Devon leaned over the railing of his ship, the StarS Cobra, watching as the afternoon sun and the Great Gate of Septa drew closer. The wind blew through his dark curly hair, chilling his face. He’d forgotten how cold it could be outside of the desert. The skies were cloudy, and the waters of the Dragon Tears River were choppy.
It had been raining when he’d left Septa, too.
In Calistar, where everything was still new and foreign, it had been easier to set aside his grief for his older brother, Octavian. It hadn’t gone away, not by any means. But there hadn’t been painful memories waiting around every corner.
He and Octavian had come out to the bay to fish when the weather was good. Sometimes they’d caught enough for the whole family to eat dinner. Or, if they didn’t, the servants had slipped a few extra in.
He was relieved when his wife, Sultiana, joined him. She put her arms around him from behind, resting her chin on his shoulder. She was only a bit shorter than him, with dark brown skin and a thick black braid that she coiled around her head like a crown. They both wore white silk, the mark of Calistar nobility.
“You look weary, Honored Husband,” she said. “I thought you’d be happy. We’re going to see your family, our new nieces.”
“I am happy, for the most part,” Devon said. “I’m excited to see my mother and Lenore. Even Victor.”
“And your father?” she asked.
Devon grimaced. “That’s another matter. How did you know?”
“It’s my job to know such things. I’ve never understood your relationship with your father,” Sultiana said.
“Of course not,” Devon said. “Your father was perfect. He accepted my weaving, taught me everything he could. His life obviously revolved around you and your sisters. My own father, well. He’s always been a nobleman first.”
“Your father loves you,” Sultiana said.
“I know he does,” Devon said. He turned around to pull Sultiana against him. Around them, sailors and soldiers from each of the five tribes grinned at their king and queen’s obvious affection for each other.
“What about you, though?” he asked, “You look like you’ve been crying.”
She gave him a sad smile. “My courses came,” she said.
“Oh,” Devon said. “Well, I mean, you couldn’t have been pregnant again.”
“No, I know,” she said, nodding. “It’s just a reminder. I’d have been showing by now.”
“We’ll get a baby,” Devon said. He set his forehead on hers and smiled. “I imagine it’ll be lots of fun trying, too.”
“Lots, yes,” Sultiana said, chuckling. She looked toward the gate. “Do you think Chrissie will be all right back home?”
“She’ll do great,” Devon said, thinking of his assertive and strong-minded sister-in-law. “She’s got Kadar, Gia, Shilom, and Sabre to help her.”
Thinking of the people they’d left behind brought his thoughts to the friends that had come with them.
Saja, Sultiana’s chief adviser, was coaxing her falcon down from a piece of the rigging. She was dressed in Smith Tribe red with newly cropped hair, holding a bit of flatbread for him.
Devon couldn’t see Butrus, the bulking Farmers Tribesman who was to be their new ambassador to Septa. But this wasn’t uncommon. Butrus had spent most of the trip keeping to himself.
Sultiana’s assistant, Mergin, was talking with an uncomfortable looking sailor. She wore Smith red as well, a long skirt and tunic. Her skin was honey colored, her eyes heavy with kohl.
“Will you change into Septan clothing while we’re here?” Sultiana asked.
Devon considered his clothes. He wore a pair of white silk pants and a loose-fitting tunic with a vest over it. A cloth belt wrapped around his waist, into which, he’d tucked his ornate dagger. His leather boots were laced over his pants, reaching halfway to his knees. “I don’t know,” he said. “It might be a little cold, wearing this.”
Mergin, apparently done with the sailor, came to join them. “Sire, I wonder if I could ask you some questions about Septa. I’ve never been there. Actually, I’ve never been outside of Calistar.”
Devon almost laughed. It had taken fighting in a war together for Mergin to feel comfortable talking to him. Even so, she did so only when she thought it necessary.
“I wish our people would travel more,” Devon said. “Not just the Scholars and Traders Tribes. Everyone should see more of the world.”
“Do Septans travel often?” Mergin asked.
“No, as a matter of fact, they don’t,” Devon said. “I wish they did, too. I think we’d all be a lot better off if we saw more of the world than where we were born.”
Trumpets started to blare at the Great Gate, announcing their arrival.
The ship pulled into the dock. Waiting for them were the Lords Monroe and James. They were accompanied by a handful of guards, who were keeping a close eye on the crowds on the boardwalk.
Sultiana shivered. “Something feels strange,” she said, looking up at Devon.
“What in The Creator’s name is this?” Devon whispered, looking around the surrounding docks. They were crowded with people shouting at the Calistarians as they left the ship.
“Prince,” Monroe called, waving for him. Devon walked down the plank to meet him. “No,” he corrected himself. “You’re a king now.”
“It’s still just Devon, please,” he replied, reaching out to shake his hand. He and Monroe had faced the Dragon Plague together. He couldn’t bear such formality from him.
“Of course,” Monroe said, grinning. “My friend, I am so happy to see you.”
