Peony woke, and breathed.
It was night still, or perhaps the earliest hours of the morning, nothing stirring but the slow glide of moonlight as the cloud cover drifted apart. She was in her room at the wainwright's house, the same small, tidy space with its same shadows and shapes that she had seen on every late-night waking for all her remembered life. There's hadn't really been anywhere to go, after everything was over, with Woodwold barely standing and all the surrounding villages already making their spare beds and empty rooms—and in some cases hearthstones and haylofts as well—available to the hundreds of newly woken royal guests. By tomorrow it would be sorted out, surely, and someone would come take her away to a place more suitable for a princess.
They were very strange, these hours between the ending of an old life and the beginning of a new.
Peony pushed the covers back, wincing a little—her hands were full of tiny, polished splinters from where the spindle end had exploded. She had not shown them to anyone. It seemed sure that they would be the last thing to remain of this world before it had shifted, and she wanted the reminder over the next weeks, a sting in her palms as she smoothed down a dress fit for a princess or raised a courtier kneeling before her. There were many things that had happened, and many people who had saved her and changed her, and she was not going into her new life untethered.
She stood and went to the window. There was a fire burning in the wheelwright's house, too bright to be the banked coals of a chilly morning, and the occasional flickering silhouette crossing in front of the windows—Rosie was still awake, then, probably. Perhaps she would go over there later if she couldn't get back to sleep, but she wouldn't want to wake her aunt and uncle, nor worry them if they noticed her absence. She took a long breath and blew it out slowly. All hers.
It seemed impossible that she'd breathed on her own for her whole life, that everyone did. Being cut off from Rosie was like losing a part of herself, being dropped unceremoniously back into her own body and the boundaries slammed shut, sealed, discrete. Except there was something else inside her now, something that Rosie had given her in that last moment of connection but something that was not Rosie, that was itself, and it wanted her to feel like it had been a part of her forever except that she knew, she knew that it had been transferred on the moment of waking, Rosie's kiss, wood and a binding shattering under her palms.
In the moonlight her hands looked like a princess's hands, pale and elegant. It was too dim to see the splinters or the calluses they were lodged in, the wear from the well rope and the dja vine and bracing half-finished wagon pieces for her uncle's tools. She could feel them, though, if she ran a finger over, the little catches and twinges where the roughened skin had been pierced.
She would miss the spindle end. It seemed a silly thing to regret, with all that had happened, but she would have liked to have something of the two of them, something made with Rosie's hands and stubborn perfectionism, to take with her into her new life.
For the first several months it felt as if they were travelling more often than not. There was country after country to visit, a sprawling web of politics and family and royalty to be introduced to, countless celebrations held in honor of the miraculous and lovely princess. Peony's letters stretched with pages of description. She liked to write when she was feeling particularly out of place or overwhelmed. The carefully folded papers felt like a connection, less one-sided than was logical, as if the act of writing could summon Rosie's presence even though her response would not arrive for weeks.
I have done the unthinkable- I have eaten a fish. Well, not an entire fish, but a few bites of one. Of course everyone minds their etiquette too well to actually serve anyone from our country anything aquatic, but apparently fish is the supreme delicacy here and Rowland insisted that we search some out. He says he misses it, although the dried and salted version he grew up with in Erloin is nothing compared to fresh fish straight from the ocean.
Sometimes I think he enjoys trying to shock me.
Fish, as it happens, is very strange. I thought it would be mostly like meat but it has a very different texture, sort of soft and more crumbly. I'm not describing it very well. One also has to pick around a surprising number of bones, which is nearly impossible and results in some very indelicate spitting.
To be honest, I'm not sure the taste is worth the trouble.
I think I understand now how nonmagical visitors to our country feel. Damar is indeed the country of the legends; there are fewer heroes and bloody wars than in Barder's tales, at least at the present moment, but the magic here is almost beyond understanding. It is a wild and terrible thing, almost feral, and those who use it are sometimes consumed completely. One man, not even a very powerful magician, told me that it feels like trying to wield a storm as it drowns you. I think I will be glad to be home.
I am enclosing a sash such as the Damarian horsemasters wear, which seemed fitting for you and Narl, although I do not imagine either of you would use such a thing for its intended purpose. Perhaps you can hang it somewhere as decoration, or let Jem use it when he plays at being a warrior from one of his father's ballads.
I suppose I knew that Rowland would be giving up his reign to marry me, but I hadn't ever thought of it particularly. We never talked about Erloin, before, because it was too much of a reminder of things that could not be. I feel terribly selfish that I didn't realize exactly what this would cost him. Not only is he leaving his home and his family, but also his chance to rule a country that he has been dedicated to since birth.
