The second time Ishalat saw the Stone Prince, her heart clenched with the fierceness of her anger. He had the sword at his belt that had slaughtered hundreds of her people and the expression on his face was known for: nothing, in the terrifying manner of those who do not care what blood stains their hands if it is for the object of their own loyalty.
This was her first impression of him. He was but the infamous sword in his own queen’s hand. Her expression was not nothing. It was calculating and intent beneath the coils of her dark hair, bound up for this special occasion—a marriage to ally two warring peoples and bring an end to the bloodshed wrought too frequently upon the sword of the stone prince.
His hands were gloved. He stood at his queen’s right hand. His cloak covered him, but seemed unnecessary. He was clothed from collar to foot in sturdy wear fit for battle or dueling but with the fineness of one considered noble. His hair was as fair as his queen’s was dark, a golden patch of sunlight over his head with a shade kissed by fire, eyes that seemed dull until he turned them on Ishalat. Then she saw that they were a piercing steady blue.
I will never love you, she thought in her heart as she stepped forward, her brothers and father behind her, the princess of her own realm. Her blue gown matched his eyes for vividness, a color no one outside of her clan was taught the dyes of; her hair matched the other queen’s for its curls and braids and the thickness of its lustre; her neck shone with the jewels of her mother that marked her high birth.
The Stone Prince looked at her with those intent eyes and seemed to mark her as not a threat. It made something painful and hot burn in her chest, and she had to bite back the retort that sprang to her lips. Today was a day for alliances, for reaching out her hand to his and feeling his gloved fingers close around her bare ones. It was not for provoking this man who had killed two of her five brothers and three of her uncles without regret.
Her heart felt heavy with the weight of her anger, but she made herself smile as she had promised her mother she would do.
Ishalat was the peace of her people. She would do this, just as he would—without regret.
Nobody tells three-year-old princesses, excited about the fantasy of a fine prince to wed, that most likely they will be married off in favor of political advantage or to bring an enemy to heel, to produce sons and daughters with the right blood to unite two peoples who otherwise hate each other.
Ishalat remembered when she first imagined her future husband, and she never imagined this, his hands gentle at the seams of her clothes, undressing her with no more expression than he’d struck down her brother on the battlefield, with no more tenderness than he cleaned his blade after.
She shivered at the sensation of gloved fingers over her bare shoulder. She dared to reach up and stay his hand.
He looked at her curiously.
“You’re still gloved,” she said. It seemed wholly intimate to ask him to undress, but piece by piece, the armor of her dress and jewelry was dismantled and here, she had yet to see any of him but his face.
“Lady,” he said, his voice a scratchy midtone that surprised her, not that of an ideal warrior. There was something in the set of his mouth and the color of his words that was not so obedient as the way he brought glove to mouth and tugged it off with his teeth.
Something flipped within her belly. She ignored it and reached for the fastenings of his cloak. It was not that Ishalat was eager to see what her wedding had brought her, but she refused to stand by and let him unclothe her without taking some power back for herself by doing the same to him.
He was… not unbeautiful. Lean, fair again, visible strength beneath his skin. But he was covered in scars: unexpected ones like surprises hiding under his ribs, these messier than the crosshatches against upper arm and shoulder on one side, lower arm twice over on the other. Knife wounds those. She couldn’t identify those on his torso.
He reached behind her and unclasped her hair to fall warm over her shoulders and he twined his fingers into it. His other hand reached for her belt and her dress was essentially off her, only her undergown and necklace between her and nakedness.
“Boots,” she whispered.
He studied her a moment with those focused eyes beneath that red gold hair she’d never seen before on any but him. It had made her wonder if he’d been kissed rather by blood than fire. His mouth tilted in a faint smile, and it’s unevenness gave him a rakish look as he rasped, “Lady,” and bent to remove his boots.
This was not the feeling she wanted, this heated, too rapid beating of her heart as her hand came to twine in his hair as his had in hers. She didn’t release him when he straightened again, but put the other hand to his shoulder and gestured that he should turn.
The first flicker of something recognizable as feeling within his eyes. But he turned, wordless, let her fingers drop from his hair to his back as she gazed in horror at the scars she had glimpsed as he bent.