“Gladder than the city might be,” James said, clapping Devon on the shoulder. “Keep your bow close, Devon. Ah, Queen Sultiana. It is good to see you again, Your Majesty.”
James bowed to her, and she inclined her head politely. “Where is my Honored Father-in-law? Is he unwell?” she asked.
James grimaced. “I’m afraid he is dealing with a situation that couldn’t wait. He asked me to escort you to the palace.”
“What was so important that he couldn’t come himself?” Devon asked.
“We should talk at the palace,” Monroe said, glancing around.
Two gondolas were waiting for them. Devon, Sultiana, Stella, and Mergin joined James in the first, while the others climbed aboard the second with Monroe.
“I was only making a suggestion,” Devon heard Butrus say to Saja. “You don’t need to scratch my eyes out, Woman.”
“You are not my father, brother, uncle, or even a member of my tribe,” Saja snapped. “You’ve got no right to speak to me about my veil, Herdsman.”
Devon turned back, intending to chide them. As he did, someone in the crowd threw something at Saja. She jumped sideways into the gondola just in time to avoid a rotten egg. “Go home, sand whore!” the thrower yelled.
Devon was on his feet, his bow in his hand. He shot toward the man, catching his jacket sleeve and pinning him to the wall behind. He looked back at the other gondola in time to see Butrus raise an eyebrow at Saja.
“Oh don’t say a word. They’d have thrown that whether I’d had my veil on or not,” Saja snapped.
Devon remained standing as the gondola starting moving, his bow in his hand. James did the same. People along the boardwalks shouted obscenities at the Calistarians. He heard a few Sapphic slurs as well, causing him to glance toward Monroe when their gondolas pulled next to each other.
“My secret’s out, yes,” Monroe said. “My dear mother let it slip before she left the court.”
“Your mother?” Devon asked.
“Yes,” Monroe said with a sigh. “I suppose now that Larissa has made such a fine marriage, she no longer saw a reason to hide me away. It’s made getting around town problematic.”
“Honored Husband,” Sultiana said, “I don’t understand this welcome. It’s dishonorable of your father not to meet us himself. And even more so to greet us with a city in such uproar.”
“I agree,” Devon said.
“You haven’t seen the worst of it,” James said, softly. When Devon gave him a questioning look, he added, “You’ll see when we arrive. But Devon, I think Lenore is going to need your help.”
Suddenly a crossbow bolt shot across the front of the gondola, nearly cutting Sultiana’s face. James turned, bow in hand, but Sultiana was already on her feet. She pulled a throwing knife from her sleeve and, with a flick of her wrist, buried it into the forehead of the shooter. “Can a guard retrieve that for me?” she asked. “It was a gift from a friend.”
* * * *
Devon was thankful that they reached the palace with no more incidents. The public lawn was sparsely populated with minor nobility and palace guards.
At the foot of the stairs waited Lady Hannah and Devon’s brother-in-law, Victor. Hannah was dressed all in black. The sight of her was a knife in Devon’s heart. She should have been his sister-in-law. Octavian should be there, meeting them at the dock and furious at the angry crowds.
“Devon,” Victor said. “I am glad to see you. And, um, is it permitted that I speak with the Calistar queen now?”
“It is,” Sultiana said. “We’re working to change our laws back home. Even if we weren’t, you’re family now.”
“Then I am happy to see you as well, Sister,” Victor said. “It is good for Lenore that you are here, I think.” His Montelarian accent was thicker since his visit.
“Victor, what’s happening here?” Devon asked.
“I only know what Lenore tells me,” Victor said, as they headed up the stairs into the palace. “I have been spending much of my time with Queen Lorna, learning how to keep the palace. It is a lot more work than I realized, keeping house. Lenore is with the king right now. We’ll take you to your rooms so that you can settle in. Then, would you like to see the girls?”
Devon realized with a jolt that he wasn’t heading toward the suit of rooms that he’d grown up in. They were going, instead, to the rooms designed for Calistar dignitaries. He was also surprised the first time a guard bowed to Victor in the hall. It was just another reminder that he wasn’t a Septa prince anymore, Victor was. It was a strange thing, he thought, being a guest in what had been his home.
The Calistar rooms were designed to be as close to their own palace as possible. The carpets were made of red, green, orange, yellow, and blue for the five tribes. An altar to the gods and goddesses was tucked into one corner. When Devon went into the bedroom, he found a mattress on the floor, rather than one that was propped up on a stand as was customary in Septa.
“I will let you settle yourselves in,” Victor said.
“Thanks,” Devon said, looking around.
Victor turned to leave but stopped. “Devon,” he said, “are you all right?”
“I feel strange,” he said.
Victor nodded. “I think I may understand. When I went home to Montelair, I felt as though everything I had known, everything I remembered, was different. Places I’d known my whole childhood were alien to me.”
“That sounds just like how I feel,” Devon said.
Once Devon and Sultiana had gotten their things put away and changed, they left the others to settle into their rooms and headed to the family sitting room.
“I didn’t realize this would be so hard on you,” Sultiana said.