Rowland is very calm about it all. He says he does not mind being away from his family, so long as he can visit, as he hasn't lived at the palace since he was apprenticed at the age of ten. The crown will go to his brother Garrik. Rowland has utmost confidence in him and is pleased that he will have the opportunity to serve his country; I almost suspect that my dear husband is hiding his feelings from me, although I cannot quite bring myself to believe he would do that, but it seems impossible for him to be not the smallest bit regretful or jealous.
As for Garrik, all I know about him is that he is as unfailingly polite as Rowland is in company, and he is growing to be fast friends with Colin and Terberus. The court of Erloin seems happy enough with him as their future sovereign. Still, I can't help but feel that they all must resent me terribly and probably talk behind my back about how I bewitched their prince into forsaking his duty. I wish you were here. At the very least you could tell me that I have gotten a swelled head and that no one cares enough to talk about me at all.
And once, for the first time where Rosie was concerned, she hid the truth. On pages that no one would ever see Peony wrote:
I do not know how anyone here believes that I am a daughter of their country. I feel always one step behind. I try to be polite and so do my hosts, but somehow we always end in long silences or uncomfortable formality. It is easy to see that everyone would rather this visit was over and I was gone so that they could go back to the important things, the way they are accustomed to running their country, away from our needlessly complicated politics.
The king and queen are quiet people, though perhaps only with me, and given to bluntness and an assumption that their companions know of what they speak. The country revolves around their fleethounds; they are all fond of hunting and consider it more of a privilege to tend the royal kennels than the royal household. I am often given the impression that my hosts would rather be out running with their dogs than discussing politics, and furthermore that they are much beloved by their people for exactly this quality.
You could have been princess here, Rosie. You should have. They would have loved you for everything you are, admired you and adored you with such loyalty and feeling, looked upon you as a wonder because of Rosie and not because of twenty-one other names that were never yours.
Fate and time and chance had done what they would, though, and could not be turned back. Peony burned that letter carefully and wrote instead:
This entire country is dog-mad, perhaps even more than you are. I wish Aunt's old charm would work here, the one that caused animal hair to fall off at the threshold. It would have made an excellent diplomatic gift.
"Peony, wake up," Rowland was saying, hushed but urgent. She knew him immediately, without thought, but it took a moment to place her surroundings—their room at the royal palace, only just becoming familiar, early morning, Rowland leaning over her.
"What's wrong?" she asked, but even as she spoke the worry subsided. There was a strange look on his face, but it was closer to excitement than panic.
"Nothing's wrong. Get dressed, though, I want to show you something." He kissed her, not quite quickly, and left the room.
Ten minutes later saw a rather bemused Peony following her husband down toward the wide lawn where a princess had been christened twenty-one years before. The space had been gradually reintroduced to public use- there were only so many large expanses near the palace, after all, and one needed that sort of thing every now and then- but everyone approached it from the city side. The section of the field closest to the palace, where a particular dais had once stood, was wordlessly avoided. In the intervening years it had grown over with nearly knee-high grasses and, somewhat unexpectedly, a vibrant local species of bluebell.
This morning, by some passing vagary of magic, they were sporting not flowers but actual, tiny blue bells.
Peony stopped at the edge of the field, watching them nod slightly in the breeze. It was very early yet, a chill in the air and everything quiet and calm in the wash of blue light that comes before dawn. She tried to imagine Katriona as a girl, ripping a magical barrier to shreds to stand on this same grass, a cradle swathed in pink and white and lavender and golden just there. It didn't seem possible, like it had happened in some other world.
"It's okay, you can't crush them," said Rowland, mistaking her hesitation. "I tested."
He bowed elegantly and held out a hand, surprising a shout of laughter out of her when she took it and was promptly whirled out into the field. This was none of the subtle courtly dances they'd been practicing (for Peony had to be an excellent dancer), but Rowland's favorite stomper from Foggy Bottom. Peony remembered teaching it to him in Narl's yard the afternoon before the harvest festival, Rosie's friendly mocking egging him on as they stumbled. He'd perfected it since then. Half the point was the speed and the other half the footwork, although if anyone other than the crown princess and her consort were doing it you might have called it something less dignified, like "leaping." Rowland was twirling her as fast as she'd ever gone, attempting to count out some kind of rhythm against the cascading chime of a thousand tiny bells.
She was panting by the time they finished, and dizzy, and unable to stop laughing as she listed into Rowland's side.
"I don't think I was in shape for that," he admitted with a breathless grin. He squeezed her shoulder to make sure she was steady and then flopped down on his back, setting the bells going again. After a moment she joined him, nestling under his arm. It was getting brighter by the minute. She could feel Rowland's heart still pounding, the dew starting to seep into her clothes.
"This is why I love this country," he said after a minute, stirring a clump of bells with his foot. "In Erloin magic is an old, dead kind of thing. It has power, but it's all about duty and oaths and history. There's no whimsy to it, nothing unexpected or beautiful."
