Damian snatched my wrist and dragged me out from behind the desk. I feigned cluelessness, my mouth slightly agape.
“A Titled has asked you a question, girl.”
His grip tightened. The bonded on his shoulder fixed me with its black owlish eyes, it’s tail curling. There was nowhere to run. My only hope was a window. The chairs looked heavy enough to smash through, if I ever got the time to do it.
“My bonded is patrolling around the manor,” I said quickly. “Keeping watch for threats to Lady Shrike. As is my duty.”
Damian’s bonded shrieked, and Damian and Lady Ilyin exchanged a knowing look.
Lady Ilyin glared down at the maps I’d spread on the table. “And what might you be doing in my library at such an hour?”
“Examining the area, Lady Ilyin. I wish to familiarize myself with our surroundings, so I might be more useful in finding our missing party.”
It was always easier to mask lies in truth. Lady Ilyin could not yet accuse me of anything except being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“You felt the need to serve Lady Shrike gone midnight?”
“Time is of the upmost importance, Lady Ilyin.”
Lady Ilyin nodded at Damian. He released my wrist.
“Dearest Yulia,” said Lady Ilyin. “I must ask you what you heard of our conversation.”
“I heard it all, Lady Ilyin.”
“And what did you think of it?”
“I understood only some, Lady Ilyin. But most of what I heard does not pertain to me, so it is of no consequence.”
Damian’s bonded shrieked again and flexed tiny claws.
“I assume you will inform Lady Shrike of what you heard here.”
“Yes. It is my duty.”
I clung to the persona Lady Ilyin knew. I was only the vassal. I had no reason to expose her. That was up to the Titled I served.
“I want to believe you, Yulia,” said Lady Ilyin. “I have enjoyed your company, and I bear you no ill will. But I do not appreciate being lied to in my own house.”
“I’ve told you nothing but the truth, Lady Ilyin.”
Damian’s daemon shrieked.
Lady Ilyin sighed, and Damian nodded at her. I understood. The daemon sensor—this one wasn’t just for tracking or stealth. Sarangerel could feel lies.
“What is your true purpose here?” demanded Damian. “Are you a spy for the Canavar?”
I kept my mouth shut. The sensor couldn’t detect a lie if I never said one.
Damian’s eyes narrowed, and Sarangerel hissed impatiently. The two were perfect mirrors of each other. When Damian breathed, so did Sarangerel. Damian’s frustration reflected in his bonded’s own eyes, his consciousness filling them both.
“She’s smart,” said Damian. “And familiar with bonded.”
I glanced at the window. I could make a run for it.
Damian pushed aside his riding cloak, revealing the pommel of a sword. If he was a Titled, he’d definitely had expensive blade tutors. I would be hard-pressed to fight my way past him, even if I were armed.
Lady Ilyin crossed her arms over her chest. “The question becomes what to tell Lady Shrike what became of her vassal in the morning.”
“We’re certain her lady is a Shrike?”
“Positive. You have your beast; I have my intuition. That girl’s insufferable attitude is exactly the sort they only breed on Mount Anfang. In all likelihood, this Yulia is duping her for something. My guess would be information. The Canavar would pay dearly for reports on the major houses.”
“But the Canavar would be more careful in choosing spies,” said Damian. “The ones we’ve encountered in the past were trained to resist a sensor’s abilities. This one, clearly, was not. So either the Canavar are getting sloppy, or she works for someone else.” Damian leaned close. He looked very much like his mother. Sharp eyes, lightly tanned, soft features. “Tell me. To whom are you loyal?”
Keeping my mouth shut would only make things worse. I chose my words carefully. I could only tell the truth. “I am loyal to the common people. To the innocent who need my protection. I serve them.”
Sarangerel glared at me, but stayed silent.
“But no name in particular, I assume.”
“I serve who I believe serves and protects the people. I am not a spy, I did not come to Winterwood with any motive but shelter, nor do I mean you any harm.”
