaborate masks and costumes and twirled together in a graceful dance, oblivious to the empty chairs of the waiting room. She did not leave the palace often, but now she found it refreshing to be where no one would recognize the glamour she’d been wearing since the coronation. The invisible girl, the unknown princess. She could have been anyone, for all the doctors and nurses knew. The medical center wasn’t very big—sickness was rare in Artemisia, so mostly the clinic served for setting broken bones or easing some elderly patient into death or, of course, childbirth. Despite being small, the clinic was busy, the staff constantly darting through the halls, emerging from and disappearing into countless doorways. But Levana could think only of Evret and what was happening behind that closed door. His wife was dying. He would be alone. Levana knew it was so very wrong to think, but she couldn’t fully deny the spark that flared behind her sternum. This was fate. This was meant to be. His kind words at the funeral. His bashful glance during her birthday celebration. The little Earth charm. Your friend, and most loyal servant. Was there meaning behind the words, something he couldn’t say before now? Could he possibly want her as much as she wanted him? Evret seemed like the type that would never disregard his vows of matrimony, no matter how much he yearned for another. And now he wouldn’t have to. He could be hers. Thinking of it made her whole body shiver with anticipation. How long would he wait to make his intentions known? How long would he mourn the loss of his wife before he gave himself permission to declare himself to Levana, his princess? Waiting would be agony. She would have to let him know that it was all right for him to mourn and love at the same time. She would not judge him, not when they were so clearly destined for each other. Fate was taking his wife away. It was as if the stars themselves were blessing their union. The door opened down the hallway. Without waiting for an invitation, Levana hurried forward, concern and curiosity pulsing through her veins. Just before she came to stand in the doorway, a cart was wheeled through it and she jumped back to keep the corner from jabbing her in the stomach. Plastering her back to the wall, Levana saw that it was not just any medical cart, but one that held a tiny suspended-animation tank. The baby lying on the blue, squishy surface was screeching and fussing, small hands and wrinkled fingers flailing beside its head. Its eyes were not yet open. Levana had the sudden, encompassing instinct to touch the child. To run her finger along those tiny knuckles. To stroke the short tufts of black hair sprouting from that tender scalp. But then it was gone, wheeled fervently down the corridor. Levana turned back toward the doorway. As the door slipped shut, she saw Evret in his guard uniform, hunched over his wife. A white blanket. Blood on the sheets. A sob. The door closed. The sound of Evret’s sob continued on in Levana’s ears, bouncing around inside her skull. Again and again and again. * * * An hour passed. She spent more time in the waiting room. Grew bored. Passed by the closed door separating her from Evret a dozen times, but he never emerged. She began to grow hungry, and realized that all she would have to do is tell one person her identity and demand they bring her something to eat, and any person in this building would fall over themselves to fulfill her wishes. The knowing of it made her want it less, and she forced herself to ignore the gnawing at her stomach. Finally, she took to wandering the hallways, pressing herself to the sides when people marched past, focused and determined. She found the infant viewing room easy enough and slipped inside to stare at the new arrivals through a pane of glass. A nurse was on the other side, administering drugs and checking vital signs. She found Evret’s child. A label was now printed on the side of the tank. Hayle 3 January 109 T.E., 12:27 U.T.C. Gender: F Weight: 3.1 kg Length: 48.7 cm So he had a little girl. Her skin was dark like her father’s, her cheeks as round and touchable as a cherub, and tufts of hair were just long enough to frizz out like a halo around her head, especially now that she had been cleaned. She was no longer fussing, just lay there in perfect peace, her little chest rising with each breath. She was impossibly small. Frighteningly delicate. Levana had not seen many babies, but she could imagine that this was the most perfect child that had ever been born. The little girl was the only one in the infant viewing room with a blanket wrapped around her that wasn’t in plain hospital blue. Instead, the soft cotton material had been hand embroidered—a dozen different shades of white and gold creating a shimmering landscape around the child’s tiny form. At first Levana thought it was meant to be the wild, desolate surface of Luna outside of the biodomes, but then she noticed the black trunks of leafless trees and, somewhere near the baby’s ankles, stark red mittens lying abandoned in the snow, the likes of which Levana had only