Daric shook his head, the thin band of gold that circled his forehead glinting in the dust-flecked light from the stable window. “You’d better hope Nurse never catches you at this.”
“Oh, stop being such a worrywart,” Shasta retorted, yanking yards of fine silk over her head and dropping it into the hay at her feet. “What are they going to do, haul out the whipping boy? They won’t lay a hand on us and you know it.” Impatiently she struggled with the cord that held up her heavy, hooped petticoat. “And besides, it’s not fair. We’re the same age, but you don’t see them sticking hoopskirts and corsets on you.”
Daric sighed, and moved to help his sister with the knot. The skirt dropped to the ground, revealing the pair of woolen breeches that she’d slipped on underneath. One brow shot up. “You’ve been raiding my wardrobe again, eh, sis?”
She shrugged. “We’re twins, we’re the same size, and they fit.” Stepping out of the hoopskirts, she smoothed the front of her brocade corset down over the top of the breeches. “Much better.” There was a time when she would have gladly removed the corset as well, but in the past few months she was having difficulty deciding whether she was more uncomfortable with it on than she was without it. It seemed like her body had decided to sprout breasts almost overnight, much to her dismay, and the resulting tenderness made it painful to go for long without some sort of support. As stiff and unforgiving as her corsets were, they did provide that much-needed support. Fortunately, Daric hadn’t seemed to notice the changes in her body yet, or if he had, he was too polite to mention it.
Her brother grinned and tossed her one of their practice foils. “Ready?”
She caught it with an answering grin, flicking the blunted tip of the sword through the air and lunging into an opening stance. The sound of metal on metal filled the stable as the twins circled one another with parries and thrusts, advances and retreats. This was one of their favorite games, something they’d been doing ever since Daric first started training in swordplay six winters ago. Up to that point, the two of them had always done everything together. But when it was decided that Daric should begin fencing, the King had insisted it was not an activity for girls, much less a princess of the royal line. No matter how they had pleaded, he refused to allow Shasta to participate in her brother’s lessons. Undaunted, Shasta and Daric decided to hold their own practice sessions in the servants’ stables, where none in the royal court might accidentally find them out. They’d been lucky; in six winters they had yet to be discovered. Each time Daric learned something new in lessons he taught it to his sister, and they would practice and practice until she couldn’t lift her sword any longer.
Shasta blocked her brother’s blade from the right, and spun around to unwind her arm. She swung low, and he jumped into the air, avoiding the steel that passed where his ankles had been a moment before.
“Hey, watch it,” he grunted. “I have lessons tomorrow, you know. I don’t want to have to try and explain a bunch of scratches and bruises to the lieutenant.”
Shasta stuck her tongue out at him, avoiding the tip of his sword as it plunged past her ear. She jumped up onto a nearby crate, seeking the advantage of higher ground, and held onto the rope pulley with one hand to steady herself as the crate rocked under her weight. “Oh, don’t be such a baby.”
“Baby, huh?” Daric kicked the crate, causing the wood to buckle.
Shasta took a firmer hold on the rope pulley as the crate splintered away from her feet, and swung herself to the far side of the stable. The other end of the pulley was holding a sack of feed that weighed only slightly less than she did, so as she flew the pulley slowly lowered her to the ground. She let go, causing the sack to crash down with a thud in a cloud of dust, and gave her brother a cocky little bow. “Nice try.”
Daric snickered and sped up his assault. She really was good. Faster than he was, even, and with quicker reflexes and a seemingly endless supply of creativity. Their practice sessions did more for his skills than the lessons with his fencing master, because Shasta didn’t like to play by the book. She had a competitive streak a mile wide, and was of the opinion that rules were meant to be broken, which made for very interesting sparring. It certainly kept him on his toes.
Their combat lasted a few more minutes, before Daric broke it off. “Okay, that’s enough. You need to rest.”
A thin sheen of sweat coated her face and arms, and the redness in her cheeks had begun to deepen, but she shook her head. “Aw, come on, just a little more.” There was a bit of a wheeze in the words.
“Nope. You’ve had enough.” He tossed his sword aside, and guided her to the haystack where she’d left her skirts.
