Since, the moment that these creeping things started to crawl upon their earth, I have hated them. Slow, stupid, bumbling things. Always at war with each other, always hating their own kind for the shallowest of reasons. Even the ones directly touched by their Creator are gray, drab things.
My own children would have shined, would have dominated the universe.
But, as they’re already bent on self-destruction, I’ll make use of them.
Possessing these creatures turned out to be a far simpler task than I ever anticipated, which opened my mind to all sorts of new possibilities. If I can possess one, perhaps I can gift one, the way their Creator does.
I’ve watched this one for a while. The third brother, not gifted like the two that came before him. His pride has been hurt, and he’s angry. He’s angry that his brother died, angry that his country was invaded. There are more selfish angers. And, of course, there is fear. I can always rely on fear. And so, when I began to whisper to him, he was ready to listen.
“If Samuel had no male heir, you should have been the one to inherit. Instead, he snubbed you and chose his daughter. What right does Samuel have to pass you up? It’s only because she is a mage. She and her common born, Montelarian husband, are more worthy in Samuel’s eyes than you. And now, they’re going to outrank you. That filth, the brother of the man who killed Issac, will be your king. You’ll be expected to bow to him, and his daughters.”
“This is the way of things,” I told him, “in a world run by mages.”
He’s been good enough to remove himself from his family. He’s gone to his country estate on his own lands. This is where I want him, sitting by the fire, sipping brandy, and going over financial records for his lands. Brooding, telling himself what a good landlord he is.
I slipped inside of him. It caused him some pain, I suppose, enough that he dropped his glass and cried out.
“Hush,” I whispered, “you’ll be glad I’m here.”
“What?” he cried.
“I’m going to help you. All of your life you’ve been neglected. Your brothers have always been favored because they were mages.”
“What’s happening?” he screamed.
“I’m helping you,” I said. “They were gifted, not because they’re better, or more worthy than you, but because the one you call your Creator is cruel. Picking and choosing people to bless at random, setting them above His other creations. You’re going to help me fix all of that. And in return, you’ll have power above all, more than you could possibly imagine.”
“Power,” he whispered. He was calm, then. He rose to his feet and nodded. Like a good little puppet.
“Yes,” I answered him. “We must start by killing your brother, and his daughter.”
Lenore Mestonie stood at the prow of her Uncle Lewis’s ship, the SOS Albatross. It was the flagship of her country, made of dark stained wood with billowing blue sails. It was a fantastic ship, the pride of her uncle. But she wasn’t interested in it.
She was looking for the silver gate, the Great Gate. The gate that led to her city, Septa. She felt as though she was starving, so desperate was she for the sight of it.
In her arms was her firstborn daughter, Eleanor. They shared the same blue eyes and cream-colored skin. But while Lenore had the dark curly hair that was a recognizable Mestonie trait, Eleanor had the light blonde hair of her father.
“Keep looking, little princess,” Lenore said, pointing toward the horizon. “We’ll be home soon. Not soon enough, but soon.”
A chorus of yipping alerted her to the arrival of her hound, Shepard, and her puppies. The baby dogs had inherited much from their wolf father and bore no resemblance to their mother’s brown fur and floppy ears. Instead, their gray coat was darker but not by much. Their ears would likely perk up over time, but for now, they flopped down comically as they bounced around in play with each other.
Shepard came to her master’s side and leaned against her. “Oh, are the babies tiring you out?” Lenore asked, scratching her ear.
“They are certainly tiring me out,” said her husband, Victor, as he joined her. “Worse than our two, these dogs.” He was holding Eleanor’s twin sister, Loralie, upside down to make her giggle. She looked even smaller than she was when her father held her. He was a large man, taller than any other on the ship. He’d allowed his blond hair to grow while they’d visited Montelair, and even now it flopped over his face. Loralie more closely resembled Lenore, with the same curly hair and button nose.
On Victor’s shoulder was a brown rat they called Korzhik. He had recently suffered a bath from Ramona, the family nurse. He looked much fluffier but seemed obsessed with washing the scent of soap out of his fur.
“You have been standing here all morning,” Victor chuckled. “You know you can’t get us there any faster by staring.”
“I know,” Lenore replied, “I’m just eager to be home.” She set a hand on her belly. She hadn’t yet started showing, but she knew it wouldn’t be long. “I can’t wait to tell everyone that we’re expecting another baby.”