seen in children’s stories. This was a scene from Earth, from a dark and cold season that Luna never experienced. She wondered what had even made Solstice think of it. For this was so clearly the work of Solstice Hayle. Listing her head, Levana let herself imagine that this baby was hers. That she had been the one to spend countless loving hours creating that illusion on the fabric. She wondered what it would be like to be a proud and exhausted mother, loving and adoring, looking down on the healthy little girl she’d given birth to. Her glamour changed almost without her realizing it. Solstice Hayle. Beloved wife. Delighted mother. This time Levana kept her stomach flat and her figure lithe. She pressed a finger against the glass, tracing the outline of the child’s face on the other side. Then she spotted a shadow. Her own shadow on the glass. Her own reflection. Levana flinched and the glamour disintegrated. She spun away, covering her face with both hands. It took her a long while to shove the image from her thoughts. To call up the glamour of pale skin, waxen hair, frosty blue eyes. “You can view her from here,” said a voice from the hallway. Levana’s head snapped up as Evret was led into the viewing room. He looked as though he had just woken from a haunting dream. His eyes were rimmed in red when they fell on her and he spent a moment blinking. As if he couldn’t see her, or couldn’t place where he knew her from. Levana gulped. Recognition crept into his eyes and he bowed his head. “Your Highness. I didn’t realize you would still be here…” His jaw worked for a moment. “But of course, you must require an escort. I am … I am so sorry to have kept you waiting.” “Not at all,” she said. “I could have called for…” But he was not looking at her anymore. His attention had drifted to the window and latched on to his baby girl. Fathomless emotion misted over his gaze as he placed his fingers against the sill. Then, between the heartbreak and the loneliness, there was love. So open and intense it stole Levana’s breath away. What she wouldn’t give to be looked at like that. “They tell me she’s going to be all right,” he said. Levana kept her back against the window, afraid to catch her reflection and lose control of her glamour again. Afraid that if Evret saw her as she truly was, he wouldn’t want her anymore. “She’s beautiful,” she said. “She’s perfect,” he murmured. Levana dared to fixate on his profile. The fullness of his lips, the slope of his brow. “She looks like you.” He didn’t respond for a long time. Just stared at his little girl while Levana stared at him. Finally, he said, “I think she’ll have her mother in her, when she gets older.” He paused, and Levana saw the strain of his Adam’s apple in his throat. “Her mother—” He couldn’t finish. He brought his hands up to his mouth, fingers laced together. “I would give anything…” He pressed his forehead against the glass. “She’ll grow up without a mother. It isn’t right.” Levana felt her heart stretching, like it was reaching out for him, trying desperately to connect. “Don’t say that,” she whispered, placing a hesitant hand on Evret’s arm, and glad when he didn’t pull away. “These things happen for a reason, don’t they? Look at the child she gave you. She served her purpose.” Levana recognized the callousness of the statement at the same moment Evret jerked away from her. He turned to face her, shocked, and instant shame crawled down Levana’s skin. “That isn’t … I didn’t mean it like that. Only that … that you and this child still have your whole lives ahead of you. I know you must be hurting now, but don’t give up hope on future happiness, and all the good things that are still to come for you.” He scrunched up his face, as if in physical pain, and it occurred to Levana that she was probably saying all the wrong things. She wanted to comfort him, but she couldn’t imagine being devastated at the loss of someone. She had never felt that before. Besides, the future was clear to her now, even if he couldn’t see it through his sorrow. He would come to love her, Levana, once she was given the chance to make him happy. “I commed a friend of mine, another guard—Garrison Clay. He and his wife are on their way here, to help”—he inhaled shakily—“to help with preparations, and … the baby…” He cleared his throat. “He can escort you back to the palace. I’m afraid I’ll be no good to you in my current state, Your Highness.” Levana’s shoulders fell. She had been filled up with fantasies of what could happen when Evret escorted her back, led her to her bedroom chambers, realized he was no longer required to be true to just one woman. None of those fantasies had involved her leaving him here to weep. “I can stay with you,” she said. “I can comfort you. I can—” “That is not your role, Your Highness, but thank you for your kindness. I would rather you had not seen me like this at all.” “Oh.” She rolled the confession over in her thoughts, wondering if it was meant to be flattery. “I haven’t thanked you, for what you did today. With the queen. But you have my gratitude. I know it couldn’t have been easy for