On the day of Queen Sylva Nox Fleuret’s funeral, the streets of the capital city of Tenebrae were drowned in sylleblossoms. Blue cloth draped windows and wound around tree branches, unicorn symbols were etched and painted on doors and brick walls, and mourning stones hung from strings, clacking softly in the breeze. Ravus Nox Fleuret, first daughter of Tenebrae, and Lunafreya Nox Fleuret, Crown Princess and Oracle-Heir, stood hand-in-hand on the dais where the queen had been crowned some twenty years before. Those who stood near the dais, pressing up against the ropes blocking the street, said later that Ravus’ face was unnaturally pale, her face covered with a faint sheen of sweat. She stood ramrod straight in her grey mourning gown, and when Lunafreya squeezed her hand, she grimaced and squeezed back.
The Queen’s body was borne through the street by an open carriage, like all monarchs were since the founding of Tenebrae, and the casket lid was made of smooth, domed glass, revealing the queen’s cold, still form. Sylleblossoms covered the wound in her chest, spilling over her crossed hands like blood, and her face was carefully made up, mimicking the blush of life. When the casket was drawn out, lifted up the steps to the dais by Sylva’s stone-faced attendants, Ravus opened her mouth. For a second, she looked almost like her mother, her eyes shining, white-blonde hair spilling from jeweled pins, shoulders straight. Then, as the body of her mother came at last before her, Ravus Nox Fleuret crumpled to the ground with a cry that was swallowed by the horrified roar of the crowd.
“You didn’t have to be so dramatic, Ravus,” Luna said later, sitting over her sister on the bathroom vanity in Luna’s suite. Her foot tapped Ravus’ hip, and she frowned as Ravus sheared off a long lock of hair. Curling lumps of white hair lay on the floor around the toilet, and Ravus could already feel a chill on her neck, an uncomfortable prickle by her ear.
“I had to,” Ravus said. “They wouldn’t believe I’ve fallen ill otherwise.” She twisted the signet ring around her finger, the phoenix herald of her father’s house and the unicorn of her mother’s twined together in rose gold. “I’m only sorry to have to leave you.”
“But you don’t have to,” Luna said, she set down the scissors and wrapped her arms around Ravus’ neck. “You don’t have to do any of this. Stay here with me. When I’m Oracle—”
“When you’re Oracle, the empire will have had years to order us around,” Ravus said. “They don’t believe a woman can rule; You know that, and they look at me like I’m just a, a spare, a useless girl who didn’t spend the last sixteen years studying politics and agriculture and diplomacy and fencing—”
“Ravus.” Luna propped her chin on Ravus’ head. “If they catch you…”
“They won’t.” Ravus twisted around, making Luna sit back, and looked up into her small, round face, pinched with worry. “I promise, Lunafreya. I’ll keep you safe.”
“And what about you?” Luna asked. She pushed her hands through Ravus’ newly-cropped hair, eliciting a weak smile. “Who will look after you, Ravus?”
Ravus thought of her mother, standing before her against a wall of fire, a blade sprouting from her back.
“I don’t know.”
Luna covered her face with both hands, and Ravus stood, pulling her into her arms. She looked up into the mirror, into the pale, tired face that her mother once said looked so much like her father’s, and closed her eyes.
“We’ll have to look after ourselves,” she said, and wished, despite the imperial ships waiting on the lawn, the MTs patrolling the manor, the body of their mother already interred in the family catacombs, that just for now, it wouldn't be true.
Doctoring a birth certificate was easy for an enterprising princess with a loyal staff still huddling in the manor. Men’s clothes were easier still to find; Many of Ravus’ riding clothes only needed a bit of tailoring to look a little out of season, and her old nanny had a son with too many winter jackets. Gentiana, Lunafreya’s attendant and the cold, distant spirit who always looked at Ravus like she could read the script of her soul, lay in bed wearing Ravus’ form, and Luna, well... Luna tried.
“You weren't invited,” she said loudly, pressing her hand to the frame of the side door facing the garden. Her hands trembled, and Ravus ached to hold her, to comfort her as she should, but she only clenched her fists at her sides. “I believe it's best if you left.”
“I have a right to see her,” Ravus said. Behind her, she could hear the footsteps of the imperial officials who roamed the yards start to falter. “I saw her at the funeral. I thought…”
“You thought you'd show up now?” Luna asked. Her voice shook, and she curled her fingers around the door frame. “Where were you when Mother died? Hiding, just like you did with Father. Just like you always do.”
