Maesa stood alongside two pairs of her sisters, silently watching. With no womb-mate of her own, she made the formal lines of Arana royalty uneven, but she forced herself not to think on the fact.
Sometimes, she managed for longer than a few minutes.
Beside, this night was not to be centered around her shortcomings. The crowning hour revolved around Runa and Sasha; her sisters’s wedding.
Runa and Sasha arrived on the sweeping steps of the royal audience chamber, their shimmering gowns a streak of amethyst against the colorless backdrop of intricately carved ice that formed the walls of the ceremonial chamber. Maesa’s sisters took the stairs one-by-one; one hand of each gripping the other, another their gowns. Perfect in their symmetry. Gorgeous in their flawless youth.
The cut of their gowns laid bare porcelain skin from their necks to their curved backs — allowing all the assembled crowds the opportunity to gaze on the organic puzzle-pieces of silver dusting their skin. The shining speckles running up Runa’s back and neck matched her sister’s of course, but Sasha’s always seemed to glimmer brighter. Sometimes womb-mates displayed these small discrepancies, but it happened rarely. More often than not, they were identical in every way.
Maesa touched a fingertip to the side of her neck, absently outlining one of her markings. It was forbidden to speak about the marks — especially to compare them with another’s — but she’d overheard Runa and Sasha doing just that. Just last Ruin, in fact, while they’d been giggling in the baths and admiring their symmetry in the full length mirrors.
It stung, knowing she had no one to whisper to about hers. Their flowing elegance. Their organic beauty. Or that other mark… the one she was so careful to keep hidden beneath the thick fabric of her skirts. The mark on the inside of her thigh. The mark only she and Queen Arana — the woman who would forever think herself cursed for birthing a forsaken bairn — knew about.
Maesa forced her hand down and gave Runa a small smile when her sister glanced in her direction. Runa grinned back, nodding her head ever so slightly, and then looked ahead.
Runa and Sasha reached the last step. Both took to their knees in front of the Queen.
The womb-mates bent forward, kissing the ice and laying their foreheads on the back of their hands. How was it possible for them not to be shivering wrecks? They ought to be freezing with their skin bared to the wreathing fog. True, they both sported a pair of thigh-high fur-lined boots, but Maesa was barely controlling her shivers, wrapped in layers of robing and fur as she was.
Runa’s skirt had hitched up to her shins, baring the tan-colored leathers for the crowd behind her. Maesa had the urge to dart forward and cover her. But instead, she held her ground, fingers gripping the edge of her thick robe as the Queen rose.
She was a tall woman; though slim shouldered and narrow waisted. Her robe — pristine white edged with flowing silver scrollwork that dazzled almost as much as the womb-mate’s birthmarks, brushed the ice below her as she turned to survey the gathered crowds. First, her violet gaze swept to the furthest reaches of the vast hall before returning to scan the lines of Arana royal women standing to either side of the dais. For just a moment, her eyes met with Maesa’s. That light touch ignited a spark inside her. Intense pride flooded into her, seeming pulled from the crisp air around her as she drew a deep, unbidden breath.
“Welcome, daughters of Sa’es.” The Queen’s eyes moved away then, flowing over her many daughters before settling for a long moment on the man by her side.
“Welcome too, sons of Sa’es.” The Queen’s voice dropped. “I urge you all to stay awake long enough for the
ceremony to conclude. I’m sure your women would be most… appreciative.”
There was a murmur of low laughs as the men in the audience shared bemused glances between each other. Maesa rolled her eyes; what was it about a bonding ceremony that always had the whole of Maruri reeking of musk and pheremones? Perhaps this was something only mated trios could fathom — it was definitely beyond her understanding.
“Is there anyone in attendance tonight who doesn’t know the Journey of Sa and Es?”
There were murmured denials. You’d have to be buried in a snowdrift on Ertze’s Peak to not know the story. But part of the ceremony — a large part — was the recitation of just that.
The Queen swept her hand to the vast opening above them. A layer of transparent ice protected them from Maruri’s blistering-cold winds, but so thin and flawless was that barrier that Sa’es’s eyes shone like two silver discs in the black sky beyond. Eyes that were slowly, inexorably merging.
“Sa and Es, womb-mates at birth, were torn apart during a time of war and famine. Stolen from their mother’s arms at a moment of weakness by the brutal and cunning Ertze, the two endured a journey lasting eons. A journey which, at its end, left them poles apart from their birthplace… and each other. But always, the two knew that something was missing. That their spirit had been shattered. They learned of the existence of each other, of their untimely separation, and it drove spurs of grief into their souls. At this Phase of Ruination, their pain at the loss of each other fell as tears from the sky.”
Maesa glanced from the Queen’s reverential frown to Runa and Sasha. They were peeking at each other from under their lashes, lips squirming. Maesa shifted, tugging together the two halves of her fur-line robe. This cycle had been colder than the last, Sa’es’s Phase of Triumph colder than her Ruin — always surprising, since Ruin brought the brought the flurries of frozen tears the Sisters wept.