"No bells to dance in?"
"No bells to dance in. There's just something different, it's hard to put your finger on. Like the air's more alive. Did I ever tell you I went swimming when I first came here?"
"You what?" Peony propped herself up on an elbow so she could stare at him in shock.
"Well, I tried to, anyway. I knew it wasn't done here but no one ever said why, so I thought it was just some strange part of your culture and it wouldn't matter if there was no one around to offend."
"Um. I turned into a turtle, I think. No, honestly!"
"I believe you! Just...a turtle?" She put her head down on his chest again, giggling.
"I suppose I might have just imagined that I was a turtle. No way to know. It was nice, actually, just basking in the sun, very relaxing." He was trying to maker her laugh now- she could hear the smile in his voice—and it was working. "It didn't last very long. And then afterward I was standing knee-deep in this pond, soaked to the skin, and I could see these little shimmers of light, like the ones you'd catch out of the corner of your eye in Narl's yard, but everywhere."
"It sounds lovely."
"It was. I think that's when I realized that I wasn't going home, that I was somehow meant for this country, or tied to it, like you."
"You are! We are, the both of us, even if we came to it a little sideways." He shifted, freeing an arm so he could tug on her curls. "I knew I'd be staying once I met you, anyway."
"But you knew that before," she said. "Months before, by the sound of it. I had no idea."
"I didn't know how to say it. There was so much terrible magic that year, and danger, it seemed like everyone forgot about the small everyday parts of it unless they were going wrong, and none of you think about it much anyway because it's just the way things are, for you. I wanted to wait until there was something I could show you."
It was true, thought Peony. Mostly she just waved enchanted butterflies out of her face and resigned herself to getting pricked by overenthusiastic dja vines and muttered things like 'bread, stay bread' without even really thinking of the meaning. And she probably wouldn't have noticed the bluebells.
"I'm glad you told me," she said. "The bells are beautiful."
Rowland plucked one, eyed it for a moment to make sure it would keep its enchanted form, and tucked it behind her ear.
"The sun's coming up. We should probably go in," he said.
"Let's not just yet." She shook her head a little more strongly than necessary to set the bells tinkling. Rowland put a hand on her cheek.
"Oh, good," he said. "I was hoping you'd say that."
Peony's birthday was a lovely day, unusually warm for autumn, and of no significance to anyone. There were only a handful of people who knew that she had been seven months old when the princess was born, and of them only Rowland was at the palace—and he hadn't known her long enough to remember the date. Rosie knew it, and might have written, but she wouldn't be able to send anything until the royal courier arrived in Foggy Bottom with the letter Peony was still in the middle of.
She found herself thinking of her own parents, which she had purposefully stopped doing long ago out of a resolve to enjoy the life and the home she had. She knew very little about them.
Her mother had been the youngest of the three and had done most of her growing up after her siblings had left the house, until she fell in love and moved away. Peony knew even less about her father, nothing except that he'd been blond and from the south—no one had ever said where, exactly, just the south, in the way that people in the Gig tended to lump together the rest of the country outside their borders. Perhaps he'd even been from the royal city. She could go looking, ask if anyone remembered a Nash and his wife Eilah from the north who had died a little over twenty years ago, but that would raise more questions than she could answer.
The lie they had all written, the changing of parts, had erased not only her history but her parents as well. It was as if they had been traded for Rosie's parents, the supposed sister and father from the south who had never existed but whose reality was a part of this new world, a reality denied to her own parents, people who had lived and died and were not remembered by anyone but her. Not even by her, really—she had been only seventeen months old when she was delivered to the Gig, and did not know the country outside it as anything other than the princess.
Her aunt and uncle had probably written off their sister as a magical figment, something invented to keep the princess safe. How easy it was, to change those small facts of the world. How different everything might have been if there was a wetter spring the year of the princess's first birthday, if a fire in a house somewhere in the south had not spread quite so quickly.
Winter was closing in, and Peony was taking advantage of the last weeks of good weather whenever she could spare a moment for it. Today the queen had quietly joined her on her walk. She was used to people waylaying her for a private hour here or there, had grown to look forward to it, for she liked her new family very much and wanted the secrets of their lives as much as they wanted hers, so that she might begin also to love them. The queen in particular wanted hear about her childhood in the Gig and Peony tried to oblige as best she could.
"It's wilder there," she was saying, for the topic of conversation today was the environment in either place. "The villages don't seem quite so settled, if that makes sense. And there are simply more animals, everywhere, always. If we were walking there we would be surrounded by dragonflies- they prefer the damp, I think. I used to love to watch them as a child."
"Yes, I-" said the queen, and stopped, only the most infinitesimal of pauses, before continuing, "-remember them, from when we stayed at Woodwold."