“You know why I couldn't be there, Luna,” Ravus said. The footsteps had stopped altogether, now. “Just let me see Ravus. I’ll only be a moment.”
“She’s resting,” Luna snapped, and slammed the door in Ravus’ face. Ravus forced out a frustrated huff and turned on her heel, only to come face-to-face with two men from Niflheim, one in the white uniform of a commander, one in a magnificent grey coat framed with white silk flowers.
“Goodness,” said the man in the coat. “That was unpleasant.”
Ravus blushed. “It's no matter of yours,” she said, trying to keep her voice suitably gruff. The commander smiled at his companion sidelong, and Ravus’ blush deepened, traveling down her neck.
“I’m afraid it is,” said the first man. He tilted up the brim of his hat, revealing curiously golden eyes. “You see, it's the duty of the imperial army to ensure that the royal family… ah, as it currently stands… weathers the transition to imperial rule with the least amount of fuss. It seems you and the young princess are acquainted?”
Ravus rubbed the back of her neck. “You could say that,” she said. She bowed shortly, making a point to hold herself slightly off balance. “Apollo Herenz, at your service.”
“Are you?” The man in the coat bowed back. “I am Ardyn Izunia, Chancellor of Niflheim, and this talkative fellow beside me is High Commander Jason Fitz-Goldberg.”
“Jason Stonehammer?” Ravus asked, curiosity overwhelming the fear that boiled in her belly. “The man who killed… Who lay waste to Shiva?”
“It was a long time ago, son,” the commander said. Ravus bit back a grin of triumph. Son. Good. She was almost there.
“You wouldn't want to hear it, anyway,” Ardyn said. “Terribly dull, really. No, I believe it would be much more interesting to hear about you.”
Ravus clasped her hands behind her back. “Not much to say, sir. I’m the only son of Alexandra Horenz, who used to be an accountant at the manor, so I’m told. This was before her highness Ravus was born. My mother. Well. She was rather taken with the king.”
Ardyn beamed. The commander peered into Ravus’ face, taking note of her square jaw and high cheekbones. “The eyes are striking,” Ardyn said. Ravus swallowed heavily.
“It runs in my family,” she lied. “On my father’s side.”
“Good gods,” the commander said, in a wondering tone. “The old Duke had himself a bastard.”
Ravus bristled. “My mother raised me true,” she said. “Families in Tenebrae are matrilineal.”
“A backwards custom,” the commander said. Ardyn shrugged.
“And now you're turned aside at the door,” Ardyn said. “What a tragic figure you make.”
“Are you mocking me, sir?” Ravus said sharply.
“Hardly,” Ardyn said. “What precisely did you plan to do, my dear hero, when you came here?”
“I…” Ravus looked to the door. Luna was staring out through a side window, her face smudged by the glass. “I thought I might take a post as their guard,” she said. “I am the eldest, and if Lunafreya is to become Oracle, she’ll need someone by her side.”
“Lady Lunafreya’s security will be arranged by the empire,” the commander said, somewhat stiffly. “There is no need for a personal guard.”
Ravus closed her eyes for a second, as though steeling herself. “Then I’ll just have to join the military,” she said. The commander raised his brows, but Ardyn laughed, a great, full-throated chuckle, and lay a heavy hand on Ravus’ shoulder.
“Excellent,” Ardyn said. His golden eyes flashed, full of wicked amusement. “If you do choose to enlist, my dear, rest assured that I will be watching your progress with considerable interest.”
Ravus bowed again. “Thank you, sir,” she said. “If you could point me in the direction of the nearest recruiting station?”
“I’ll do better than that,” Ardyn said, and turned Ravus towards the waiting airships on the lawn, grinning like a fox among the hens. “I’ll take you there myself.”
"I hope you enjoyed the last good day of your life, because it's definitely gone, my man," said the tall, lanky eighteen-year-old standing at the door to the imperial barracks at the edge of Tenebrae. He wore the same white and grey uniform as Ravus, buttoned smartly to his collar and emblazoned with two pins on his chest. His hair was a shock of red, curling around his light brown, deeply freckled face like a halo, and he had a wry smile that cut through Ravus' jangling nerves. "What's your name again? I'm Marcus."
"Apollo," Ravus said.