Lady Ilyin appraised me with a raised chin. I couldn’t tell if it was approval or distaste. One could never tell with Titled. “I serve the people, as well,” she replied in a grave tone. “If I told you that my son and I’s conversation was in service of the common good, could we trust you not to speak of it?”
“No,” I answered truthfully. “I am honour bound to inform my lady of what I heard. What we do with the information is up to her.”
Damian shared a curious look with Lady Ilyin. I could feel them trying to piece my words together. Loyal to the people, but loyal to a Shrike. Then question was: what did Lady Shrike serve?
“Come with me, Yulia,” said Lady Ilyin. “And have no fear.”
Damian stood at the door of my room, his hands clasped behind his back. Sarangerel’s gaze followed my every move.
“Wait here,” said Damian. “When your bonded returns, you are to leave it outside the main doors. It does not move unless I allow it. Understood?”
“Yes, Lord Ilyin.”
“I should not need to remind you who should suffer the consequences should you break your word.”
“I would never bring harm to my lady.”
The door slammed and locked. I couldn’t believe what I’d managed to get away with, but it couldn’t last. If Damian talked to Irina, he’d know she wasn’t a Shrike. The Ilyins would want to know who she really was. When they learned she was the late princess, I had no doubt they would kill her. After all, I’d discovered their plot against the crown. At this point, all I could think to do was grab Irina and run. But how far could we get? Thanks to Lady Ilyin’s medicine and Andiya’s magic, I felt almost myself again. We could run for a few hours, maybe, before Damian and the Ilyin soldiers rode us down. And if we managed to evade them? We had no money, no horses, no supplies. We’d be dead in days in the wilds, if Crows didn’t slaughter us first.
“I could really use some help right now, Andiya.”
No reply. I felt carefully along the bond. It seemed to stretch on forever. Where was she?
She’d seen Rafiq and Khalid. They might have all the answers we’d been searching for. I needed Andiya here to protect Irina, but I couldn’t drag her back now. Not if Rafiq could lead us to Yulia.
Treason. What I was doing was treason. I should have pulled the bond, taken away Andiya’s magic so she was forced to speak with me. I should have dragged a knife down my hand to shock her with pain. But I didn’t. Not if it meant losing Yulia’s trail.
So I paced, mumbling to the wall that was Andiya’s mind. I repeated Lady Ilyin’s words over and over until they were memorized. I took some of the small red pills to fortify myself. I turned over every option. Alone in that tiny room, I felt the full weight of my responsibility. I might be the only thing that stood between the Canavar and an open rebellion. They needed warning. They needed to know their princess still lived.
So I thought of a plan.
Mid-morning sun flooded my room. Damian stood in the doorway, Sarangerel on his shoulder, flanked by a pair of Ilyin soldiers in green and brown. The Ilyin crest—an apple tree—was pinned on their chests.
“Lady Ilyin requests your presence at today’s festivities.”
He led me to the upper chambers, where a group of servants cleaned me up, gave me more medication, and dressed me in fine clothes. I refused all but the most functional pieces. They finally let me go with a heavy, long coat with traditional Novoski embellishments—gold on black embroidery of mountains and branches, fur cuffs and edges—high leather boots, and fitted pants of maroon velvet. All pieces that would not get in my way should I need to run. I forced the servants to let me dress myself, so none of them might catch the accidental glimpse of my golden bonding tattoos. I made certain my glove was firmly in place before following the servants downstairs.
When I met Damian again, he noted my choices. “Practical, for the Day of Rains.”
“I would be a poor guard to my lady in silk and crinoline.”
“You would. Come. We are expected.”
We made our way down the halls. Winterwood was a flurry of activity. Servants rushed around with plates of rich foods and chilled wine bottles, bundles of silverware and gift boxes for visitors. Every room smelled of fresh bread and sweet spices. Flower were garlands strung up from every chandelier and lamp. Drapes of pale green silk hung in swaths from the ceilings, embroidered with the Creators laying in the heavens. Even Damian looked the part. He’d changed his riding clothes for a luxurious woollen coat in his family’s colours, the cut fitted to his lean physique. A slight gold sparkle lined his eyes, the edges dashed with smoky kohl. Sarangerel wore a simple apple pendant on a green silk collar, her nails painted to match Damian’s hair.