It was barely noticeable, a blink, a realization, but Aunt and Katriona (and Rosie and Sigil and Ikor) had told Peony everything they knew before she left the Gig, so that she might be prepared, and she knew what Katriona had done, what the queen had just remembered. They carried on through the gardens and when the queen mentioned, in a perfectly casual response to some anecdote, that Peony was welcome to invite her childhood friend to the palace, Peony just nodded and thanked her.
She wrote the invitation later that evening, but the words came slowly enough that the ink dried on her quill while she stared at the blank page. She was upset, and more than that she was upset about being upset, for Peony was not by nature a jealous person, but sometimes it seemed that everything good in her life belonged to Rosie.
The letter was sent, and the reply received, and its author almost immediately after, for Rosie had little patience for leaving things unresolved. By the time she arrived Peony was feeling little but excitement. She had grown used to life without Rosie, somehow, and was startled to discover how much she had missed her friend, a longing that was too constant to be very noticeable thrown into sharp relief by two weeks without it. Rosie seemed just as glad to see her. They took long walks together, despite the chill, stayed up too late talking and woke too early, unwilling to give up a moment in each other's company.
When the queen sent for Rose, nothing more than a polite request, Peony buried her own feelings on the matter. Her friend was pale and quiet before the audience, like the last echo of those terrible days at Woodwold when Peony had been afraid that Rosie, bold, outspoken Rosie, would fade out of existence altogether.
She ate a long lunch with Rowland while Rosie was gone, talking over the news from Foggy Bottom. As much as she tried to pretend that nothing was wrong, in the end he had to hold up most of the conversation, but at least he did it cheerfully. After nearly an hour had passed a footman came to say that the queen would like to speak to Peony at her convenience, and that the Lady Rosie had sent word that was she going with Prince Osmer to be introduced to the famous fleethounds. That last made Peony smile, even through her worry—it was no secret that Rosie found Osmer trying, but of all the children he was the only one who had inherited the queen's passion for her dogs, and there was no chance Rosie would leave without seeing them. Peony had a strong suspicion that most of the palace animals already kept a special eye on her at Rosie's behest, a cross-species and cross-country chain of gossip that put Aunt's robins to shame.
"I suppose you already know what Rosie and I spoke of," said the queen as soon as the door closed behind her.
"Yes. I'm sorry."
"You have nothing to be sorry for. I should have told you that the memory had come back to me, but I thought that I might save you some pain. The wrong choice, it seems. Now, come and sit, I have something to say to you."
Peony sat. To her surprise, the queen pulled a chair close and took her hands.
"Your Rosie is a wonderful young woman," she said. "You are lucky to have her, and she you, and I am glad for the chance to know her a little myself. None of that means, however, that you are not my daughter, whether or not we are related by blood. I am glad of the way things turned out. I think Rosie is as well, and I think- I hope- that you are, because we, all of us, love you, and would not change anything that brought you to us, except perhaps to make the journey easier."
And Peony, who for all her aunts and foster-aunts and cousins and friends and the admiration of a country had never had a mother she could remember, began to cry.
"Oh, my dear," said the queen, and released her hands to wipe the tears from her face. "It's not so very surprising as all that, is it?"
"No, of course not," said Peony thickly. The queen smiled, kind, and tucked a curl that had come loose back behind her ear.
"And someday you must let me teach you to make sweetmeats, if you have any interest in it. I always imagined passing the recipe on to my daughter. I am glad that that fairy did not take the opportunity from me after all."
"Perhaps next week?" suggested Peony with a watery smile. "It will be good to have something to look forward to after Rosie has gone."
Pregnancy made Peony elated and moody by turns. She didn't like the moodiness much and liked inflicting it on others even less, so she began to spend quiet hours by herself, thinking about how she'd always assumed Arnisa would deliver her children. It had only ever been a vague thought, but if she'd bothered to construct the scene it would have involved Aunt giving her something herbal to drink, Arnisa's hands steady despite her age, Hroslinga bringing blankets and water, and Rosie standing by with her face set in determined lines, like she could control the situation if she only tried hard enough. She wanted Rosie most of all now, although she would have been the least helpful of all the attendants.
"Why don't you ask her to come?" said Rowland one day when he found her sitting at the window, thinking about the Gig. "This is no small thing you're doing, my dear."
"Not small, indeed," said Peony, turning to him with a hand on her stomach. The baby wasn't even visible yet, but it had felt like the largest thing in the world since the moment that Sigil had confirmed her suspicions.
"Rosie will never be comfortable here, you know that. She would come, for me, but Narl would not come even for Rosie."
"Then Narl can stay at home and mind the smithy," said Rowland. "It will remind everyone that they've been taking his full sentences for granted while Rosie's around."
