|"Aristocrats gathering around Emperor Franz Joseph at a ball in the Hofburg Imperial Palace, painting by Wilhelm Gause (1900)." Image from Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain. It is, as is to be expected, a winter's ball.|
Cousins Masha and Arkady are children of war. Both their fathers died in the aftermath of a brutal contest for the throne; both their mothers wrested power from the grip of the patriarchy and paid the price. Both cousins were princesses, but are no longer—Masha because her parents' reign was annulled, Arkady because he is transgender—and both live in exile, be it in a faraway nation or the mysterious Mountains of Old. Both know that the Woman King of Kevarya is not long for this world. And both are headed toward the City of the Crown, intent on claiming the kingdom for themselves.
Pitted against each other by rival government factions, Arkady and Masha begin unraveling the most well-kept secrets of the Kevaryese court as they search for ways to take each other down. Gender, race, and sexuality are no longer facets of their identities, but weaknesses to be hidden, lest they be exploited. No one and nothing is safe. But Kevarya's secrets run deeper than either of them could imagine—and the very crown they're fighting for has a dangerous power that could prove to be their undoing.
Trigger warnings: deliberate misgendering, transphobic and homophobic comments, and incorrect assumption of child abuse.
A Winter's Ball
The ballroom glittered with light. Though the windows that would have flooded the room in sunshine just a few hours ago now brought in nothing but the dull gray of early evening, each of the five crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling scattered the light from its few circles of candles all across the room. The gilded embroidery on a lady's dress caught this light and cast it back out, where it glistened on an earring or a cufflink, and so on, until illumination surrounded the guests from all sides, like the echoes of a voice in a whispering gallery. Once Masha's eyes adjusted to this brightness, she watched in fascination as men and women twirled about to a lilting waltz. The trains on Kevaryese dresses were much longer than Masha was accustomed to, but the dancers seemed to have incorporated that into their movements without thinking. Skirts spun in time with their wearers, like they were extensions of the women's bodies, never impeding movement or inconveniencing nearby couples, who had their own skirts to deal with. Masha looked down at her own dress. The ruby swath of silk had an elegant drape to it, rather than the hoop skirt that was the fashion in Galara nowadays, but lacked the trains and long sleeves of the Kevaryese dresses. Masha laughed softly to herself. She would stand out from the crowd—but then again, she always did.
She made her way over to the fountain of sparkling wine on a nearby table and reached for a glass. A larger hand met hers. Masha stopped and looked up to see a man just old enough to be her father, with rough black hair pleated into a braid and scruff of the same color around his mouth. She had thought his skin a tawny beige when she had just seen his hand, but the deep tones of his suit jacket washed out his complexion, so that he looked paler—and less foreign—to the casual observer. He took two glasses, filled them, and handed one to Masha with a sly smile. Was he flirting with her? At his age? No, she decided. He looked more like someone who knew a secret and was looking for someone to share it with.
He had come to the right woman.
“How are you enjoying the ball, milady?” he asked, then took a sip of his drink. He shook his head a little and set the glass down.
She raised an eyebrow. “Wine not to your liking?”
“Too many bubbles, too little alcohol.” He appraised Masha's face. Something in his thoughts seemed to shift. “Haven't seen you here before.”
“I just arrived today,” she said.
“Ah.” His smile began to fade. He must have fought in the war—and clearly it hadn't given him a very favorable opinion of her country. That much she had come to accept, at least amongst the Kevaryese. “Where in Galara, exactly?” he asked. “North, south..?”
Should she try and conceal her origins? No, what would be the point? He'd only hold it against her when the question of her name inevitably arose. “North,” she said. This seemed to make him relax a little, though the reassuring effect it had on him was immediately undone by her next two words: “Blackwater Province.”
The man furrowed his brow as he scanned her face again. “You're the Traitor Prince’s daughter,” he said. His lips were pressed into a thin line.
Masha set her glass on the table next to his and extended her gloved hand. “Lady Marye Blackwater, though to most, I'm simply Masha.”
“A pleasure, I'm sure.” He bowed to kiss her hand, then looked back up at her with the confident expression of a man who knew he had just as notable a name. “Sir Sebastian Antonyve, at your service.”
“Finest archer this side of the ocean.” The smile of a secret-keeper returned to Sebastian's face. “On both sides, I'd wager, if the Southern Lands ever allowed a contest.”