“I haven’t seen your bonded yet, Yulia,” Damian said.
“She is still far from Winterwood Hall.”
“And you’ve told her to return?”
The words were enough truth that Sarangerel seemed unbothered. I had told Andiya to return. Damian did not ask if she’d listened.
The pleasure gardens were filled with guests. They wore their best, outfitted in pale gowns, weighty jewels, and intricate hairstyles that would have taken hours to perfect. Groups of guests clustered at tables drinking and laughing. Servants followed their masters with parasols. Peppered among them, robed bonded shadowed the occasional guest with black bonding tattoos. I clenched and unclenched my gloved hand. Thankfully, it was common enough for the conservative to cover bonding tattoos that no one questioned my choice.
“Damian!” an older, stout man called. He wore a voluminous robe of pale blue silk, small diamonds pressed above his bushy brows. Even with his chin up, he barely reached my shoulders. “There you are, boy! I thought your mother had you somewhere squirrelled away.”
“Lord Oster,” Damian said with a real smile. He gave the man a rough hug. “I couldn’t resist a good feast. By that gut, I assume the same for you.”
Lord Oster laughed, a hand on his great belly. “One day I shall challenge you to a duel over your little jibes—but not today. Today, we pretend we did not hear a word.”
“I look forward to winning that duel, Lord Oster.”
“And I pity the merchants who hope to deal with the future lord of Winterwood Hall. They may find themselves with no coin and no confidence to boot.” Lord Oster bowed his head at me by no more than a few degrees. The polite greeting of a Titled to lesser names. “A pleasure to meet your guest.”
“Yulia Vankin. Vassal to our dear friend, Lady Eva Shrike.”
Lord Oster’s smile melted off his face like Damian had thrown mud on him. “That Shrike is something, isn’t she? Cannot remember the last time someone looked down on me like that.”
“Not since you began wearing heels, Lord Oster.”
Lord Oster’s moustache shook with his great guffaw. “A duel someday boy, don’t you forget it!”
“Never. Play nicely with Lady Shrike, Lord Oster. My mother intends to extend her family a hand in friendship.”
Damian smiled sidelong at me, and I could feel the meaning behind it. So Lord Oster was with them, too. How many more at this gathering were planning an attack on the Canavar? There were a hundred or more guests in the gardens. Any of them could be conspirators hiding blades under their skirts. I couldn’t rely on any of them helping Irina, if she were revealed.
I spotted Irina at the edge of the gardens. She wore the Shrike colours—a deep sapphire gown with maroon panels, the accents all solid black. The servants had done her hair, leaving it free down her back but for thin decorative braids woven through the length. A group of nobles surrounded her, chatting amicably. But even from so far away I could tell their efforts were in vain. Our Lady Shrike’s eyes passed through all of them as though they were furniture. A cold air exuded from her, daring anyone to challenge her rudeness. As if anyone could challenge a Shrike.
“We have not harmed Lady Shrike,” said Damian. “As a gesture of good faith. You have lied to us, taken advantage of our hospitality. To make it right, we ask for your assistance. If it is provided, we may consider our strife at an end.”
A servant handed us both glasses of apple wine. Damian thanked him kindly, and the servant returned his smile with a blush.
“What would you have me do?”
“Help me in gaining your lady’s support.”
I took a slow sip of my wine. Enough so Damian would see me accepting his drink, not enough that I would ever feel its effects. “What will you do with the support of the Shrikes?”
“Aid the common people that you are so dedicated to protecting.” He’d said it without inflection, embellishment. It didn’t feel like a lie.
“I applaud that goal, Damian.”