Peony was still reluctant, but Rowland wrote a note and tucked it in with her usual letter, and so Rosie was the first in the country to know that the princess was expecting. When the time came there were a great many people in and out of the royal birthing chamber, but Peony kept losing track of everyone besides Rowland and Rosie, each of them clutching one of her hands. They stayed even after the tiny red bundle that would one day be king was placed in her arms, after Sigil had said the birth words and departed, after the Queen had kissed the foreheads of mother and child and done the same. The two of them talked while she dozed, and although Peony never knew exactly what passed between them, she did know that when she woke they were closer to the friends who'd eaten together in the smith's yard than they had been for many months.
Of course, you could not simply ask the crown princess to be present at your own bedside, and especially not if she was sure to neglect all her duties and come. Rosie's daughter was born some four years later with none but the expected attendants. She had Narl's thick black hair and Rosie's eyes—although her eyelashes are quite the usual length, thank goodness, read Peony with a laugh. The handwriting was easier to decipher than usual; it had been a difficult birth and Rosie, banned from all exertion but unwilling to delay their correspondence, dictated the letter to Katriona from her bed while Narl paced quiet half-circles around her with their daughter in his arms.
As the years went by Nia demonstrated a fondness for her father's forge, the color lavender, and all forms of dancing. The reason for the first was plain enough—when Nia chose a profession Rosie began to call herself the ordinary one in the family, and she meant it completely, for while fairy smiths were the stuff of stories female smiths were too rare even for that. As for the lavender and the dancing, they were common enough pleasures, but sometimes Rosie still suspected that her daughter had inherited them, somehow, from a person named Casta Albinia Allegra Dove Minerva Fidelia Aletta Blythe Domina Delicia Aurelia Grace Isabel Griselda Gwyneth Pearl Ruby Coral Lily Iris Briar-Rose.
When Prince Telin was three the daughter of the mayor of the royal city got married. The wedding itself was a grand affair and the celebration afterward even grander, although Peony only knew that from gossip—her second child was due in a matter of weeks and she excused herself with most of the older generation before the real excitement began, pleading exhaustion. Her brothers remained, because good relations between the mayor and the royal family were as important as they were difficult, and also because Terebus rather liked the mayor's son.
"I'll take Telin for a while," said Rowland as Peony made the requisite round of farewells. "He won't sleep for another few hours at least, after all this excitement, and you should snatch a few moments of peace and quiet while you can."
"Ah, now I remember why I married you," she replied, kissing him on the cheek. "Osmer has him, but I'm sure he'd be glad of a break." She let Rowland hand her into the royal carriage (they were barely two minutes away, but no one would agree to her walking anywhere these days) with a sigh of relief. Somehow Aunt and Katriona handling all those children at once seemed like a much greater feat these days than it had when she was fifteen. Peony wasn't even sure how she was going to manage both Telin and his new sibling, when he or she arrived.
She had been home for perhaps a few hours when there was a great commotion downstairs. Peony, already halfway out of bed to relieve herself, rushed for the door and nearly collided with the maidservant who was about to fling it open from the other side. She found herself being towed downstairs as quickly as possible, trying to piece together the fragments of explanation being thrown over the girl's shoulder: an attack on Telin at the party, some kind of magic, knives, a few fairies who'd been in attendance, the hasty exit of the royal party. Everything except a rising sense of panic was still unclear by the time they rounded the bottom of the stairwell.
A very strange sight greeted them. The guards had formed a protective circle around the royal family, which wasn't doing very much good because every sword or dagger formerly in someone's belt was dancing through the air of its own free will, evidently trying to get to Telin. Two women and one man she didn't recognize—presumably the fairies from the wedding who'd jumped to save their prince—were doing their confused best to keep the weapons away, as were all the guards save the one who was hunched over Telin in the middle of the circle, shielding him with her body. Telin, somewhat predictably, was making use of the universal three-year-old ability to flail around with what seems like more limbs than one body actually possesses. He, out of everyone, didn't look confused or afraid, just irritated at being kept out of the action.
Peony, after a moment to assess the situation, found herself reaching automatically for a charm she hadn't worn since the year Aunt and Katriona had seven small boarders.
"Oh, honestly," she said. "It's just baby magic. Somebody go fetch Sigil. Telin, stop that right now, it's dangerous and you're frightening everyone. I'm going to count to three."
Everyone in the room stopped what they were doing and turned to watch the staring match between the very pregnant princess and her three-year-old son.
No change. Weapons still drifted slowly around the tableau. Some of the guards, a little chagrinned, began to realize how inefficient they were at actually getting to their target.
"Two. Telin, I mean it."
A tense pause, and then everything clattered abruptly to the ground. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief—except the young prince, who looked like he was about five seconds away from sinking his teeth into the arm of the guard still holding him captive.
