Chapter 3: Patterns in the Winds
The Northern Prince was about what they’d expected, slight of build and almost delicate in appearance, with fair skin like morning clouds and blue eyes like chinks of sky, narrowed at them in wary distrust. That delicate look, those airy features had always been deceptive, and even the most coddled royalty of the first of the Four Lands had an uncanny ability to survive.
“You have always been loyal to the Crown.”
Never mind that he had always been a member of the Crown, though a lesser one.
“I have,” he said, accent lilting softly over otherwise familiar words. He did not bother to use higher than casually polite speech. While they usually received honorifics and formality, he was royal, about to be Prince in the sacred royal marriage, and they may have been high-ranking members of the Royal Council, but he could speak to them as dogs and only the Queen herself could tell him no.
They did not address it. “Forgive us, Prince. Our land is vulnerable in this time, with so many lost to the gods.”
“Taken,” Caedros said in a low tone. “Taken by the gods.”
This made them tremble. They were hardly words to be spoken, and not at all to a vessel of the gods, devoted to them in her youth.
“Did she send you?”
They could yet select another, but no. This was the one whom the gods had marked. They would invite disaster to choose anyone else.
“No, Prince. She is resting in her quarters.”
The Queen was not resting.
She had rested when she was brought into the capital city, she had rested after being fed as she had been instructed, she had rested and allowed servants to bathe her in the evening as she bit her tongue on many complaints against it.
‘It is not good to be served too readily,’ she had been taught all her life, but Eleya was no longer an oracle cast out from the Royal House. Her blood had come back her, and she struggled to adapt to it.
There had been a certain rhythm to her days. Rise early before the first rays of the sun to sing her prayers and let it find her working to draw water, to cut the morning meal and pour the morning cup, opening her heart to any word that came to her. After the sun, she served those who had come in the night to the convent in need. There would be time yet to go out into the surrounding villages come afternoons after the lessons she taught the youngest girls, not even novitiates yet, merely devoted by their parents to the gods.
There were the members of their order who took seasons for travel and returned to teach during the long summers or the longer winters. Eleya was a winter mendicant and a summer teacher, leaving her available when the royal messenger came to find her.
The palace at the City at the Heart of All Things was of as ancient stone as the convent, though the sun seemed to gleam less warmly and the wind bit with less cold.
She rose early, without thought to what would be expected of her because she knew nothing else. She looked in the wardrobe, full of fine gowns from dead relatives, not yet fitted to her, and closed it again. Eleya found her simple oracle’s robe and pulled the rough cloth over her body, tied the rope tight around her waist, wound her wrists with the protective cloths, and took up her staff as though she still had the right to it.
Once devoted to the gods, one could not simply be taken back again.
She went out into the courtyard like that and settled with the solid ancient wall of the palace against her back to watch the guards at their training.
One of the pairs in particular caught her eye, and she watched them for a while as they crossed swords with no small skill, their strokes swift and sure. It was pleasant to watch them, as pleasant as watching her sisters in the dance when they lifted their staves before the gods.
“That is Tanata of the Western Mountains, my Queen,” said the softspoken guardswoman materializing at Eleya’s side. “And Bastos of the Eastern Plains.”
“You are faithful,” said Eleya. She thought she had left the bodyguard behind.
The woman only inclined her head. “I have devoted myself in service.”
Eleya felt the pang of such a declaration. She had once done the same. Or been devoted, not that the difference mattered a great deal to a girl of sixteen seasons.
One guard struck the other sharply, and Tanata drew back, with a hiss, bright blood spattering on the ground between them. They saluted each other and parted. A spar to first blood then. Eleya had seen such before.
She approached the bench where Tanata dropped, cradling his sliced hand, and ignored the shadowed footsteps of her guard behind her. “Will you?” Eleya asked, hand outstretched, oracle sigils visible upon her arms.
He saw them, warm brown eyes widening slightly, and nodded shortly, holding out his hand for her to her clean and knit the wound closed with a soft humming tune to the gods.
“Anessa,” he nodded at her bodyguard.
Anessa nodded back. “This is the prince of the first line, my Queen,” she added softly.
Eleya’s hand froze on Tanata’s. Tanata’s face startled almost blank.
“My Queen,” he said abruptly, recovering himself enough to incline his head to one of higher rank, not an equal, not an oracle.
Eleya almost regretted it, almost chided Anessa for the interference, but she couldn’t because she too had benefited from the revelation to know that this was one of the men she would marry.
He was among the Guard. “Be careful whom you fight,” Eleya said. She finished tying off the small bandage and released him. He was not just a guard now but a Prince of the realm.
There was something in his tone, question or protest, something, and she found the words welling up again on a burning wave of heat. She spoke again with the layered voice of an oracle. “Be careful, Prince, whom you take swords against.”