"No shit? Okay, sunshine, let's introduce you to your new best friend." Marcus turned on his heel, and Ravus followed awkwardly, hands locked behind her back.
Signing up had been laughably easy with an amused chancellor on her side. No one had asked her to disrobe for her physical, no one looked at her false identification for more than a moment, and all she had to do was grit her teeth through an oath of fealty and she was there, just at Marcus' heels as she was led into the barracks, stopping before a crowded, dismal room full of cots.
"Apollo, best friend," Marcus said, gesturing to the bed. "Best friend, Apollo. Get to know each other. Cherish each other. Cry on their shoulder, they don't mind. Just keep the actual sobbing to a minimum. You're acquainted now? Good. Let's go."
They passed the mess hall, the door to the training yards, the medical office where a line of exhausted young men winced as equally young nurses stuck them with needles, and a small door to the showers.
"You have five minutes in the showers before the next group comes in," Marcus said, waving a hand at a stone entranceway. "No doors in the toilet stalls, because who needs privacy in his Radiance's army? We might be, I don't know, writing a letter home or something. Lights out at 2100, and I fucking mean that, 'cause if they catch you moving around, your ass is theirs. No talking after lights out, no talking during drills, no talking during PT, no talking ever."
"You're talking now," Ravus pointed out.
"Shut the fuck up, sunshine," Marcus said, but he was smiling a little, his grey eyes narrowing. "Any questions? No questions. We don't ask questions in his Radiance's army, either."
Ravus raised her hands in surrender, and Marcus snorted.
"Right," he said. "Now let's go to hell, yeah?"
Hell turned out to be an older man called Sergeant with black hair and a furious scowl, who looked Ravus up and down, scoffed, and jerked his head towards a line of young men trying not to look interested.
"The royal bastard graces us with his presence," Sergeant said. A few heads lifted at that, and Ravus' lips parted. "Your sponsor's been talkin' you up all goddamn morning. Well, I don't care who your daddy was, boy, and neither does the enemy. We all start at the bottom here, so don't expect any special treatment. Get in line."
Ravus neglected to note that it was special treatment to single her out, and joined up at the end of the line. He probably hated the nobility, that was all. He was probably one of those anti-royalists who thought the Oracle just waved her hands while the gods cured the Scourge for her. Yes, that had to be it. Ravus pushed the sergeant into a neatly labeled box in the back of her mind, and promptly decided to throw out everything he said as soon as basic training was done.
Marcus, it seemed, was right. An afternoon with Sergeant was certainly hellish; First they had to march, which was bad enough with half the men falling out of formation and casting looks at Ravus, who didn't have to bother with fixing her posture and just focused on walking in time. Then came physical training, where Ravus was paired up with a man with hair whiter than hers, who held her feet and counted her crunches.
"Is it true?" he whispered, as Ravus pushed through a burning pain in her abdomen just to twist in place. "Was your dad the Duke?"
"I don't see how that matters," Ravus whispered back. The man shrugged.
"Kind of does. I mean, if Princess Ravus dies—"
"She isn't dying," Ravus hissed. "Even if it feels like it."
"Sorry. I guess she's kind of your sister, huh?" The man smiled sheepishly. "But won't you have a claim to the throne? You're royal, right?"
"The Duke wasn't of the Oracle's line, and you need magic to rule," Ravus said. "So no."
"Oh." The man sighed. "So no chance of getting me a date with Princess Ravus, then?"
Ravus looked at him. He had an unfortunate face, with a razor-thin nose and a lipless mouth, but he wasn’t terrible.
"Not likely," Ravus said.
Dinner was late, and the meal Ravus sat down for was possibly the blandest she'd ever eaten, but she was too exhausted to care. She went through the rest of the evening in a daze, and Ravus was already at the door to the showers before she realized, with a jolt, exactly what she was in for.
Thankfully, there were a few shower stalls next to the baths, all with flimsy curtains that reached her calves. Ravus ducked into one and scrubbed down, keeping her back to the curtain, while the others in her group sloshed around in the bath.
"Not gonna join us?" one of them asked.
"We didn't have baths at home," Ravus lied.
"What? But you're like, rich, right?"
"Nah, the Duke just fucked a servant or something," someone else said.
"Shit. Didn't think the Duke was that kind of guy. Is she hot?"
"Excuse me?" Ravus asked.