"Thank you," said Peony. "Telin, come here. I have an idea." She held out a hand to her son, then turned to address the three fairies. "Now, next time you might want to try aiming your charms at him instead of at the swords, but for now can anyone get me a pair of sticks or wooden spoons or something?"
She left them to it and lowered herself very slowly onto the bottom step. Now that the adrenaline was wearing off she was feeling a little shaky, and gave herself license to kiss the top of her son's head even though he was clearly not in the mood to be cosseted.
"That was some very impressive swordsmanship," she told him. "Did you want to practice like Uncle Terberus?"
A murmur of understanding went through the room at Telin's nod. All of the princes had learned the basics, in case of another invasion of taralians or something similar, but Terberus alone had a passion for the art of swordplay. He knew more about the various forms and weapons and their histories and legends than anyone, and when pressed would give demonstrations that looked more like graceful, impossible dances than like anything violent. You might forget what a sword was actually for, unless you happened to see him dueling- Colin was the only one who could even approach keeping up with him, and only because he'd made a grueling effort to assist his brother at practice when an opponent was necessary- and then, quite suddenly, Terberus would become the most terrifying person imaginable. Telin didn't like it when his uncles fought, but he was so enraptured by Terberus's solo drills that he could be trusted to stay by himself at the edge of the practice field, wide-eyed and quiet, when his parents needed a moment's peace.
By the time Sigil appeared and confirmed that the supposed attack was, indeed, nothing more than baby magic, two poles had been produced and Terberus was showing a much-cheered Telin an ancient defense pattern (in Telin's case it seemed to mostly consist of waving his pole around in a circle and yelling, but no one felt the need to correct him). The three fairies were sent back to the city with a few small gifts for their willingness to aid their monarchs, no matter how ineffectually, and a messenger to dispel any rumors of an attack on the young prince's life.
The people's response to this news was, on the whole, rather ambivalent—an evil magician or fairy would have been unfortunate, of course, but quite within the realm of expectation, whereas magic in the royal family was decidedly not. Everyone loved Peony, though, and those who had met young Telin loved him too, for he was a charming, if mischievous, child. After all, people began to say, most boys with baby magic grew up to be perfectly magicless, and there had been an unusual liveliness to all magic around the time he was conceived, everywhere in the country, never mind surrounding the princess and her consort specifically.
Sigil was certainly strong enough to keep one small boy under control, but Peony insisted that he be sent to board for a month or two with a certain pair of fairies in the Gig. She'd always imagined that her children and Rosie's would grow up next door to each other, be best friends, maybe even marry one day. It was one of the futures she'd given up, coming here, and she didn't regret it, but she also couldn't bear for Telin not to know that he had an aunt in Foggy Bottom, another family who loved him. Besides, she rather thought it would do him good to spend a few months where someone would order him to bed instead of bowing and politely requesting it.
She told that to Rowland, but to everyone else she simply said that it would be a comfort to the people for Telin to remain out of sight until he was reassuringly nonmagical again. This turned out to be true, especially with the country quite willing to be distracted by the birth of Prince Jeret while his older brother was away.
Of course, when Prince Jeret had his own streak of baby magic, and Princess Annora after him and Princess Suralen after her, people began to wonder whether the magicians' usual screening process had been a little lenient on Rowland, distracted as everyone was by the princess's twenty-first birthday. By then everyone was more or less accustomed to it, though, and no one paid much attention when Suralen vanished from the public eye a few months before her fourth birthday.
It was, however, a little out of the ordinary that she returned with an extra member of her retinue.
"Suralen likes me," said Gilly, probably needlessly, given the toddler clinging happily to her ankle. "And the others did too, honest. Aunt says I make the best charms of anyone she's ever seen, and I probably haven't even got my full power yet. Just let me stay for a little, a year, even a couple months, and I'll prove it."
Gilly had spent most of her life idealizing Jem, in the way of younger siblings everywhere, and Jem, who was just old enough to remember a little of the goings-on at Woodwold, had spent most of his idealizing Peony. The result was a girl completely in awe of her future queen and determined not to show it, which made her even more brash than usual.
"How old are you now?" asked Peony, who was having the sobering experience of realizing that someone she'd last seen as a child of three was now of an age to have children of her own, should she want to.
"Seventeen. The same age as Mother when she was looking after you, and she didn't even have her magic yet."
"I'm sure you'd do a fine job."
"I will, I swear. Just for a year, please. I have to get out of Foggy Bottom. Four fairies in one house is too much."
"Aunt, Mother, me, and Narl. What? It's easy enough to figure out, even if he never says it."