Reluctantly Shasta sank down into the hay, closing her eyes and trying to regain control over her breathing. “Damn it,” she hissed between her teeth.
Daric cocked an eyebrow. “Watch your language, Your Royal Highness.” He lowered himself next to her and stretched his legs.
His twin opened one eye and squinted at him. “It’s not fair.”
“I know, sis, but it’s not your fault. The healers say your blood is weak. You were born with it, there’s nothing you can do.” He shrugged. “Anyway, I think it’s nature’s way of leveling the playing field– you got the intelligence and speed, while I got the endurance… and the good looks.” He grinned good-naturedly as she punched him in the arm.
“Oh, shut up. You’re just lucky I tire so easily, otherwise I’d beat the stuffing out of you.”
His reply was cut short by a creaking of the stable doors as they swung open, and the twins jumped and turned toward the sound. Daric rose to his feet.
“Prince Daric? Princess Shasta?”
“Kallin,” Shasta said, relieved. The aged stable hand had kept the secret of their sparring sessions for years. “Don’t scare us like that.” She took her brother’s hand and allowed him to help her stand. “Nearly stopped my heart.”
The aged stable hand eyed her odd attire, a blue brocade corset over the gray wool of her brother’s breeches. She was irrepressible, that one; did whatever came into her head, and the gods help the one who tried to get in her way. He bowed. “My apologies, highness. Nurse has servants scouring the castle grounds for you two. You’re late for your fittings.”
Shasta groaned. “Can’t we just hide out here? Just pretend like you couldn’t find us.”
“Sis, you know we can’t do that. The celebration is at the end of the week.”
“Ugh. I don’t see why we have to get new garments made, though… I can’t take all this standing around, holding still, being measured and poked for hours on end just for some stupid gown.”
“It’s not fun for me either, but what choice do we have?” He bent and picked up her hoopskirts, indicating with a jerk of his head that she should step into them.
Shasta gave a frustrated growl, but resignedly stepped into the hoops so they could be brought up to her waist and retied. “I don’t see why it’s such a big deal, anyway. So we’re nearly sixteen. Who cares?”
“You know as well as I do. Sixteen winters means we’ve come of age. We’re not kids anymore, Shasta, we’ve grown up.”
“You don’t have to sound so happy about it.” She lifted her arms over her head so he could pull the skirt of her overdress down onto the hoops. “The older we get, the more they’re going to tighten the rope around our necks. Pretty soon we won’t be able to scratch our noses without the entire country knowing about it, and debating how it will impact trade relations between the provinces.”
Daric moved behind her to refasten the buttons of her gown. “Aw, it’s not going to be that bad.”
“At least you’ll have more of the spotlight than me, being the heir to the throne and all.” She smoothed the skirt with her hands. With the hoops on, her hips were nearly as wide as three men, which provided a vast expanse of skirt to be decorated with various bows and beads and laces. Completely impractical, but her father insisted she dress like royalty; ladies of the court apparently wanted to prove to everyone that they did not have to work by dressing themselves so that it was nearly impossible to move. And it worked–with the gown’s tight sleeves she couldn’t raise her elbows a more than handbreadth from her sides. It was like wearing a fabric cage.
“You’d better do something about that hair.” Daric’s eyes twinkled.
“Ugh.” She pulled a piece of straw from her hair. “Yeah, I guess. If Nurse sees this she’ll have a conniption.” Her gaze fell on a grooming brush lying on a nearby stool. She picked it up and held it out to him. “You’re going to have to help me with this. I can’t move my arms.”
Daric rolled his eyes, but took the brush and ran it through her waist-length mane in impatient strokes.
Kallin made a face. “Really, Highness, we use that brush for the horses.”
She cut him off with a wave of her hand, wincing as the brush tore through tangles. “If it’s good enough for them, it’s just fine for me.”
Daric tossed the brush aside and plaited the thick hair into a somewhat uneven braid, then licked his fingertips and smoothed her bangs back. He eyed his handiwork with a skeptical expression.
“Better?” she asked her brother.
“It’ll do. We should hurry before any of Nurse’s minions catch us out here.”