She forced away another shudder; why wasn’t she accustomed to the cold yet? It had always been so — the brighter Sa’es shone, the colder the air became, the harder the ice. Yet here she stood, trembling like a newborn ripped from her mother’s embrace.
“Cycle after cycle, the disbanded spirits would seek out each other in their dreams. Searching land and sky, moonlight and shadow, for the disparate halves of their psyches. And, in the Phase of Triumph, they found each other.”
A feeling began growing; a stirring, whispering sensation at the back of Maesa’s head. As if someone was staring at her. Staring through her. Maesa risked a quick peek over her shoulder. The crowd was spellbound by the Queen’s oration — not a single face was turned in Maesa’s direction. She shifted her shoulders, tugging away her hand where it had slid between the folds of her dress to touch that mark on her thigh.
There were weals over it — tiny ridges of raised skin where she’d tried to destroy that incriminating hand print. And it was a hand-print — there was no denying the four fingers, the curving-away thumb. The crescent-shaped palm.
Ertze’s hand print.
“Together, they defeated the vile Ertze—”
Maesa snatched away her hand at hearing the Queen’s voice echo her thoughts.
“—conquering his armies and laying ruin to everything he stood for. So began the Crowning Phase.” The Queen glanced over the crowd. “This phase. Where these two womb-mates will forever be merged into one.”
Maesa frowned. She always did, hearing the Queen’s retelling of the fabled myth. As usual, it seemed the Queen wasn’t going to relay the rest of the tragic tale. Or add in the bits where Esa, the sister of Sa and Es, had fallen in love with Ertze, the poor wretch somehow able to see through his merciless persona to the man’s true nature.
No, it was all about the Sisters. How they, now reunited, celebrated. Their Homecoming Phase, where they spread joy and love throughout Maruri. The doleful Phase of Reflection, where they realized that the bond they’d created was greater than they could have imagined — when Es fell ill and her sister felt her pain deeper than anything she’d ever felt. How, when Es breathed her last breath… Sa keeled over and died.
How they blamed lonely Esa and her tryst with the savage Ertze for their demise, and the demise of their many, many star-children.
And all the discrepancies in the tale… like just how those star-children had come into existence without a hint of a man being involved. Maesa had enough schooling to know it was physically impossible for—
“Runa… Sasha.” The Queen looked between the two girls. “You come to me at the cusp of Crowning, two spirits bound in a single womb by the love and light of Sa’es.” The Queen’s mellifluous voice cut effortlessly through the drone that had sprung up after the Queen’s passionate retelling of Sa’es’s plight.
“Already joined, but wanting — needing — more… just like Sa and Es.”
“Yes,” Runa and Sasha declared in unison.
There was a faint, collective sigh from the audience.
The Queen lifted her chin as if in challenge. “You ask to be joined, not just by birth, but for Sa’es to meld you into an unbreakable dyad. Mates for all eternity — in this life and the next.”
Another synchronous “yes” came from the bent-over girls. Maesa saw Sasha glance toward Runa, a small smile on her mouth.
Dear Sa’es, let them keep from giggling long enough to complete the ceremony. As much as she loved the two, they didn’t have a sedate bone in their bodies.
“You agree to be bound by the laws of Sa’es? To be forever united in both spirit and flesh?”
“Do you accept, from this moment to the darkest Phase of Sa’es’s journey, that your spirits will be inextricably intertwined?”
Another “Yes” — with Runa sounding a little breathless and Sasha more than a little excitable.
“That, in sharing your joys, you will also share in each other’s pain? That your tribulations will be mirrored on each other’s souls like Sa’es’s eyes are reflected on the ice?”
The briefest hesitation, hardly noticeable.
“That you will now also share in each other’s death?”
“Yes.” Runa’s voice wobbled at this, but their timing was still perfect.
A cool breeze brushed the back of Maesa’s neck. She, like the other daughters of Arana, all had their hair pinned in intricate knots on the back of their heads, leaving their long necks exposed. Well, her fur-lined robe brushed the bottom of her chin… yet that cool breath of air found an exposed stretch of skin by the nape of her neck, stirring hairs against her skin that made her shiver.
Again, she glanced over her shoulder. She slid a hand under her robe, gripping the interlinked circles of silver that dangled from its delicate chain around her neck. For some reason, the charm didn’t have its usual soothing effect on her. She searched the crowd, trying to pinpoint those eyes she could feel weighing on her.
No one was looking at her.
So why did she feel so exposed? So vulnerable? Suddenly so fragile?
It had been almost two phases since the aiswurm’s attack on the palace. Was it that encounter that still plagued her?
Another breeze slid over her cheeks. Her eyes darted up. The viewport was still intact. There were no other openings in this chamber, except the enormous pair of doors — the chamber’s only entrance and exit. They were still resolutely sealed — as they should be, with a ceremony this personal in nature. Only those of pure blood had been allowed inside this chamber tonight. The Aranas, the Sohjas, a few of the higher-class Treele.
One of the guards to the left of those massive doors turned slightly, as if hearing a sound beyond the thick slab of ice. Then the man shook his head, tightened the grip he had on his elbows, and faced forward again — expression intent.