Straight, perfectly even, perfectly of the same length—this was no accident or battle that had littered his back with the series of marks. What blade had done this?
Ishalat ran her palm over hot skin, felt the thumping rhythm of heart and her enemy, her husband. She snatched her hand back. She had no right.
He turned to her again then, this Stone Prince, so named for his demeanor rather than any true title. His title was Sword. He was the sword of his queen. He tucked his fingers beneath Ishalat’s chin. Mindful of the intimacy he had just allowed, she raised her eyes to his and let him look his fill. She was beautiful. She knew she was beautiful, for she held the inheritance of being her mother’s daughter, and her mother was the most beautiful among all their people.
He said nothing still, this husband of hers, just leaned forward and brought her mouth to his, tasted her with the caution such a man might bring to the edge of the blade when testing its sharpness. She lost her breath in that moment, felt tension jumping under her skin, cool air prickling her arms, and the heat of his fingers on her face, his teeth against the edges of her lips. It was too much. She pulled back. She put her hand to his jaw and studied him while he let her look her fill.
I will always hate you, she said within herself and pulled him down to kiss her again.
She was a woman now, rising in her own bed, drawing the sheet up to cover her breasts as she looked down at the man sprawled under the covers still. He looked more vulnerable without his own armor or sword—just a man, nothing to shield him from her gaze.
Not even a name.
Ishalat ran one finger over his shoulder, unsurprised when he instantly tensed up and rolled over onto his back rather than his side, the better to gaze up at her. He raised one eyebrow, and she suppressed the way it made her want to blush.
“Did they tell you my name?” she asked. Politely. It was better than immediately demanding his own.
“Ah.” He rolled back onto his side, eyes half closed as he curled into the pillow as if unwilling to wake. “It’s Seru.”
She had to tamp down on the swell of irritation at his choice to skip her question and answer instead what she’d been aiming for. “Did they tell you my name?” she asked again. It wouldn’t do to let him get away with such a thing so early on.
His mouth smiled faintly, a mischievous curl to his lips. “No.”
She huffed out a breath.
“Ishalat.” Then his eyes closed all the way, and his breath evened out again in sleep.
What an irritating man.
Her mother had prepared her for this day from the moment their treaty messengers were first received. Their enemies had never before received messengers from them, sending them back unharmed but utterly rejected.
There were ways to bind a treaty with something other than marriage, something other than blood, but there were no ways older or better, so her mother measured her for fine dresses suitable to a woman of standing and trimmed them with the tassels of maidenhood. “You’ll cut these when you’re wed,” she told her daughter.
There were blessings on the jewels for her wrists—protection against Those Who Hungered, the isinar, spirits once held back by a wall of prayers but now warded against on every new bride and babe. There were blessings for the jewels around her neck—fertility and wisdom, to carry children safely and guide her husband into aiding their people for the sake of his wife. There were blessings on the jewels at her ankles—strength and grace, for the dance and the hunt.
“Be brave, my daughter, and make him yours.”
They couldn’t stay in bed forever, and she dragged him bodily from the covers when he seemed likely to ignore the second horn of the morning. The wedding feast always lasted more than a single day.
“Your queen watches us as if we will betray her,” Ishalat commented as she clasped her jewels around her neck and arms again. It was a question, in its way, one he was not obligated to answer.
The Stone Prince had even more layers to don than she did, and she watched him pull boots over trousers and tuck one into the other. “You hate me, don’t you?” It was not a question, in its way.
But Ishalat felt her face burning, the heat rising in her chest, as she remembered the first time she’d seen the Stone Prince’s red gold hair, when he cut down her brother in battle. “You have slain my family.”
His hands stilled on his belt as he looked at her curiously. “I have served my queen loyally. And now I have given that loyalty to you, my wife, and to any children we may have.”
It was— It was no answer to what bothered her. She wrapped her lace over her dress, stitched with embroidery of battles won over isinar, and went out into the feasting place.
Ishalat rose from the table when the food had been tucked away into hungry bellies, at the first strike of the music and staff. She was counted among the women now, not the maidens, and she had always been best and fiercest of the dancers since first her feet had learned the steps.
She whirled to song and dance with all the strength and grace her mother’s blessings could possibly bestow, listened to the laughter of her people, for this was a celebration, for them more than for her. She danced for them, faster and faster and faster—
Before hands caught her and twirled her to him. He let go her sash and turned her, moving in the dance with her at a speed no other had matched.