He stared at her. He knew the sound of the gods on her tongue, had heard an oracle before, with the way his expression shifted to resigned, to understanding, to dutiful. He bowed his head before her. “Yes, my Queen.”
It was pleasant in the courtyard and she fell to watching the guardsmen train. Tanata did not leave her, and it only occurred to her much later that perhaps it was because she had not dismissed him. There were points of royal etiquette she’d never had need to acquire before. When she had questions, he would answer simply and clearly. It was a pleasant way to pass the morning.
“You seem loyal,” she noted. “Few remained through the entire Plague at the threat of their own lives.”
“How do you know I did, my Queen?”
“You’ve not just arrived.”
And he hadn’t. He was as comfortable here as the Swordsmaster training new recruits in the corner of the yard. He only shot her a puzzled glance but acknowledged the truth of it with a gesture.
Eleya could hardly help falling into her own habits of picking patterns from the winds, the leaves, the clash of wood and steel around them, the stance and steps of each person near, the way their eyes spoke, and she turned to Tanata in surprise as she realized the difference in the quality of his appreciation as he looked at her or the women fighting as opposed to the men. It was a subtle thing but blatantly present in the patterns he wore.
“You’re not particularly attracted to women,” she said, only a faint hint of questioning in it. It was an observation rather.
He stiffened and set his jaw firmly. “I am loyal, my Queen.”
Eleya frowned, not understanding his meaning at all. “I know,” she said.
Tanata opened his mouth, shut it, tried again. “I know my duty to the marriage bed.”
Eleya felt the blood rush to her cheeks and opened her own mouth before shutting it. She had little deference in her body, but to discuss sex so brazenly with her own future spouse was somewhat outside of she had intended. She sighed and set herself to it. “I’m sure we both do,” she answered ruefully and was surprised to see him smile.
“It can’t have been something you’d planned for,” he commented, casually, in a manner not requiring an answer.
“You’ll not be required to offer duty to me but once,” she added. “Nor I to you.”
“I cannot take a lover, my Queen.”
Eleya stared at him. Lovers were not unheard of in the noble ranks, though it was said the gods frowned on those who were married taking them, and would show their displeasure to a member of the royal marriage who did so. But surely, Tanata didn’t think he would have no options. “Are all men so dense? You will have three husbands.”
He seemed taken aback. “You will have three husbands.”
“Four actually,” including Tanata, “but it doesn’t work like that. It is one marriage,” she reminded him. “I’m sure at least one of them will be amenable.”
The bodyguard coughed lightly behind Eleya, a gentle warning that she had crossed the bounds of propriety at last.
Eleya sighed and rose to her feet as Tanata rose with her.
“I apologize. It grows late,” she offered, a polite excuse allowing an end to their interchange. “May the gods smile on your afternoon.”
He looked at her oddly.
She wondered why it would puzzle him, then decided it must have been the greeting of an oracle and not a common greeting as she expected.
“And on yours,” he replied.
Though it was sincere, it wasn’t the right answer, and she was surprised to find that hurt.
She went in to lunch that would be served to her, made for her, that others would clean up after, and thought to herself that Tanata was firm and strong and the roots of his duty had grown deep.
The Stone Prince. Typically, it was the blood of the South associated with stone, and she had once been called a stone daughter, for her own mother was born of the Isles.
Eleya did not know her own element. She knew that the fire of the gods had taken root in her arteries, that the breath of their dances sang in her flesh, and the ice of their words had glowed on her tongue. She was not the Metal Queen, though she’d been born in the Heart. She was not the Stone Queen. Though her mother was of the Isles, her mother was not of stone and neither was Eleya. All of her ice and fire and breath came straight from the gods and not her own body.
Her arms itched to dance, but she quelled their hunger and entered the dining hall where she would slake a more physical thirst.
“The Princes have arrived, my Queen,” said the Chief Scholar. “Would you like them to join you?”
She stared at him, considered her state of dress, her blunders earlier, and shook her head, drawing her composure back around herself again. “Perhaps at dinner.”
After lunch, she located the library and set herself to the many piles of books left her by her counselors—ledgers of the kingdom’s state of affairs, minutes of the many gatherings of council, statistics of those taken in the Plague. She frowned over patterns and listened to the silence of gently shifting leaves in the wind outside the open windows.
This work was new to her, but if she would be made ruler, then she must prepare herself to rule and surround herself with wiser minds than her own, with strong husbands to rule their own lands, and never forgot to obey whatever the gods might speak through her.
She would be Queen. The idea was difficult to wrap her mind around. She needed to absorb different details from the books before her than she would have if she had been merely an oracle in the Royal House, a path she’d rejected only because it would draw her too close again to her former life. Perhaps she had been hasty. Perhaps the gods would not have taken everything if…
Eleya sighed and leaned back her head to banish the idle, distracted thoughts from her mind.
