They gave her a suite of rooms, all her own, large, elegantly furnished, and with a guard stationed outside the door. She did not own the guard. She did not pay him or command him, but if she held his eye long enough as she passed in and out, he would bow his head, unsure.
The suite was a long sprawl of rooms: an outer parlor for receiving, a wide, private lounge for the business of her days, and a bedroom that was peacefully dark at night and blessedly bright in the mornings. It seemed small when she first stepped into it, used to the expanse of her own rooms. After a week, it seemed over-large with just her rattling inside it. After a month, they seemed perfectly proportioned, as she could count the hours she had spent outside them.
And she waited.
While the days turned over, one to the next, she forced herself to sleep in long hours if she couldn’t keep them restful. Waking, she dressed in fresh clothing, brushed her hair and braided it as if she expected extended hours of company. If she braided it too tightly at first, looked too small and uneasy, she learned to let the knots loosen just enough to hold in their elegance.
She read the books in the lounge, sitting upright as if she were still in her lessons with her tutors across from her, and paid just as much attention to the meaning in the words. She convinced the maids to sit a while when they came in to stoke the fires or change the bed. She spoke with them, smiling and easy, and she listened carefully, calmly. She invited others to eat with her when they brought up trays from the kitchen. When they grew comfortable enough, they brought extra plates, both for themselves and for her, bringing in the things they knew she liked.
When they finally came for her, they found her in a long green dress that felt like cool air around her. Her hair hung over her shoulder in a four-strand braid, while the loose pieces hung around her face in clean curls. Stepping into the parlor, she carried her book loosely with her finger marking her place between the pages, clearly interrupted and unsurprised. It was easy to smile, easy to wait patiently for them to speak first. She knew how she looked – well-rested, calm, and beautiful – and she was proud of herself.
They had sent one of her cousins, a woman too far removed to even hold the family name. She seemed surprised. The two soldiers that trailed her into the room met Braelyn’s eye, and didn’t nod their respect, but didn’t hold her gaze for long either.
“Lady Braelyn,” her cousin said, without bobbing a curtsey, as she would have a few months ago.
Braelyn’s shoulders were already comfortably straight, her chin level with the floor. She didn’t need to move, so she didn’t. “Kedia,” she said. “It’s good to see you.”
Kedia blinked, and Braelyn might not have noticed, if she didn’t also forget to respond.
“The Visades are all returned to the island,” Kedia said. “They will hold court tomorrow morning and you will be the first to come and swear your loyalties.”
Braelyn wondered if Kedia felt any thrill in delivering an order to a girl who could have once ordered the oceans to turn over in their beds. Maybe it was the remaining fear that shook her hands while she waited for Braelyn to nod.
“You’ll come in the morning to help me dress?” Braelyn asked, each word a level stone that would not be altered by whatever answer followed across them.
Kedia bowed her head after a moment. “Of course.”
“Thank you,” Braelyn said, just as steadily.
Kedia hesitated, as if she had expected this to be a more complicated visit. Then she turned and left. The guards turned with her, smoothly, as if they had known when they saw the well-composed girl in the green dress that they would not need to stay long.
When Kedia returned in the morning, Braelyn was already out of bed. Her hair was brushed and she sat in the chair by the mirror in her dressing gown. There were dark circles under Kedia’s eyes, and the loops at the tie of her dress were uneven. Watching her enter, Braelyn took a long breath, feeling steadier, stonier for sitting across from her.
“Good morning, Kedia,” Braelyn said.
“Good morning, Lady Braelyn,” Kedia said, too quickly. She paused, as if she were trying to swallow her next thought, rather than speak it aloud. She couldn’t make it fit back down. “You do intend to swear today, don’t you?”
Braelyn had thought about it. But she had always been sure. “Yes,” she said.
Kedia took a deep breath, and her hands stopped shaking some.
Stepping forward, Kedia plucked the hairbrush off the table and began straightening Braelyn’s hair. It had already been combed to silk, but Braelyn let her. It was pleasant, in an almost forgotten way.