It was that last comment more than anything that convinced Peony, who'd spent most of her life around Narl and a great many people who'd never figured him out, powerful fairies included. As it turned out, Gilly was not boasting about her prowess. She wore charms pinned and draped and hung all about her, like a shimmering second skin, and she was opinionated and ungenteel and could talk circles around the magicians, which frustrated them almost as much as it amused Peony. Near the end of the trial year she rescued Prince Jeret from a collapsing tower without even any dust on him, except from where half her charm skirt had turned to ash. If anyone hadn't been inclined to like her before that they were certainly won over, and so the princess gained a fairy who was quite the opposite of small and drab but just as dedicated as any who'd gone before her.
All that was far in the future, though. For now, Prince Telin was sent away with a number of guards and a fairy to make sure the journey was uninterrupted by the prince or by any who wished him ill. The palace was very quiet for a fortnight, far more quiet that would have seemed possible as a result of subtracting only one very small person, until his brother was born.
The third time Annora woke that night, screaming and colicky, Peony sent Rowland to bed and took her daughter out of the room so he could get at least a little sleep. After a moment's thought she headed downstairs; walking occasionally helped, and even if it didn't Peony would be less likely to fall asleep on her feet if she could drum up a cup of tea.
To her surprise, the kitchen was already occupied.
"Evening," said Colin from where he was hunched over his own mug. "Or early morning, maybe. The water's hot."
"Thanks. What are you doing up?"
"Just thinking." He tilted half a smile at her. "Do you want me to take Annora for a while? I'm awake anyway."
"Would you? That would be amazing."
Annora, unfortunately, didn't agree, and went from fussy to screaming the minute she left her mother's arms. After a few minutes Peony sighed and took her back again, bracing her with one hand so she could pour her own cup of tea.
"Well, I appreciate the offer," she said. After a moment she very cautiously tried sitting down. Annora accepted that compromise with only a few complaints, thank goodness. "So, what thoughts are keeping you awake? Unless you'd rather not say."
"No, I- well." He ran a hand through his hair, which had been Peony's gesture before it was his and Rosie's before it was Peony's. "Will you keep it secret? It's not all mine to tell."
"Unless the secrecy does harm," said Peony, which was the standard reply in that country, where broken oaths could be vengeful, half-animate things. Colin took a deep breath and blew it out, setting the mug he'd been fiddling with firmly away from him and propping his elbows on the table instead.
"Terberus is in love," he said. Peony blinked.
"Can I ask the obvious question?"
"With Garrik. He doesn't know I know."
"Garrik. Garrik, Rowland's brother-"
"-The heir-prince of Erloin, yes, that Garrik. And when I say he doesn't know, I mean he's told me about them, but he doesn't know that I know that Garrik wants to make it official."
Peony shifted Annora to the other shoulder to give herself a moment to think. Youthful romances in the royal family were often better kept discreet- Osmer had complained to her about it many a time when he was a teenager and prone to dramatic infatuation- but this was beyond anything she might have guessed.
"What did Terberus say?" she asked finally. It seemed the most important question.
"Nothing yet. It would be a terrible political move, of course, because our alliance with Erloin certainly doesn't need bolstering, but he thinks that Mother and Father would probably let him. There would still be Osmer and I left, after all, and they have always said that they won't make any of us marry against our wishes."
"And you think Terberus wants to?"
"I know he does. But he would have to live there, because Garrik is much more important to Erloin than Terberus is to this country, and, well." He reached for the mug again, seeming surprised when he found it empty. "He knows that I'd follow him, if he went, and he hasn't answered because he doesn't want to force me away from home."
"You'd still see him often-" Peony began, but Colin shook his head.
"I couldn't stay behind, he's right. He knows because he'd do the same for me. It's not that I wouldn't miss you and Osmer and everyone terribly, but it would be like tearing half of myself off and watching it walk away, just because he happened to fall in love. I can't really explain it to you."
"You don't need to," said Peony, which sounded like a willingness to accept his word but was something else entirely. She had walked away once, and though the edges had healed it was still something torn irreparably apart—and Colin and Terberus had had twenty-four years rather than the six that had passed between gaining a new neighbor and the princess's twenty-first birthday.
"Like you said, we would visit often. Erloin isn't so far, nor so different, and I do have some friends there."
"It sounds like you've already made up your mind." There was sadness in the realization, though she tried to keep it out of her voice.
"He'd say no for me. He would, and he'd forgive me for it, too, but I don't think I'd forgive myself if I kept him away from Garrik, just because I didn't want my own life to change. They are truly in love, you know. They're subtle, but if you look for it next time you see them together you'll understand."
"It sounds like next time I see them they won't be hiding anything anymore."
Colin gave her a long look, that rueful half-smile again. "Yes, well," he said, with the air of someone making a decision as he speaks it. "I suppose they won't."
Abruptly he got up from his chair and came around the table to embrace her from behind, face in her curls, careful not to jostle Annora.