you.” “Of course. I would do anything for you.” He looked at her, surprised, and bordering on alarmed. He hesitated, before turning away again. “You are gracious, Princess. But I’m only a guard. My place is to serve you.” “You are not only a guard. You are … you are perhaps my only friend.” He grimaced, which she couldn’t understand. Her voice dropped. “At least, you’re the only person who gave me a birthday gift.” The look of pain turned to one of sympathy, and while his sorrowful gaze fixed on her again, she pulled the pendant from where it had been tucked beneath her dress’s bodice. His sadness seemed to only increase when he saw it. “I have worn it every day since you gave it to me,” she said, daring to speak over the yearning in her throat. “I value it above all the crown jewels, above … above anything on this moon.” With a heavy sigh, Evret took the charm and wrapped it up in Levana’s fingers, then enclosed her hand in both of his. She felt dwarfed and delicate, like her heart was in her palm, not some vintage charm. “You are a lovely girl,” said Evret, “and you deserve the most priceless jewels that have ever adorned a princess. I’m honored that you consider me a friend.” She thought he would kiss her, but instead he pulled his hands away and turned back to the window. Her heart was pattering now, and she knew her skin was flushed. She allowed some of the color to show through in her glamour. “I’m not like Channary. I don’t want jewels. What I crave is much more precious than that.” Levana inched toward him until her shoulder brushed against his arm. He shifted away, just barely. He’s in mourning, she reminded herself. He’s doing what he thinks is proper. But being proper seemed so very unimportant when her blood was simmering beneath her skin. When she felt like her heart would pound right through her rib cage if he didn’t take her into his arms. She ran her tongue along her lower lip, every sense heightened, and inched toward him again. “Sir Hayle … Evret…” The feel of his name on her lips, never whispered so intimately but in her fantasies, sent a chill down her spine. But he backed away from her again, and his voice changed. More stern now. “I think it would be best for you to wait in the lobby, Your Highness.” His sudden coldness made her pause, and Levana slowly shrank back a step. Mourning. He’s in mourning. She gulped, her dreams doused. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t … I didn’t mean … I can only imagine what you’re going through…” His expression softened, but he still didn’t look at her. “I know. It’s all right. I know you’re only trying to help. But, please, Your Highness. I’d like to be alone right now.” “Of course. I understand.” Although she didn’t, not really. She left him anyway, because he’d asked her to, and she would do anything for him. She may not understand his sorrow, but she did understand that Evret Hayle was a good man, and Solstice had been very, very lucky. Soon, Levana told herself. Her life was changing, and soon perhaps she could be very, very lucky too. * * * She dreamed of him constantly. Holding her hand in the dining hall while her sister prattled endlessly about the newest gowns she’d commissioned. Gazing at her lovingly across the throne room while the thaumaturges droned on about outdated policies that Channary would never bother to understand or improve. And every night he crawled into bed with her, wrapped her up in his muscular arms, breathed warm kisses against her neck. A figment of him was with her when she woke up each morning. A shadow of him followed her down every corridor. Every time she caught sight of a guard’s uniform from the corner of her eye, her heart ricocheted and her head twisted to see if it was him—though more often than not it was only her own stupid guards following respectfully in the distance. Three days passed and his official time of mourning ended, but she did not see him. Then a week. It occurred to her that he may have taken leave from the palace to deal with his wife’s death and spend time with his infant daughter, and she tried to be patient. To give him space and time. To wait until he came to her—because surely he would. Surely he missed her as much as she missed him. She imagined him in his bed at night, all alone and dreaming about her in his arms. She imagined him coming to her bedchambers, falling to his knees as he confessed how much he adored her, how he couldn’t live another moment without knowing the taste of her lips. She imagined them a happy family, her and Evret and the baby girl, playing make-believe together in the palace nurseries. She daydreamed about the plump little child crawling into her lap and falling asleep in her arms. She envisioned Evret’s soft gaze upon them, knowing that his family was complete. That they were meant to be together. That she was the love of his life. Another week passed, and still she had no word from him, not seen him at all. With every day, her yearning grew and grew. Then, after an entire long day had come and gone, her fantasy came true. A knock sounded at the door to her private chambers, and