“You’ll swear and then the Visades will tell you what they are leaving you with,” Kedia said. “You obviously still have your pride, but forget it for today. Take whatever they give you. Whatever it is, it will be precious. They’ll take your island, of course. They’ll leave you here on Lesser, and take Varei for themselves.”
“Why?” Braelyn asked. She felt a little mean, because she already knew the answer Kedia would give, and knew it was wrong.
“Why?” Kedia repeated. “Because that’s what their grandfathers did the last time they took Clan from you.” She looked at Braelyn, seeming to be worried for a moment, that Braelyn knew nothing and understood less.
“Why would they gather back to Lesser, if they intended to go back to Varei?” Braelyn asked. “They have their pride, too. There will be nothing dramatic about the month it would take them to pack themselves up and take their new throne before they leave me here on their high seat. They’ll pack me up instead. Ship me back as quick as they can.”
Kedia stared at her. “You think they’re going to sit here on Lesser… and what? Start calling it Greater?”
“They’ll rule from it,” Braelyn said. “Whatever they call it.”
After a moment, Kedia stepped back behind her. She gathered Braelyn’s hair into sections and began to braid it in quick strokes. “You’re thirteen,” Kedia murmured. Braelyn knew she wasn’t really meant to hear. “How would you know?”
Braelyn dressed in a long blue dress, turned silver in places around the white stitching that raced around neck and hem and long sleeves. The Visades had given her the money for it weeks ago, and she wondered why they had, but didn’t care. It was beautiful, and she needed it today.
Kedia led her out of her suite and into the hall. The guard bowed his head when Braelyn passed him. It only took a moment, a habit now, and Braelyn loved him for it.
In the main hall, Braelyn’s dress brushed the stone floor. The lines of metal rings that tailors had started sewing into skirts to keep them down in the ocean winds, served her better than it had served anyone ever before. She smiled, her dress skimming the floor with the hiss of armor while she carried it as lightly as linen.
At the edges of the hall, the other lords and ladies stood in crowds of reverent color and gleam. They stood shoulder to shoulder between the pillars and hovered in smaller groups beyond them. They watched her, as she walked straight down the middle, the first of them to come forward, and her dress hissed like an ocean she had tamed.
“Lady Braelyn Ortell,” an attendant at the front of the hall announced to the high seat as she arrived.
Draik Visade sat in the high back chair, hair combed, a heavy chain of gold draped around his shoulders over a deep green coat. He wore no crown, but he needed no crown, looking down at her. Beside him, his son Cian stood in a long gray coat that gleamed silver in the light with straight, black seams. On his other side, his daughter wore a pale yellow coat with feathered wings stitched into the shoulders.
All three of them looked down at Braelyn. She curled her fingers around the hem of her sleeve.
“Welcome, my lady,” Draik Visade said. His voice was warmer than she had imagined, but cut clearly across the hall.
Braelyn sank into a curtsey, her knees touching the floor. “Thank you, my lord,” she said.
The entire hall took a deep breath. Braelyn felt the relief settle over her skin, and she took it in, let it sink deep until it touched her bones and she could feel herself stop the motion, hold it tight, turn it to stone. She took a breath as well, and watched the floor. When Draik told her to rise, her skirts hissed against the floor again and she smiled.
“You stand in my court,” Draik said. “Come, and swear your loyalty.”
Braelyn said the words, “I swear,” and they were easier than she had expected. “Loyalty and service to house of Visade. I swear loyalty and service to the Clan of the Isander. Ortell will come when we’re called, sail where we’re told, protect where we’re placed. From this day, until my last, lest the sun turn aside.”
The room hushed to awe when she sank into another curtsey, knees on the floor, head down. She slid down easily, gracefully, and waited for him to tell her to rise again.
“I accept,” Draik said. “And I thank you. Stand.”
He was smiling when she looked at him, but it slowly fell away as she held his eye a little too long. Unsure, he nodded, inviting her to take a place on the side of the hall again.
Sliding to toward the pillars, she wondered if he had understood that she didn’t care if the sun blacked out entirely over her head; before she died, she would hold everything he had taken.
I’m not a thief! But my friends are (and I love them for it). They took the first line of this piece to write fictions of their own. Check them out here.