That is where she was when Caedros found her.
The royal bodyguard beside the desk and the clothes her maidservants had dressed her in made it clear who she was, and he had barely entered the room before he bowed before her and seemed about to withdraw.
But he was also clearly of the Northern Wind, dressed still in the manner of his land, his indifferent formality to any but her an indication of high rank. If he was not the Prince, he had arrived with the Prince, but there was no doubt in her mind who he was.
“You don’t have to go,” she said. “There’s room for two to be in here.”
He paused, eyes so startling blue as he followed the path of her sigils, still visible even in the proper dress. For a moment, Eleya wondered if she should wear sleeved gowns, but it was summer and she had no wish to hide herself.
Instead, she answered warily his unspoken question, “I am an oracle of the Order of the Beloved of the Gods.”
“You speak for them?” he asked, gaze rising again to her face.
She shrugged. “When they choose to occupy my tongue. Otherwise, no.”
Something complicated filled out the tensions surrounding him, as if a bright flare of fury and a sigh of relief comingled in his reaction.
She kept her head up, feeling the desire to understand what it was she sensed. “Are you the Prince?”
“Of the Northern Wind,” he supplied. “My name is Caedros.”
“Eleya,” she answered back.
“The Queen?” he asked, politeness to a superior in the way he said it.
She hesitated, then acknowledged, “Yes, they have made me queen.”
An odd look in his eye again mixed emotions, as if perhaps he understood her but resented her all the same.
“I suppose I represent unpleasantness to you,” she offered.
The grim way he frowned indicated she had guessed correctly. “You represent the gods.”
“And yet, I am also at their mercy.” She rested her chin on her hand. “It is not wise to grow angry with the gods.”
“They are capricious,” Caedros said, “but do not tolerate it in their worshippers.”
She didn’t like the taste of that. It was odd how she couldn’t put her finger on it. Caedros could have been fire, could have been ice. His resentment had not yet cooled to smoldering embers, but there was a certain coldness to his voice and demeanor and patterns that told her he would not be so easy to forge friendship with as Tanata, who did not resent being tied to a wife even when he had no desire for one.
Eleya chose her words carefully, and if they came from a lifetime of training in such matters, so be it. “The gods are not capricious,” she said slowly. “They do not follow our ways.” And she knew their ways. She knew why it was little comfort to their people that the gods should consistently follow their own.
“You are saying it was not caprice that my sister is dead?” He leaned against a bookcase, an interested look on his face. He was resentful but not of her personally. She was merely a welcome and convenient object for the anger he could not safely direct at its true target.
Even so, a bitter heat rose up in her own words at those. “At least you were the last of your line, not your entire house.”
There were still princes and princesses of the Northern Wind, even within the direct line from previous rulers. The only princes and princesses of the Heart that remained were of secondary lines from siblings and cousins of the direct lineage. No one would take back a sacrifice to the gods when there was any other option considered better, of either gender.
But Caedros clearly knew which royal daughter she was. “I knew them all. I was raised with them,” he said. His voice was even but his eyes held such cold anger.
He thought her loss not personal.
“You think because I was sent away at a young age that I did not have reason to care?” Eleya felt her arms burning, her eyes stinging, but no cold words in her throat. This anger was her own. “Everyone I have even remembered loving is dead,” she said. “This does not please me.”
They understood each other, but they could not say they liked each other.
Dinner was not a pleasurable affair, though it was not a complete disaster. She was struck favorably by the eager interest of Sahasarel of the Southern Isles in everything different about the City from his own homeland. Sahasarel was eminently Southern, straight as an arrow with burnished skin and long dark hair, only hers was braided in the manner of an oracle and Sahasarel’s was tied back simply in the manner of the Isles. Tanata turned out to be an enjoyable conversationalist, offering answers and details to Sahasarel and the occasional warning when appropriate. Nirune of the Eastern Plains was quiet almost to a fault, but he seemed to miss nothing. Caedros was polite and had plenty of stories to keep Sahasarel occupied.
For herself, Eleya became as quiet as Nirune, listening and sensing the swirling patterns around her. They had yet to coalesce into a single weave between people who would bind their lives together.
Their journeys to the Heart had been uneventful, the weather was not cursed by the gods, and only her House and Caedros’ had fallen to the Plague. The other Houses were respectful but did not share their upheaval.
They were all strangers, and she was strange to this life and the task of ruling. She excused herself at the end of the meal without staying to socialize further as she should
Instead, she passed through the antechambers to her rooms, ordered the maidservants to stay in the antechambers, clambered out of a dress too complicated for her, and curled up in the bottom of the wardrobe like it was a prayer closet and finally wept for all the things she could never change.0