With a heavy sigh she nodded, and he quickly stashed their practice swords beneath the hay. The twins turned and reluctantly followed Kallin from the stables.
“When will this be over,” Shasta muttered to her brother through gritted teeth. Her cheeks were aching with the effort to maintain a brightly plastered smile. Her hand waved back and forth, almost of its own accord. It had gone numb an hour ago and now was just moving mechanically.
“We’re almost there,” Daric replied with the same stiff smile, his lips barely moving. “Just keep waving.”
The royal court had insisted on a parade for the twins’ coming-of-age celebration, a parade that had started from the castle walls and wound through every major street of the city before returning to the castle for the actual ceremony and celebratory banquet. Ardrenn was the capital of their small kingdom, but nonetheless it was a large city, and the parade had taken all morning. The royal guard lined the streets along the entire route. They’d been decked out in their most elaborate uniforms, with scarlet jackets, glittering white sashes, and golden helmets topped with red plumes. Several divisions of the provincial guard had also been assigned to march in the parade, their uniforms just as formal, though somewhat less spectacular. The parade was made up of sundry jugglers, acrobats, singers, dancers, and marching musicians. The mingled sounds of a dozen songs filled the air, resulting in a cacophony that was nearly unbearable. Scantily clad girls, twirling long ribbons, skipped to the beat of the drummers marching behind them. These were followed by someone on stilts in a costume with an enormous, grotesque false head and hands, and behind him came a group of Ithyrian priestesses, swinging fragrant incense burners from long poles and chanting prayers.
And so it went. The royal twins were the grand finale, followed only by a group of royal guard bringing up the rear. They were seated in the royal carriage, a gleaming white contraption with an open top, which was drawn by six of the finest pure-white horses in the royal stables. The public was to be allowed a full view of their Prince and Princess, and of course, their wardrobe could not disappoint; each of them was swathed head to toe in red silk. Shasta’s skirts were even larger than usual, covered in strands of pearls and fine white lace, and Daric’s jacket was encrusted with gold embroidery and crystal beads. They both wore sashes of white across their chests, and thin bands of gold circling their foreheads. They were the consummate display of royalty, opulence and fine breeding.
“I’m going to be sick.”
“No you won’t. Just keep smiling.” Daric squeezed his sister’s shoulder with his free hand.
The ceremony itself was worse than the parade. The crowds followed them to the castle grounds, filling the courtyard and surrounding the palace. Shasta couldn’t believe that so many people would want to spend an entire afternoon standing in the hot sun, so far away from the ceremonial proceedings that they surely couldn’t see or hear any of what was going on. She hadn’t realized until this moment just how big a deal the whole coming-of-age thing was.
Each of the twelve provincial viceroys was present to make speeches of praise and well-wishing for the young royals. Since it would have been considered a grave insult to leave any of them out, or to allow one more time than another, there was nothing to do but give all twelve the chance to make a speech. And make speeches they did, each vying to outdo the others with compliments, subtle digs at one another’s politics, bids for attention and favor, and propaganda as suited their individual interests. Shasta had spent enough time around such men to pick up on the cloaked insults, diatribes and self-serving flattery that constituted the majority of their speeches, though she did not care to try and determine the cause or speculate the motives of each man. Politics were boring.
She and Daric had been presented to the public eye from a balcony atop the palace wall, overlooking the courtyard. As the speeches were all being made in their honor, they were expected to stand and listen with rapt and grateful attention; but the sun was particularly hot, and the heavy silks of her dress and iron grip of her corset made it very difficult not to feel lightheaded after a while. She was actually grateful for Nurse, who stood at her elbow and revived her with a sharp pinch every time her balance began to waver. She didn’t dare faint.
Finally, after what seemed like a lifetime of speechmaking, the King himself appeared on the balcony. He caught a glimpse of Shasta’s pale, exhausted face, and offered an encouraging smile to his daughter before turning to the crowds. Shasta couldn’t help but smile back, and straightened herself slightly, studying her father as he held up his hands to silence the crowd.