"Dude," said the first voice. "You can't just ask someone if their mom is hot."
"I refuse to answer the question," Ravus said, and the men laughed. Gods. Men. Ravus wondered if the man her mother had been talking marriage plans to, a member of the old nobility in Lucis with a son close to Luna's age, was the sort of person to separate all women in ranks of attractiveness. She wondered if the talks were even still on, now that the royal family of Tenebrae had fallen. Probably not. Niflheim wouldn't let Ravus or Luna escape to Lucis, and Lucis certainly wouldn't bend a finger to try for a rescue. That was clear enough.
"Time!" someone shouted, and Ravus frantically started shoving on her nightclothes. She made it to the door just in time, and was crowded into the main barracks, where she collapsed on her cot with a groan.
"Ravus, new best friend," she breathed. "New best friend, Ravus."
She thought that she'd be too worn out to be remotely homesick, but as Ravus tried not to toss in her uncomfortable cot, she couldn't help but worry about Luna. Luna had Gentiana, of course, but Gentiana was such a hands-off spirit, preferring to watch from a distance rather than intercede. Would she be able to protect Luna while Ravus was gone?
Ravus rolled over. On nights like this, when her mind raced and her body ached with exhaustion, she used to go to her mother's study. Her mother held an odd schedule, thanks to the healings she arranged during the day, and could often be found at her desk, poring through reports from her small council. Ravus would draw up a chair beside her, and Sylva would smile and run her hand through Ravus' hair.
"My darling Ravus."
Ravus let out a shaky breath, and jerked as something hopped onto her cot. She sat up on her elbows, squinting in the pitch darkness, and winced as a paw pushed down on her belly.
Pryna, Lunafreya's companion spirit, opened her mouth in a doggy smile and licked Ravus' face.
"Girl, no," Ravus whispered, but Pryna just hunkered down, settling over Ravus like a heavy, slightly musty blanket. A wet nose pressed Ravus' cheek, and Pryna lay her head on her chest, ears twitching. Any attempt Ravus would have made to push her off or send her home would alert one of the other soldiers, so Ravus gave up, scratching Pryna's neck with both hands.
Oh, Luna, she thought, as Pryna sighed and nuzzled her hands. You can't just trust me on my own, can you?
Still, even though Ravus woke the next morning to an empty bed free of even a single white hair, she had to admit that Pryna had done the trick. It was very hard to be sorry for oneself, she reasoned, as she brushed her teeth alongside a gaggle of bleary-eyed men, when one has a sister with a very needy, very magical dog.
If she could just get through basic training, the worst would be over. Promotion was common in an army packed with MTs, and Ravus had been raised for command, if not to rule. It wouldn't be long at all before she saw Luna again, and then, perhaps, she could use her new connections to help them escape. They could run to Accordo, or even hide in the ruins of Galahd and raise their own army there.
Ravus smiled grimly in the mirror and put away her brush, turning aside to let the next group of soldiers come through.
When Ravus left the gate of the imperial barracks behind for the last time, there were two people waiting for her. One was a woman from the manor, her blue uniform neatly pressed, a small bag at her feet. She stood on the dirt path without a care for the men who streamed around her, their grey uniforms turning the street into a froth of cotton and clamoring voices, and Ravus drifted towards her, drawn inexorably on.
Ravus' second visitor stood under a sycamore, a silk hat tilted over his brow.
Ardyn Izunia whistled, and for a moment, the press of bodies stilled, and Ravus' fellow soldiers scuffled their feet in the dust as Ardyn raised one languid hand. Ravus glanced at the woman from Tenebrae. Her eyes were pinched tight, her mouth gone thin, knuckles white in her gown.
Ardyn whistled again. Ravus sidestepped around Marcus, who was grinning at her, and strode across the dry grass to the shade of the sycamore.
"Look at you," Ardyn said. He tilted his head. "You're very nearly a proper soldier, now. What do you say, Apollo? Has the army made a man of you yet?"
Ravus squared her shoulders. "If that's all it takes to be a man, sir, then I'd say manhood has a woefully low standard."
Ardyn laughed, low and charming and sinister as a snake. "Excellent. I believe you have two weeks before you receive your orders, yes? Clear them. You, young man, will be spending your leave with me."
Ravus risked a cursory glance over her shoulder. The woman was still there, watching her.