Sir Evret Hayle was announced. Levana scampered out of the nook where she’d been watching a documentary about Luna’s early colonization, shutting down the holograph node at the same time that she called up the glamour of the pale, invisible girl. “Evret!” she cried, her heart thumping against her sternum. He stepped back, startled, perhaps at her exuberance or the familiarity with which she used his name. He was holding a bundle of black-and-gold fabric in his arms. Her two personal guards stood to either side of him, lacking any expression, as notable as statues. “Your Highness,” Evret said, bowing. “Please, come in. It’s—I’m so happy to see you. I’ve been thinking about you. Here, I’ll call for some tea.” His brow was tense. He did not step past her threshold. “Thank you for your hospitality, Your Highness, but I’m to report for my return to active duty this afternoon. I only wanted to bring you this.” She hesitated. Return to active duty? So he had been on leave. She thought it might be a relief—part of her had been worried he might be intentionally avoiding her—and yet it was also irksome to think that he needed two entire weeks to mourn his wife, to attach to his daughter. “Don’t be silly,” she said, pushing the door open more fully. “I will ensure that your tardiness is excused. Come in, just for a minute, please. I’ve mi—I’ve been worried about you. Wondering how you were.” Still he hesitated, glancing down at the fabric. “Sir Hayle. Don’t make me issue it as a command.” She laughed, but his jaw only clenched in response. He did, however, step inside. His eyes darted around her chambers like he’d just entered a cage. She shut the door behind him. Her palms were growing damp, her pulse humming. “Come in. Sit down. I didn’t realize you were on leave. Though I’d been wondering…” She drifted into the parlor, and found that her legs were trembling by the time she lowered herself onto the cushioned divan. Evret did not come closer. Did not sit down. She pretended not to notice his anxiety, but she did notice. It made her own nervousness increase, memories of a thousand fantasies crushing down on her. Fantasies that had begun so much like this, only now it was real. He was here. “Speak, Evret. Tell me what’s become of you since we last saw each other.” He pulled himself up, like bracing himself for a blow. His expression became stoic and professional, his gaze latching on the painting over Levana’s shoulder. “I was grateful to be given this time to make arrangements for my deceased wife, as I know you’re aware, Your Highness, and also dealing with the effects of her business.” His voice started to break, but he recovered smoothly. “I’ve spent this past week clearing her needlework shop and auctioning off what assets I could.” Levana’s mouth pursed in a surprised O. She hadn’t considered what might need to be done when someone died. After her parents’ death, the thaumaturges and servants had dealt with everything. “I … am sorry,” she stammered, thinking it might be an appropriate thing to say. “I know you’ve been through a lot.” He nodded, as if to accept her compassion. “And how is the child?” “She is well, Your Highness, thank you.” He sucked in a breath and held out the bundle in his arms. “I want you to have this.” “Thank you, Evret. What is it?” Levana hoped that, by not moving from her spot on the divan, it would compel Evret to come closer. To sit beside her. To finally look her in the eyes. Instead, he unfolded the fabric and spread it out, revealing the elaborate quilt of Earth that Solstice had made, half of it pooling past his feet. Levana gasped. It was every bit as striking as she remembered—even more so when surrounded by the luxuriousness of her royal chambers. “Sol made it,” Evret said, his voice heavy, “but I think you know that already.” Levana scanned the shimmering, patched-together pieces of Earth, up and up, until she was looking at Evret again. “It’s magnificent. But why are you giving it to me?” His face started to crumple, and he seemed to be holding his emotions together through stubborn determination. “She told me that you’d come into her shop, Your Highness. She said you admired it.” He gulped. “I thought she would like for you to have it—as you were her princess, as you are mine. And I also thought … I wanted to show my gratitude to you, for persuading Her Majesty to let me go, when Sol was … You’ll never know what that meant for me, Your Highness. You’ll have my gratitude until the day I die.” Levana cleared her throat, eyeing the quilt. She loved everything about it—the design, the impeccable craftsmanship. She loved that Evret was giving it to her. But she also knew that she could never look on something that his wife had made and not feel a twinge of resentment. “The quilt is extraordinary,” she finally said, standing. “If it’s all right with you, I’m going to store it somewhere safe, and we can give it to your daughter when she’s older. She’s the one that should have it.” Evret’s eyes widened with surprise, then, slowly, softened into a hesitant smile. “I … thank you, Your Highness. That’s…” He looked