Masha chuckled. “I think they’d be more likely to have your head.”
“Oh, of course. Hell, even if I managed to beat them they’d probably have my head as punishment.”
What Masha Blackwater didn’t say: “Hell” is a curious expression to use, given that the Kevaryese don’t believe in hell. Sir Sebastian Antonyve, where are you really from?
What Masha Blackwater did say: “Do you hold many contests here?”
“How else are soldiers supposed to keep their skills sharp without a war on?” Sebastian grinned. “You should join us sometime. Do you shoot?”
“Oh, no, not at all,” said Masha, taken aback despite herself. “I was never taught any weaponry. Though I do have my mother’s sword.”
The man bristled at the mention of her mother. Stupid, stupid, stupid, Masha thought—she had just gotten him to let his guard down, and now the walls were back up again. She allowed the shame to show on her face and added, “I was still a child when she died. I didn’t know what she had done, what my father had done-”
“It’s all right,” said Sebastian. He looked up at her with sympathetic eyes. “Children shouldn’t have to suffer for the mistakes of their parents.”
Masha blinked. The look in the archer’s eyes wasn’t just sympathetic, it was empathetic. He had once felt what she was feeling. The mistakes of their parents, he had said, not the sins. What mistakes had he made during the war? Or did he think himself the child in this scenario?
Sebastian was looking away from her now. She followed his gaze and saw King Mathylde and Lord Grigory enter, followed by a sullen-looking young man who, going by his eyes and complexion, was at least part Yenoui. Perhaps he was related to the Princess Arkadya, whose father had been from Yenoui. “Do you know who that is?” she asked.
“I do.” Sebastian chuckled a little. “You'd know the name instantly if I said it.”
Masha wanted for him to continue, but he didn't. He had that look on his face again—that sidelong smile that promised secret knowledge for the worthy. He was taunting her with it.
She looked at the man—no, boy—again. His hair was cropped short, like that of a soldier. He wore a brown shirt and jacket embroidered with gold thread—wealthy—and boots that went up to the knees of his breeches. The middle and forefingers of his right hand were calloused, but his left hand showed no blemishes. He was an archer, then, whose right hand notched arrows and drew aim, while his left only had to hold the bow steady. An archer, like Sebastian—no doubt that was how they knew each other, and that was the key to solving the puzzle.
“He's in your Longbow Guard, isn't he?” she said, taking a step toward the older man. “Did he study under you?”
“For seven years, before leaving court.”
“He was raised at court, then, to have to leave it.” Masha's thoughts returned to the King's Yenoui husband, dead for nearly twenty years. He had been an archer, too, as the Longbow Guard's commanding officer during the war. Masha had seen him in a portrait once. She now compared her memory of that portrait to the face of the boy before her. They had the same hair color, skin color, eye color, eye shape—but this boy's nose was more prominent than Ionai's. It jutted out in a perfectly straight line before pulling back in at the tip.
Just like Masha's father's nose had been, and King Mathylde's was. This boy had a fe Normonne nose.
Other resemblances soon showed themselves. The shape of the boy's face was round like the King's. His hair, though certainly thick, was fine rather than coarse in texture, and his legs were quite long in proportion to his small body, a fe Normonne trait that Masha shared with him.
She had three theories as to his identity. The first theory: he was a bastard child of Mathylde and one of her late husband's relatives. The second, a long shot: Princess Arkadya had a twin brother, hidden at birth to prevent another succession war, but recently something had happened—the Princess's ill health? Masha's own arrival?—that had forced Mathylde to acknowledge his existence. The third theory was that this boy was Princess Arkadya, in disguise for some as-of-yet undisclosed reason. Masha liked this theory best, as it was the only one that explained why Masha would recognize the youth's name as soon as she heard it. She also knew that if the second, not the third, theory was true, she would have little chance at doing what she came here to do.
A jolt of fear passed through her, but she forced herself to laugh a little. Even if nothing was amusing, it made her feel in control.
Beside her, Sebastian let out a chuckle. “You see it?”
“Of course,” she said coolly. “Though the conclusion I've come to raises far more questions than it answers. Why is the Princess disguised?”
Sebastian grinned. Masha had guessed right. “She's not disguised, it's her preference,” he said. “It started when she was fourteen. No one, especially not Lord Grigory, was overjoyed at the prospect.”