King Soltran was a handsome man, despite the deep lines creasing his face. Nurse had told her that once, her father had been considered one of the most attractive men in the kingdom. But a few winters after the twins’ birth, his beloved wife, Queen Talia, had contracted a fever that not even the best healers in the kingdom could break, and died. Shasta knew what a heavy toll her mother’s death had taken on her father. He’d devoted his entire life to Daric and herself afterwards, refusing to remarry, and there was a look of grief that still clung to him even now.
Once the crowds below had quieted, Soltran spoke. “People of Ithyria, it is with great joy that I and my family welcome you here today. I have been blessed many times throughout my life, but the greatest of these blessings have been my children. Today we celebrate that moment in their lives when they cross over from childhood to adulthood. No father could be more proud, and I am grateful that all of you came today to celebrate their coming of age with us.” The crowd cheered and clapped. “May I present to you His Highness, the Crown Prince Daric Graeme Soltranis of Rane.”
Daric stepped forward to their father’s side as the crowd cheered, and waved. A footman approached bearing a large red pillow, on which sat two golden crowns, one somewhat larger than the other. Shasta watched as her father held up the biggest crown where the crowd could see it.
“Prince Daric, today we celebrate your sixteenth winter. You have become a man, worthy of the responsibility of your title. You must always continue in your efforts to become the strongest, wisest ruler you can be, and never forget your duty to your country and family.” He placed the crown on his son’s head, face impassive, but Shasta could see the pride shining in his eyes. At that moment her brother had never looked more like a prince. Daric bowed to the king, then turned and waved to the crowds again.
When the applause had quieted, Shasta knew it was her turn, and she took a deep breath. Just a few more minutes. She could do this.
“My people, may I present to you Her Highness, Princess Shasta Talia Soltranis of Rane.”
She stepped forward to her father’s other side as he took up the second crown, smaller and more delicately wrought than her brother’s.
“Princess Shasta, today we celebrate your sixteenth winter. You have become a woman, worthy of the responsibility of your title. You must always continue in your efforts to become the gentlest, wisest ruler you can be, and never forget your duty to your country and family.” Shasta closed her eyes as the crown was placed on her head, the weight greater than she’d expected. She opened them and saw her father gazing at her with a mixture of pride and concern, and she offered him a smile to let him know she was all right and curtsied before turning to wave to the crowds.
A fanfare started to play and the royal family withdrew into the palace. The moment she was out of sight, Shasta let out a deep breath that it seemed she’d been holding for hours, and her knees gave way. Daric caught her before she could hit the ground, and in an instant the king, Nurse, and about five or six household servants were buzzing around her like flies, fanning her face and offering water. Shasta blushed to the roots of her hair, struggling to regain control of her weak muscles, and fighting back the dizziness that swirled in her head.
“Damnit,” she hissed before she could stop herself, and her blush deepened when her father shot her a warning look. “I’m sorry, Father. I just hate this.”
Soltran lifted one eyebrow. “A princess should accept her weaknesses, Shasta, like a true lady. You do the best you can, and that is all anyone could ask.” He took a cup of water from one of the serving girls and held it to her lips.
After a moment or two Shasta could feel some strength returning, and with assistance from her father and Daric she was able to stand. “I feel better now, thank you,” she insisted, though the truth was her muscles were still quivering.
Daric eyed her suspiciously. “Father, perhaps the Princess should not attend the banquet tonight.”
Shasta glared at him. “If you’re going, so am I.” She turned to Soltran with a pleading look.
The king chuckled. “Don’t want to miss all the food and fun, eh? But perhaps Daric is right. You don’t look well.”
“I want to go. Besides, the court will expect me there. It’s bad enough that everyone knows I have the strength of a baby mouse… I don’t want them talking about how I’m too pathetic to attend my own birthday celebration.” Her eyes flashed, and Soltran felt a twinge. She looked so much like her mother at times.
“Very well. If you wish to go I will not prevent you. However, I expect that until the banquet begins you will spend the time resting in your chambers.” He beckoned to Nurse, who took Shasta’s arm and led her slowly away.
Daric and the king watched her go. “Think she’ll be all right?” Daric asked.
Soltran snorted with amusement. “She wouldn’t have it any other way.”