Victor grinned. He pulled her and Eleanor close with one arm and kissed her. “And we won’t be on the run, with this pregnancy. We have peace with Montelair, and we will be home. I won’t have to worry every second that you’re in danger, for once.” He glanced around the deck, and added, “I do notice, however, that Anthony seems to have abandoned you.”
“I sent him below deck to pack,” Lenore replied. “I can’t imagine I need to be guarded while aboard the ship.”
A flash of silver caught her attention in the distance. “There it is,” she said, breathing a sigh of relief. In the crow’s nest, a sailor was shouting the news. Soon Captain Lewis and his daughter, Lady Harper, were on the deck.
Lewis, Lenore’s uncle on her mother’s side, was a barrel-chested man who looked more like an old sea captain than a nobleman. His beard was trimmed but longer than Septan fashion. He wore cotton to keep him warm at sea. His face showed the wear of years in the ocean winds. His daughter, Harper, was taller than him by a hand, with a messy bun and a thick wool coat over her shoulders. She wore breeches, unlike any of the other women aboard. She seemed to be in the process of scolding her father.
“No, I don’t think it was warranted at all,” she said. “That woman devoted her life to The Creator, and you bloody well made her cry.”
“I wouldn’t have had to if she’d listened when I asked her to stop fussing over me,” Lewis said. “Daughter Coriander looked over me, and she didn’t fuss.”
“That’s Elder Sister Coriander now. I’m sure she’s going to have something to say to you when she finds out about your behavior. In fact, I imagine she’s going to kick your bum up beside your ears.”
“I am your papa!” Lewis said, “And you’ll not be telling the Elder anything. Unless you want your mama to hear about your pants wearing ways.”
“Uncle,” Lenore said, “we’re nearly home. Are you excited?”
“Not particularly,” Lewis said. “I’ve come home to the Great Gate hundreds of times, Niece. Mostly what I do when I get there is find a new reason to get back on my ship.”
“He’s not allowed fatty meat anymore,” Harper said. “He’s replacing it with being a prat at everyone.”
Lenore stifled a laugh. “I’m going to go check on Tabitha and Lucy,” she said. Leaving Eleanor with Harper, she headed below deck.
Her room on the ship was small, but space on board was always at a premium. The bed was made already, with a thick blue comforter and white satin pillows. Tabitha and Lucy were packing Victor and Lenore’s belongings from the built-in drawers into a trunk.
Tabitha quick eyes darted over to Lenore when she entered the room, not bothering to bow. Years of friendship had put an end to such things. Her wife, Lucy, was a good head taller than her, with a sharp nose. She as well didn’t bow but gave Lenore a quick nod.
Sitting with them was the Montelarian Princess, Victor’s niece, Anna. Several weeks of good meals and good care had been enough to put some weight on the child. It hadn’t yet taken away the haunted look in her eyes. After the childhood the girl had, Lenore wasn’t sure it would ever go away.
From the open doorway, leading into the next room, Lenore could see Anthony, her bodyguard. His long, curly hair was pulled back into a ponytail, leaving his scarred neck exposed. He was going over his bags and gave her a brief nod when he saw her.
“I didn’t think we had that much to pack,” Lenore said. “Didn’t most of our things burn up in the explosion?”
“We’ve only just started,” Tabitha said.
“I’m packed,” Anna said.
“Good,” Lenore said. “Thank you, Anna.”
Ramona, the royal nurse, came bustling in just then. She was a portly woman, dressed plainly in a cotton gown and simple shoes. “Where are the babies?” she asked.
“On deck with Victor,” Lenore said.
Ramona threw her hands up. “I’ve got to get them dressed!” she cried. “Does no one think to tell me these things?”
She hurried out of the room again.
“We’re about to go through the Great Gate,” Lenore said. “Anna, would you like to come see?”
“Are we?” Lucy asked, getting to her feet. “Great, I can’t wait to get off this ship.”
“Oh no, you’re staying here,” Lenore said, “Anna’s already packed.”
Lenore took Anna’s hand and led her upstairs, leaving Tabitha and Lucy to mutter over the packing.
Back on deck, Ramona was fussing over the cotton dresses the girls were wearing. “I can’t believe this is how we’re presenting them to their grandparents,” she said. “Lenore, you and your brothers never wore cotton.”
“We were in a war in Montelair,” Lenore said. “I think Mama and Papa will understand.”
“Well, maybe the king will,” Victor said, “Her Grace might not be as understanding when she sees her granddaughters in common cotton.”
Anna looked startled. “Is cotton not all right? What about wool?” She was dressed in a dark red wool gown, with silver buttons down the front. Her boots were Montelarian leather with fur lining. She wore a rabbit furred hat now that they were out on the deck.