“You said she left court. Officially, it was announced that the Princess had fallen ill and had been sent to the countryside to recover. What was the real reason? Where did she go?”
“To the countryside, to recover,” Sebastian said with a shrug. “She'd had some injuries that needed to be tended to.”
“Injuries?” Masha held herself very still to keep from shivering. King Mathylde wouldn't hurt her child, she told herself. Lord Grigory wouldn't hurt the heir to the throne, would he?
Sebastian turned to look directly at her. His grin faded slightly as he registered the change in her demeanor. “Call her Arkady,” he said, more quietly. “Pretend she's a boy. She'll be grateful for the kindness.” He ran a hand through his hair, then glanced over Masha's shoulder. “Grigory's headed this way. If he asks, I told you nothing about the Princess,” he said through his teeth.
“Duly noted,” Masha said, raising her eyebrow ever so slightly. She made a mental note of the fact that Sebastian had called the Highest Adviser by just his first name, then then smoothly stepped aside to accommodate the approaching man. “Uncle Grigory, hello! Sir Sebastian was just telling me of all the tournaments he's won, it's all so thrilling. Don’t you just love this ball?”
Grigory gave a small nod in her direction. “I’ve seen too many a winter's ball to be thrilled at each new one, but I must agree that this evening is indeed quite pleasant.” A smile tugged at the corner of his lips as he turned to the other man. “Sebastian. Good to see you well.”
“And I, you.”
The first-name privilege was mutual, then. Masha smiled. Lord Grigory's inclinations being as they were, it was entirely possible that the two men were more than just friends. She'd investigate further, but not at the moment. She had learned enough secrets for one day.
“Masha, would you care for a dance?” asked Lord Grigory. His eyes did not leave Sebastian.
“Certainly, uncle.” She took his hand, then glanced back at the archer, who shrugged at her. Masha allowed herself a small chuckle before turning her attention to Grigory. “He seems nice.”
“Yes,” said Grigory, closing his eyes for a moment. “He is.”
“Did you know each other during the war?”
The old man's eyes snapped open. He looked at her with an expression that wasn't quite a glare, but was certainly meant to express disapproval. “Why do you bring that up?”
“It's clear that that what you really wanted to talk about,” said Masha, “I figured I would save you the trouble.”
He eyed her cautiously, then sighed. “Yes, the war was how we met. He was second-in-command under Ionai, there were a lot of strategy meetings.” After a moment, almost as an afterthought—though it had clearly been gnawing on his mind for some time—he asked, “How much do you know about your mother’s actions in the war?”
“She kept meticulous notes on strategy,” Masha said, keeping her gaze level, “as well as secrets she held over her spies, most of whom your government rooted out and executed after your victory.”
“Do any remain alive?”
Oh, you clever man. Masha took in a breath. It was certainly a risk, telling him what she knew, but she needed Lord Grigory on her side. “Of the most prominent,” she said, “only one.”
Grigory was outright glaring now. His grip on her tightened. She pulled away, subtly but firmly, managing to turn it into a twirl in time with the music. When she rejoined her great-uncle, her facial expression was as sympathetic as Sebastian's had been when they had spoken about her mother. “I’m not here to condemn anyone,” she said. “That is in the past, and I am here to forge the future.”
“Then why tell me this?”
Masha shrugged and smiled. “You were the one who asked.” She paused here, debating whether or not to add something about Arkadya but ultimately deciding against it. It still troubled her, though—if Grigory was homosexual, why should he have a problem with the Princess acting like a boy? In Masha's experience, sexual deviants tended to band together. Obviously in Kevarya this was not the case.
Another sigh from Grigory. “Why are you here, Masha? What do you want from us?”
She raised an eyebrow at his bluntness and spoke a half-truth: “Mostly, I just wanted to get out of Galara.” She smiled a little to mollify the situation. “It's strange—even though I haven't been here in twenty-five years, it feels almost like coming home. Did you know I first learned to walk here in Kevarya? And my first memory takes place here.” A memory of me and my family fleeing for our lives, a bitter part of her added. She ignored the thought. “So I'm not here as an ambassador, or as a spy or an invader. I'm family. Don't you agree?”
He narrowed his eyes. “I suppose.”
“Don't be like that.” She reached out and touched his hand lightly. He shuddered away and Masha closed her eyes. My mother, she thought. All he sees is my mother.
This wasn't going to be easy.