The air was cold against her skin, but everywhere he touched, even through cloth, was far too warm as they drew close, breath mingling harshly, before whirling apart and letting him twist her into the spiralling moves of the dance.
The music felt a living thing. They moved to its rhythm—in, out—keeping time like they’d learned it together, and it shouldn’t make her heart beat with something other than anger or make her burn with a hunger she’d never known before last night.
They drew to a close with the last strands of the song, and his arms were around her—chaste in appearance, but every part of her body felt on fire.
Her people shouted their approval but it was the faint tingling of bells that drew her eye, up to the queen with her cunning gaze, shaking a wrist gently in the manner of approval of his people, not hers.
“Well danced,” the queen said with a smile so sharp it could cut.
That was when Ishalat remembered she was held in the arms of that queen’s sword. She drew away, not far enough to be impolite, just enough to conclude the dance they had shared.
“Ivrais,” the queen said to one of her councilors. They brought her the ceremonial stone, which she held out for Ishalat’s father to inspect.
He took it in his hands and looked it over before returning it with a nod.
It was vivid blue and bright, polished, and set on a thin chain of gold. The queen gave it to the Stone Prince, who fastened it around Ishalat’s neck over the jewels of her birth.
The queen smiled. “It is done.”
“I wonder sometimes,” Ishalat said as she cut the tassels of her virginity from her maiden gowns, “if the knives will cut me. Or perhaps that is merely the price of wielding the blade.”
He slipped his sword from his scabbard, held the weapon with his right hand, and studied the flat of it with a critical gaze. Then looked at her with a gaze more intense and answered, “Is the sheath cut by the blade?”
“I don’t think your queen would like to think of her sword as sheathed.”
He smiled sharply, so it startled her, holding the same edge as his queen’s cunning gaze. “What do you know of what my queen wishes?”
Ishalat blushed hotly. “I hope that she will keep that which she has spoken in treaty.”
“Yes.” He leaned forward as he repeated it slowly. “She will keep that which she has spoken in treaty.”
She stared at him, frowning, certain she could read the weight of meaning between his words, but not knowing him well enough to ferret it out.
He murmured, as one would a story told from memory, “You shall make war against them for a hundred years, and weaken them, that the spirits of cold and hunger may come again.”
For a moment, Ishalat couldn’t breathe and felt as if all the blood had drained from her face. The spirits of cold and wind, winter and hunger, pain and ice dwelt beyond the great north, where her people raised their prayers year after year to hold them out. There was enough of these things in the world without those who wielded them and feasted on those who felt them.
“You—” she whispered.
“As all of us have been taught,” he continued as if he had not stopped. “For this our grandfathers traded for the lives of our own people, brought low by the spirits when you drove them before you.”
For a hundred years…
Surely, it had been nearly that long. Or that long. Ishalat thought furiously through all she knew about his people, the word engraved on the hilt of his sword, Ivrais, their fierceness in battle, that of the seven times her fathers had reached out for a treaty, only once were they not immediately rebuffed.
He sheathed his sword again. “I am the Sword of Ivrais.”
“Oh? In our tongue, it means the bargain.”
Her hand flew to the ceremonial stone at her throat. They had seen that word on his hilt so many times as he brought their people low. Ivrais. Stone, they thought. The bargain struck with powers one ought to leave alone.
“Your queen has kept what she promised.” She looked up at her husband, Seru, the Stone Prince, saw something glinting in his eyes, the taste of something sharp still lingering in that smile. She considered all he had said this morning in their bed. “And you have given your loyalty to me?” And to their children.
His smile eased. “My Lady.” He bowed as he offered it.
The bargain was over. The war was truly over. “You were the Sword of Ivrais—” she began, but could not finish.
“My Lady,” he interjected. “I am the Sword. A new bargain has been struck. With my blade and its seven blessings, that are unharmed by cold or flame, that strikes down spirit or flesh alike, whose aim is true, that cannot be turned aside nor lost.”
It stunned her as she finally grasped what his queen had calculated.
Ishalat shifted her dresses from her lap and laid aside her knife, then stood and went to her husband to take him to her bed.0