“Sasha, should Runa leave this world, will you be at her side as Sa’es take her into their embrace? Awaiting your rebirth after the Phase of Darkness has passed?”
“Yes, Mother.” Sasha’s voice trembled with emotion.
The Queen looked up, prompting the entire audience to tip back their heads.
Above, Sa and Es touched. The symmetry of their perfect circumferences made Maesa take another deep breath. She’d born witness to seventeen Crownings — could remember at least twelve — but the merging of those two celestial beings always left her feeling short on breath.
The Queen was still speaking, going on about responsibility and the burden each dryad suffered through. As if having someone that close, someone who loved you so deeply was a burden.
Who would want to live if their womb-mate died, anyway?
Maesa would never have hesitated if she’d been asked that question. If she’d shared a womb with someone.
Grown up with someone.
She wrapped her arms around herself. This time, a small gust of wind pushed against her. She spun to face the doors, seeing several people in the crowd doing the same. The two guards went stiff, both turning to each other. They stared at the doors, and then shrugged off the phantom breeze as if it was nothing.
The royal chambers were renowned for keeping out the cold. How could the dimwitted pair not realize something was amiss? Surely they should be on high alert after what had happened? Maesa turned, taking a step forward before she could catch herself.
Queen Arana noticed the gesture. Somehow, even with her head tipped back and a solemn, far off look in her eye as she watched Maruri’s two moon’s eclipse, she noticed Maesa.
Those violet eyes narrowed. The Queen’s mouth thinned. It took no more than a small lift of her eyebrows to make Maesa stiffen. Even her lungs froze, refusing her breath.
There was a distant, thundering crash. The Queen’s eyes flared, fixing at those doors. She cast a sidelong glance at the King, and he slid out of his throne and disappeared behind the dais. Maesa could hear his footsteps as he hurried down the massive chamber toward the doors to investigate.
Maesa’s heart began to pound.
Was it back? Had the aiswurm returned for her? Her skin prickled with the thought of that massive, blind head staring down at her as its sulfurous breath washed over her skin—
“Rise, Sasha.” The Queen’s voice held not the slightest tremor — as if her palace hadn’t been torn apart not two phases ago.
Sasha straightened into a kneeling position, hands folded in her lap.
“And Runa,” the Queen turned to Runa, who was still bent over her hands. “Should Sasha be taken from this world before her time, will you ensure that you never leave her side, even when Darkness falls and Ertze scorches the lands and skies?”
A cold void opened in Maesa’s belly, sending another wave of ice through her body. She inhaled sharply, gripping her hands furiously together.
No, not now. This couldn’t happen now, not in front of—
“Runa, do you accept Sasha as—”
A whine rose sharply in Maesa’s ears. Her skin flashed hot and cold. She forced a hard swallow, blinking furiously as fog crept in on the sides of her vision.
Please, Sa’es. Not now! If you ever thought me a worthy daughter, please, please don’t do this to me now.
The whisper made her start. She let out a sharp breath, turning her neck with difficulty towards Aishah. The girl — only two years older than Maesa, was wide-eyed with concern.
“You look like you’re going to be sick,” Aishah said — most unhelpfully.
Maesa gave a small shake of her head, but she could feel consciousness slipping away from her. She faced the Queen, forced her eyes to open wide, and tried desperately to hold back the violent shiver that tore through her.
How could no one feel this? The aura of death and destruction that pressed in on the walls of the chamber like a physical being too large for the vast space? It felt as if that same being, that invisible force, was crushing her organs and grinding her bones to dust. She wobbled on her feet, catching herself against Aishah.
“Runa!” The Queen’s voice had a cutting edge to it know. The snap Maesa knew so well.
Runa trembled. She had her arms wrapped around herself, and she shivered as if she’d caught her death of cold. The Queen frowned at her, then up at the window. Maesa followed suit with sudden macabre dread, as did the majority of the royals. Sa and Es had almost completed their union — there was but a sliver of Es still peeking out from behind Sa.
“Runa?” It was a low murmur, but Maesa could hear it from where she was standing. “Answer quick daughter, before—”
“I…” Runa straightened, her shoulder blades protruding through her shimmering silver birthmarks. “I—”
The doors to the audience chamber burst open. The void infesting Maesa’s intestines burst into a flash of pain. She fought back a wave of nausea as she spun to face the doors. That whine of before came back, slamming out the panicked wails that erupted from the crowd below her.
Tendrils of vapor clung to the horde of panting beasts standing at the doorway. Maesa’s entire body turned to ice as a man stepped forward from the steaming mass of copper-skinned brutes and fixed his attention on the Queen’s distant throne. His shoulders held in their stiff posture an air of authority. His flaring nostrils an eager anticipation of violence.
There was a moment of perfectly crystallized silence, where the only thing that moved were those banks of fog wreathing the strangers.
In the far back, a fire flickered. Then another. More, until each beast held a wavering, glowing flame.
The whine in Maesa’s ears receded. She let out a long, sigh of a breath.
“It is time,” she whispered. “Ertze has come to claim me.”
And then the screams began.