“You look perfect, Dear,” Lenore said, putting a hand on the younger girl’s shoulder. “You’re a princess. Anything you do is noble.”
Monroe, the chief of Septa’s ambassadors, joined them on deck. He looked flustered, which turned to irritation when he caught sight of Anna. “Princess,” Monroe said. “Your brother and uncle tasked me with looking after you. How am I to do that if you don’t stay where you tell me you’re going to be?”
Anna put her hands behind her back. “But I was with Mistress Tabitha,” she said.
“Yes, but I didn’t know that, did I,” Monroe stated. He sighed and looked up at Lenore. “How will you ever look after three of these?”
Victor, who was wiping dirt from Eleanor’s nose, said, “We employ a nursemaid. We also live in a palace full of servants, with my in-laws. I am sure we will manage as many babies as Lenore and I can have.”
As they pulled into Septan waters, the naval fleet came into view. Uncle Lewis, as commander of the navy, moved to the prow of the ship to greet them. Lenore stood beside him after setting Eleanor on her hip.
Lewis gave her a proud smile. “Look at you. The first female heir to the throne, coming home to the city that loves her.”
“I don’t know if my city loves me,” Lenore said, “but I sure love her.”
“I have missed Septa as well,” Victor said, pulling her close.
“Really? You didn’t want to stay in Montelair?” Lenore asked.
“No,” Victor replied, “It was good to visit my motherland, but this is my home.”
The ship pulled into the dock. Sailors hurried to set up a plank for them to disembark. Lenore’s father, King Samuel Mestonie, waited for them. He was a tall man, with no more than a dusting of gray in his dark hair. He was dressed plainly, in black breeches and a blue jacket with embroidery at the hems. But for the silver crown on his head, he might have been any Septan man.
Lenore wanted desperately to run to her father and throw her arms around his shoulders. Since the last time she’d seen him, she’d fought in a war, commanded a military hospital and nearly been blown to pieces several times. She wanted to be a child again, with her father there to watch after her.
Too much time had passed since she was a little girl though. Too many things had been said, and not said between them, for her to run to him like that again.
Instead, she walked to the end of the plank and bowed to him.
“What’s this?” Samuel asked, “Bug, I haven’t seen you in months! Come here.” He reached out for her and pulled her into a tight hug. “I was starting to get worried I wasn’t ever going to see you again,” he whispered.
“I’m fine,” Lenore said, a little stiffer than she meant to. “I’ve missed you too, Papa.”
Eleanor, caught between the two of them, started fussing. This caught Samuel’s attention. “I have missed you as well, my tiny darling,” he said, taking her.
Victor came to the end of the plank with Loralie. “There’s little Lori,” Samuel said, reaching out for her. “Victor, you look well, son. Come, let’s get home so that we can catch up.”
They boarded the waiting gondola. Lord James, the founder of the Dead Eye archers, stood next to the poler. His broad shoulders fit strangely over an otherwise narrow frame. He gave Lenore and Victor a nod, but then returned to scanning the crowd with wary eyes.
It was common practice for commoners to collect to see members of the royal family return home. Lenore had expected it.
What she hadn’t expected was for the people to be angry to see her.
All along the boardwalks, people jostled to see the gondolas and shouted insults. Some people waved greetings, but this seemed to infuriate the others. Several fights broke out as Lenore watched.
“What is this?” Lenore asked.
“There’s been a bit of trouble,” Samuel said. “We’ll talk at the palace.”
“I thought you said things had calmed down,” Victor said. Someone threw something at the gondola. Victor clenched his fist, bringing up a magical shield. A rotten egg hit it, breaking and falling into the canal waters.
“This is calmer,” Samuel said, grimacing.
Their gondola pulled up to the front of the palace. Anthony stepped onto the dock to assist Lenore. Just then, a young man ran from the crowd toward him. His hair was a mess, and his clothes were stained and rumpled as though he’d been wearing them for days. A guard grabbed his arm, but Anthony yelled, “Let him go, I know him.”
The boy stumbled toward him. Lenore had hopped from the gondola herself. “Anthony, who is this?” she asked.
“Princess, this is Heath. He is my son’s lover,” Anthony said.
“I tried to get a letter to you,” Heath sobbed, “but I couldn’t. I’m sorry, Anthony, I’m so sorry.”
“It’s Adam,” Heath sobbed. “The Underground Path got him!” He broke into sobs and fell to his knees in front of them. “They tore out his guts in the middle of the square!