"I don't want to leave you," he said. "It feels like we've only just found you, and now I must give you up again."
"I'm not going anywhere, Colin. You can see me whenever you like. And family is always family, no matter the distance."
Colin swallowed hard and straightened, clearing his throat. "Annora's asleep, I think. Shall I go fetch her bassinet? That way you won't wake her going upstairs and I can stay and watch her here in the kitchen. I'm not going to sleep yet, anyway, but you should get some while you can."
"Yes, but only if you're sure."
"I'm sure." He kissed the top of her head and vanished upstairs.
Family is always family, and time always goes on, whether you will it or no, thought Peony. She'd never told her brothers the truth of what had happened at Woodwold while they slept. At first she'd planned to, once she got to know them a little, because it was the fair and honest thing to do, but somehow she'd never done it. After all, what she knew was muddled and unexplainable and wrapped in magic, and it had seemed less and less important as the years had passed.
In that country people lived to an unusual age, possibly because of being so steeped in magic throughout their lives. This had led to an unusual custom where the crown passed from parent to child without a death involved, as it was done in other kingdoms. In that country, however, the reigning monarch was expected to (more or less gracefully, depending on the personality of the outgoing elder) hand over the position to their child when they felt they were of an age to retire. The present king was one of the more graceful, and at the age of seventy-eight he decided that it was time to start thinking about spoiling his grandchildren and possibly cold weather gardening or some comparable hobby, and that he was quite content to leave the country in the capable hands of his daughter.
Peony insisted, although there was little resistance and even that little was mainly from the royal heralds, that the public be invited to the coronation in much the same way they had to the christening nearly forty years before. The heralds were sent out with the bags of cheat-proof lots (and a little extra compensation to make up for the extra duty) to each village, except for Foggy Bottom, in which the case the entire village was invited. Nearly the entire village came, too, except for those too young or old or ill to make the journey, and those few others who stayed behind to look after them and the fields and animals. Everyone else formed a wild, joyful procession that tended to block roads wherever it went and took over an entire inn when it at last reached the royal city, much the worse for wear and a little less fond of its own company but still just as excited, or perhaps moreso, now that the day was drawing near.
Hroslinga and Crantab, as well as the entire extended family that lived in the wheelwright's house (now with an extra wing for Rosie and Narl and Nia) were given rooms in the palace for as long as they wished. Peony offered the same to Joeb, although he had long since moved out of the overcrowded house and into his own small cottage with Halan, the dairymaid. The two of them politely declined, but Peony made sure to set aside a few hours in all the bustle to see Joeb anyway, for she'd always felt a certain kinship with him. They had been the two outsiders in Barder's house for many years, no matter how welcome, and he'd always been kind to her when some of the other men in the village were mainly interested in other things.
As for her aunt and uncle, well, they were quite awed by the proceedings and understood that there was much to prepare. Peony was polite to them, and generous, and very grateful that her brothers were visiting for the occasion. Colin, who remembered the stories Peony had told him about her childhood home and who had drawn some of his own conclusions from them—quite correctly—took it upon himself to keep Hroslinga and Crantab happily occupied and away from their niece as the ceremony grew closer. They were perhaps not the most engaging company, but far from the worst, and Colin was skilled as a prince must be in the art of conversation. Besides, it was nice to get away from the sideways looks of those who wanted to talk about fairness and jealousy and an expectation he'd never had that the crown would one day be his.
The day of the coronation dawned bright and clear, just as the fairies had promised. The field was flooded with people and the dais filled with the courts of many countries, for the crowning of a new queen was no insignificant matter. The bishop gave a long speech, and the court historian and genealogist and even longer one, and the king himself one that was quite short. The main points were that he loved his country and his daughter, and was proud of them both, and hoped that he had served each as best he could, and intended to continue doing until the day he died.
And then he raised the crown from his own head and placed it on Peony's, where it might have been too large if not for the volume of golden curls supporting it, and as it touched her head a great cheer arose.
Peony stood and looked out before her, and all her people stood too, Rowland and her brothers and parents, the Prendergasts and their children, and Rosie and Narl and Nia and Katriona and Aunt and Barder and Jem and Gilly and Gable there in front, and Joeb and Halan, and Hroslinga and Crantab, and Cairngorm and Flora and Gimmel and Snick and Nurgle and Gash and the entire town of Foggy Bottom, and behind them everyone she knew from the royal city, and behind them thousands and thousands more, so far back that it became impossible to distinguish individual faces, and all of them shouting, reckless and joyful.
She could feel it, somewhere inside her, blossoming out of that nameless thing that Rosie had given her but that maybe had been waiting there all along—all of the love that country had for her, and she for it, like a rising tide. And that, in and of itself, was a kind of magic, too.