away, pressing his lips tight with emotion. “That is incredibly kind. You are incredibly kind. Thank you.” She shook her head. “You don’t have to thank me. I don’t want your gratitude, Evret.” He let his arms relax too, letting the quilt sag in front of him. “My friendship, then,” he said. “If you still want it. Though I’m merely a guard, and not deserving of such a friend.” His smile was so unnerving that Levana had to turn away, flustered. She could feel her cheeks heating. Her heart was a volcano, now, hot lava gushing through her veins. “No, Evret. You must know that I think of you as more than … than simply a friend.” The grin froze. His brow twitched with a hint of panic. “Your Highness—I…” He shook his head. “I didn’t want my coming here to…” “To what?” she urged, taking a step toward him. “To give the wrong impression,” he said, softening the words with another tentative smile. “You’re a sweet girl. Sometimes I think that you’re … you’re confused, but I know you mean well. And I know you’re lonely. I see how you are around the rest of the court.” Levana bristled, mortified to think of all he had seen. Channary’s taunts, the court’s laughter … “I know you need a friend. I can help you. I can be there for you.” Dropping one corner of the quilt, he dragged a hand down his face. “I’m sorry, this is coming out wrong. I didn’t mean that to sound so…” “Condescending?” He flinched. “I care about you. That’s what I’m trying to say. I’m here for you, if you ever need someone to talk to, someone you can be yourself around.” Levana bit her lower lip, irritated, but also filled with such adoration for this man that she wanted to weep. Her gaze traced the continents of Earth, the patchwork of raw edges and shimmering gold thread. She inhaled, deeply. “I know,” she said. “I know you care about me. You’re the only one who does.” Smiling bashfully, she dared to meet his eyes again. “First the pendant and now the quilt. It seems as though you’re trying to give me the whole world, Sir Hayle.” He shook his head. “Only some kindness, Your Highness.” Her smile brightened as she stepped closer, her bare feet treading across the luxurious quilt, crossing over Antarctica, the Atlantic Ocean … “Are you sure?” she asked, imitating the seductive way she’d seen Channary look up through her lashes at a potential suitor. “Are you sure that’s all you’re here for, Sir Hayle?” His attention had dropped to her feet crossing over the quilt. His brow furrowed. “Your Highness?” “I’m not confused, Evret. I’m not lonely.” She grasped the top edge of the quilt, and Evret let go. She let it fall to the ground, and his alarmed expression returned. Evret stepped back, but without even realizing she was doing it, Levana reached out with her gift, subtly holding his feet in place. “Wha—?” “I’m in love with you, Evret.” The concern deepened, a hundredfold. “Your Highness—no, that’s not—” “I know. I know. You were happily married. You loved your wife very much. I get it. But she’s gone now, and I’m here, and don’t you see? This was how it was meant to happen. This was always how it was meant to happen.” His mouth was hanging open now, staring at her as if he didn’t recognize her. As if he hadn’t been smiling so sweetly at her a moment before, saying all those endearing things he’d said. As if he hadn’t already confessed the truth. Friendship. Friendship. No. The pendant, the quilt, his being here all alone in her chambers. This was not a man who wanted to be friends. He was hers, as much as she was his. He held up his hands to block her as she inched forward again. “Stop this,” he hissed, keeping his voice low, as if worried that the guards outside the door might hear, might interrupt. “This is what I was afraid of. I know that you have”—he struggled for a moment to find a word—“feelings for me, Your Highness, and I am flattered, but I’m trying to—” “I could be her, you know,” Levana interrupted. “If that makes it easier for you.” His brow twitched, dismayed. “What?” “I’m very good at it. You saw … you saw how convincing I can be.” “What are you—” The glamour of Solstice Hayle came easier this time, a little bit easier every time. Levana was sure she’d committed the woman to memory, from the slender arch of her eyebrows to the subtle curl at the end of her long, dark hair. Evret recoiled from her, though his feet remained bolted to the floor. “Princess. Stop it.” “But this is what you want, isn’t it? This way you can have both. I’ll be your wife. I’ll be the mother of your child. Pretty soon people will forget all about the one that died, it will just be me and you and our perfect family, and you’ll be a prince, Evret, which will be so much better than being a guard and—” “Stop it!” She froze, the fire in her veins doused with the anger in his tone. His breath had become ragged and he was leaning so far away from her she worried he would fall over. Scowling, Levana released the power she held over his feet and he stumbled back until he was pressing against a wall. “Please,” he said. “Please go back to how you were. You don’t understand … you don’t know how you’re hurting me.” Embarrassm