I blinked in surprise. I shouldn’t make mistakes like that, as a vassal to a Titled. “Lord Ilyin. I apologise. But from what I heard, opposing the Canavar will not protect anyone. Strife among the human nations—even from within—leaves us vulnerable to the daemons. You invite a slaughter.”
“A threat the archons have held over our heads for centuries. All while the common people struggle to eat, to survive, as the Titled and the Korongorod bathe in gemstones and feast on what their suffering people bought them. We cannot let it stand any longer.”
“And was it the cruelty of the archon that came to Barje Vos?”
Anger twisted Damian’s mouth down. “My mother and I wept when we heard of such tragedy. The archon is as much to blame as the daemons. Where were the soldiers, in Barje Vos? Where were they in Os Voyk, when the daemons slaughtered them? In Seta? In Os Milna, Canbirsk, Lanbridge? I will tell you where. Hiding on the Korongorod. In the walled cities, pressuring merchants. In the slums, collecting meagre taxes. At the ports, relieving unsuspecting sailors of their imports. The Canavar soldiers do not serve the people anymore. Only the archon’s greed.”
“Yet you live in this house and throw this party. If you have such disdain for Titled, why not renounce yours?”
Damian smirked. I knew before he spoke I’d made a misstep. “I could take you and your lady beyond the gardens, if you like. There you will find all our other guests, enjoying good food and drink at our expense. We could walk the camps, where we shelter victims of the Crows. Or we could take a tour of Zhyla, where our hired artisans rebuild what was lost. Our Title allows us to do these things for our people when the archon will not. Winterwood Hall has still not yet received any reply from the Korongorod. They may feel their people warrant no effort, when they have yet another funeral to plan for their precious monarchs.”
“A shame no common people were allowed in the main house.”
“As you can attest to, Yulia, our conversations are of a sensitive nature. We had hoped to avoid unfriendly ears.”
I avoided eye contact and took another careful sip of my wine. Not too much. Not yet.
When I tried to move towards Irina, Damian stepped in front of me. He bowed.
A few guests glanced excitedly at his outstretched hand. As though it were a signal, several of them paired off and waited for music.
I took Damian’s hand. Gentle strings began to play. I’d never learned to dance. Kamala had taught me some steps when we were children, but I’d forgotten them the same day.
“I apologise for my brutishness when we met, Yulia. You caught me unawares, and I was afraid. But you must understand now why. The Canavar would have mine and my mother’s heads if they heard such a conversation.”
“Or they'd simply turn you over to the inquisitor.”
His hand tightened on mine. “It will not come to that. We shall die first.”
At a quick change of beat, Damian spun me. He was a phenomenal dancer. I could feel the eyes of several young lords and ladies trailing him. I could understand. Damian was what they all should want. Handsome, wealthy, bright-smiled. If I had any interest, I would be jealous too.
We twirled past a seated Lady Ilyin, who chatted and drank with a group of resplendent nobles. Her eye followed us carefully for a moment. Watching for any trouble.
“I ask you again, Yulia. My mother and I’s cause relies on the noble families of our coalition banding together. Will you aid us?”
We turned, following the melody. I replayed my words in my head before I spoke. No lies. Only truth.
“A brief conversation, no matter if I like you or not, can't change the convictions I’ve held my entire life. I still believe the daemons are our greatest threat. But my convictions are my own. I will introduce you to my lady as a friend, but I won't help you convince her. Let your character speak for itself.”
Damian spun me close. “See that you don’t go back on your word, and I accept. No harm will come to you or your lady if you remain true.”
The dance ended. Damian and I bowed at each other, mirroring the other dancers. We were the picture of pleasure, not politics.
“Your lady awaits,” Damian said, and we walked arm in arm towards the false Lady Shrike.
Hello there! I'm Carlyn, an amateur writer currently publishing free-to-read fantasy stories. I write diverse worlds featuring LGBT+ characters and romances, because I believe that we need those stories too (even if they are about magic and demons and brave sword-lesbians). I want to create worlds that are free of homophobia and sexism, so that everyone can enjoy the ride without feeling like they don't belong.
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