“I don’t think it’s just coming home, and everything being strange the way Victor was describing,” Devon said. “There’s something strange here, something wrong. I feel like there’s a shadow over everything.”
“You feel it, too?” Sultiana asked, “I thought I was imagining it. Devon, I feel the same as I did when I stood next to the Black.”
“It does feel that way, now that you mention it,” Devon said.
They entered the sitting room to find Victor sitting with Queen Lorna. An air of uncomfortable silence permeated the air.
“Oh, Devon!” Lorna cried. She stood, rustling her great silk gown. She looked just as she ever had, her thick hair coiled in a neat bun, her clothes impeccable.
“And, Sultiana. I’m so sorry I wasn’t at the dock to meet you.”
“Yes, why weren’t you there?” Sultiana asked, coolly. “It almost felt like a snub. I understand that my brother-in-law is a prince and a great noble, but even he only met us at the door.”
“I am sorry, Dear, but there was quite a lot of activity in the streets today,” Lorna said.
“We did notice that. Someone took a shot at us on the way here,” Sultiana said, “It seems that, if my honored father-in-law knew that this was going on, he should have warned us. We still would have come.”
Lorna looked uncomfortable. “I don’t know, Sultiana, dear. You’ll have to speak to Samuel about that. He and Lenore are in a meeting right now with the city guards.”
At that moment, the sound of porcelain shattering came from the room next to them. It was followed almost instantly by Lenore’s screaming.
“Oh, already?” Devon cried. He hurried next door, Sultiana right behind him.
When they entered the meeting hall, they saw Robert Carr, the general of army recruiting, was holding his hands up to protect himself. A puddle of porcelain and tea was on the floor next to him. Lenore was on her feet, facing him.
“I have had it to the top with your condescending tone, Sir! I’m not some girl in two tails who’s never seen a battle before. And if you don’t watch yourself, I’ll show you some things I learned in Montelair!”
Samuel sat back in his chair, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Maybe it’s best that we leave it there for now. In fact, I think a good rule should be that once cups start flying the meeting is over. Can I trust you to stop by tomorrow, General?”
“Of…of course,” Robert said, giving Lenore a wary look. Carr, a man who had been involved in every altercation Septa had taken part in since he’d come of age, nearly ran from the room in his haste to get away from Lenore. From the look on her face, Devon didn’t blame him.
“Devon,” Samuel said, getting to his feet and coming to greet them. “It’s so good to see you, Son.”
“It’s good to see you too, Papa,” Devon said. “Seems like things are a little tense.”
“A temporary nonsense,” Samuel said.
“Bosh,” Lenore said. “We can’t get through the damned streets without someone spitting on my children. Devon, Sultiana, I’m happy to see you. I’ve missed you horribly. Go home tomorrow.”
“Why?” Sultiana asked.
“Because Septa is one misstep away from being a war zone,” she replied. “And the last thing we need right now is more noble targets.”
“It isn’t as bad as all that, Bug,” Samuel said.
Victor snorted. “Sire, I am well aware what an angry populace looks like. In Montelair, they were just hungry. These people think that you’re endangering their immortal souls.”
“Let’s go into the sitting room, and have something to eat,” Samuel said, “Devon and Sultiana just got here. They don’t need to hear all of this now.”
“I’m all right,” Sultiana said. “I’m feeling very alert, actually. Someone tried to kill me on the way here, after all.”
“Which is why I want you to go home,” Lenore said.
“Nonsense,” Sultiana said. She pulled out a chair from the table and sat down.
“Sultiana, please understand that it’s highly improper for us to discuss matters of state with a foreign noblewoman,” Samuel said. “Even if you are my daughter-in-law.”
“Bullshit,” Lenore muttered. “Sultiana, our noblemen are in near open rebellion.”
The king gave Lenore a stern look that she either didn’t notice or ignored. “Lords Constantine and David left for Uncle Joseph’s country estate. Since then, we believe that they’ve been encouraging rebellion within the city.”
“They didn’t leave quietly, either,” Victor said, “David tried to force Hannah to come with him. She scratched up his face.”
“Hannah is David’s daughter?” Sultiana asked.
“Yes, and Daniel is his son,” Samuel said, apparently giving up. “They’ve stayed to serve the court. But they, Lewis, Howard, and Harper are all that we have left.”
“And Joan,” Lenore said. “Which surprised me, to tell you the truth.”
“Our cousin, Joan?” Devon asked, “Joseph’s own daughter stayed?”
“Yes, but Hank and Larissa left,” Samuel said.
Victor took a seat at the table, sighing. “If it were only some nobles in a huff, this would not be a bad situation. But it is more than that. The people are angry as I am sure you saw.”
“What are they so angry about?” Devon asked.
“Sapphic’s rights,” Lenore said, glaring at her father. “Most of the city seems to think that being Sapphic is a sin. Of course, it didn’t help that Papa made it illegal for them to be married.”
“They’re mad about more than just Sapphics,” Samuel said. “They’re mad about the way the war ended. They’re mad about the inheritance laws changing.”
“They’re mad about me,” Lenore said.