Image description: a raven in flight, its tail and wing feathers dissolving into black smoke,
lit from behind by a large, yellow-tinted full moon. Image from Pixabay.
This passage comes from the very beginning of the book, featuring Arkady (as usual) and Thyld. We've seen some of Arkady's relationship with his mother and the beginning of his search for transformation magic... Now it's time for these two aspects of his identity to come into direct conflict.
The hardest part of being a shapeshifter was letting go of the form you took. Trading weight with the universe was a complex and delicate process—it took time to shed antlers and fur, or to molt feathers and draw the wing bones back into the ridges of your spine. And all that time you had to keep your mind clear, your thoughts focused on returning to your first form, the body you were born in. You had to come back to your first form every so often to renew your magic or risk burning yourself out. That was the price of a shapeshifter’s freedom—you had to learn to be as comfortable in your own form as you were in others, and to recognize when the necessity of preserving your freedom was worth the pain of relinquishing it.
Arkady hated it. He had spent most of his life thinking his body was a prison. It had taken him years to realize that it wasn’t his body imprisoning him, but other people—he had the right to be himself, no matter what the world thought he ought to be. And shapeshifting was a part of who he was, and he was proud of it. It was unfair to ask him to give that up, even for a little while, just so the universe could balance the amount of matter it contained.
He closed his eyes. You are Arkady fe Normonne, he told himself. You are a man. You are a mage. You are a prince.
Bitter thoughts flooded his mind—no, I’m not, because Mother can’t even acknowledge me or use my real name in front of anyone else, and she still doesn’t really know me, she still wants me to be her perfect princess and inherit the throne and lie to the world about who I am every day of my life just so I can be king like her because she thinks I’m really just a girl—
I am not a girl, he insisted. And anyone who says otherwise isn’t worth a damn.
With a sigh, he shifted back into his first form. His body still looked wrong to him, though not as much as it had in the past. He had cropped his dark hair short, and with a combination of binding and loose clothing his chest was noticeably flatter. The tea that he made from the ginseng plants he grew in pots by his window helped stop his monthly bleeding and deepened his voice a little. His face remained more or less the same—dark eyes, folded at the tips, that he’d inherited from his father; pale skin and a straight nose that came from his mother. Supposedly King Mathylde fa Normonne of Kevarya had ancestry that traced back to the Khasakan horsemen and hunters of the ancient steppe, but Arkady’s blonde, gray-eyed mother looked far from it. Not that it mattered anyway. She was the king, the first woman to claim the previously masculine title for her own, and Arkady was her heir.
He had almost let himself forget that. He almost thought he could run off into the wilderness and no one would be able to find him, save for the few servants who provided for his needs and kept his woodland cottage from being discovered or attacked. Here in the Mountains of Old, all magic was heightened—Arkady had wondered if the energy of the mountains themselves helped to shield him from the outside world while he learned to shapeshift. But in the back of his mind, he always knew that the solitude he had known for the past year and a half wasn’t going to last much longer.
And now someone from court was coming for him. He had seen the carriage coming up the road as he flew overhead in raven’s form, barely half an hour ago. Now all he could do was wait for the knock on the door.
There it was. Bold at first, then hesitant the second time. He briefly considered shifting into someone else and telling whoever had come for him that this was the wrong cottage. The servants might give him away, but it would at least give him a little more time—
The rush of joy at hearing his true name was short-lived. He knew that voice. Oh, no. Please, dear Ancestors, no.
Dazed, Arkady walked toward the door and opened it. There, in the middle of the forest on the side of a mountain nearly two hundred miles from the City of the Crown, stood his mother. She wore a plain woad-blue dress—plain by royal standards, anyway—embroidered with white thread that matched the thick, fur-trimmed cloak wrapped around her to protect against the cold wind. Her posture was rigid, as always, even though she had complained to Arkady many times that her back ached constantly. She was never one to show vulnerability, in appearance or in action.
Arkady forced himself to meet her eyes and spoke first. “Why are you here?”
His mother furrowed her brow in clear disapproval of his brusqueness. “Hello, Arkady.” She paused slightly before saying his name, unused to the feel of it on her tongue. “May I come in?”
He stepped aside to let her through the doorway, then pulled up a birch-wood chair and gestured for her to sit. She did so, and he pulled up another chair for himself, tucking one leg up to rest upright on the seat. His mother winced for a fraction of a second before returning to her neutral expression.
“You never did like sitting in chairs properly,” she said.
I don’t like doing anything properly, Mother, he thought instinctively, and almost said it aloud before stopping himself. “Why are you here?” he repeated instead. Might as well get right to it.
“Arkady,” she said again.
Did she think she would be forgiven for simply saying his name over and over again?
His mother closed her eyes and let out a deep breath. “One of the mages at court—a seer—had a vision.”
Arkady raised an eyebrow. “What does that have to do with me?”
“The vision was of you,” she said. “You spoke to the seer. You said… You said that I was going to die before spring comes.”
Arkady’s muscles seized up all at once. Suddenly, it took all his effort just to breathe, just to keep looking at his mother’s face as he processed what she said. Mother was going to die. She was only fifty-two—if she lived until Silent Moon, maybe she would live to fifty-three. People didn’t die of natural causes at fifty-three, especially not kings with magical healers at their disposal and all the luxuries royalty could afford. Which meant a plague was coming, or a war, or a direct attempt on her life. She would die, and none of the healers would even try anything because it was foretold. And he would have to be the one to deliver the news.
He would have to be king after her.
He had known this ever since he was a child, if only in the abstract. It had been an inevitability, almost like a prophecy of its own. After his mother died, Arkady would be king. But he had always thought it would be later, when he had come into his own as a shapeshifter and everyone saw him as the man he truly was. As of now, he was twenty, barely an adult. Aside from his mother, his uncle, and his archery tutor Sebastian, no one at court knew his identity. His family had done a damn good job hiding it from the world.
And Arkady hated to admit it, but he wasn’t sure he was ready to stop hiding.