"Unless a better opportunity has presented itself, of course," Ardyn said. Ravus considered her choices. Luna waiting for her in the manor, surrounded by tapestries Ravus had traced as a child, haunting the empty studies of their parents, alone and small in the shadow of the empire. Then Ardyn, with his winning smile and a cold, hard emptiness behind his eyes, a devil at a crossroads, hands outstretched.
Ravus turned her back to the woman in the road and bowed. "I am at your service," she said, and Ardyn's smile widened.
The chancellor of Niflheim drove a car best meant for men undergoing a particularly nasty midlife crisis, with a retractable top and no seat belts to speak of. Ravus sat ramrod straight in the passenger's seat, tensing every time Ardyn leaned in to change the radio or reach for one of the drinks in the glove compartment. Still, the air blowing over the hills of Tenebrae smelled like home, and Ravus slowly allowed herself to relax, leaning stiffly against her seat.
The chancellor's summer home, so he called it, was an estate on the border of Niflheim, surrounded by a thick canopy of trees. There were too many varieties to count, all of them nonsensical for the climate—Palms nestled next to pines, oaks bent around yew and hawthorne, and the remnants of an orange grove shoved in with what looked suspiciously like olive trees. They made a tunnel of the road, which wound up the hill to a three-story manor with shuttered windows and no staff wandering the grounds. Ravus wobbled her way out of the car, holding the door for balance, as Ardyn bounded onto the drive.
"Lovely," he said. "Leave your things in the car. Can't have you wearing last season's styles, can we?"
Ravus looked Ardyn up and down, then slowly reached for her bag. "I may have to take the risk," she said.
"Oh, I almost like you," Ardyn said. "Come along, and tell me your plans for his radiance's illustrious military."
Ravus kept up easily with the chancellor as they strode up the drive—she'd always been rather lanky, and weeks of running in formation had taught her endurance. "It depends on where they send me," she said. "I'd like to go into training as an officer. I have the aptitude for it."
"Do you?" Ardyn pulled out a ring of keys. His front door was engraved with a starburst pattern, and opened inward with a low, horrible groan. "And if they station you on the battlefield?"
"Field promotions aren't impossible," Ravus said. "Though not ideal. Still, they may prove my worth to the infantry—"
"My dear, there is no infantry," Ardyn said. Ravus bit her cheek. She was starting to hate being called my dear. "Any human soldiers we have will go directly into special forces, scouting, or officer training. MTs need orders to follow, and Niflheim needs men who can give orders. But I can help you there."
"And what will your help cost me?" Ravus asked. She didn't care for dancing around a subject, and suspected that Ardyn would talk himself in circles just for the novelty of hearing his own voice. "I'd like to know what I'm getting into, first."
Ardyn raised a brow. He seemed almost... disappointed, somehow, like he'd expected Ravus to carry out a complex parry with her rapier only for her to drop her sword. "A favor for a favor," Ardyn said. "Loyalty, perhaps, though only in action, not in spirit. I hold no illusions—You seem a very principled young person. I'm sure your true loyalties will always lie elsewhere."
Ravus held her hands behind her back. "If you mean to say—"
"Oh, gods, not this nonsense," Ardyn said. He hung his coat on a rack by a vase full of fat white lilies. "Hands at your sides, Apollo. You'll give yourself away. And try to do something with your face."
"My... my face?"
"Yes. It's..." Ardyn frowned, making a moue like a duchess inspecting the silverware. "Obvious. Very well. What I expect from you, Ravus, is a willingness to lend me your aid, when you are in a position to grant it."
"And you make this arrangement with many in the military, I assume," Ravus said.
"Oh, no," Ardyn said. "Why make an arrangement when blackmail can do the job? No, you're special. A bastard son of a man famously in love with his wife, determined to be the young oracle in training's bodyguard? You're interesting, Apollo, and interesting people are so very rare in this day and age. Your room is this way, I think."
"So I'm a, a bauble to you?" Ravus asked. She followed Ardyn up a wide staircase draped with gold banners. "A passing whim? Something to collect?"
"If you like," Ardyn said. "But I'm the best deal you're likely to make in this army. Let's see. There's the emperor—I'd wait before you seek him out, let your face thin a little—"
Ravus' skin prickled. Surely he didn't mean—
"Or Verstael, who can't see beyond his own face. Classic Narcissus in the making, you should see his latest models... Jason is a conniving bastard himself—my apologies—and Caligo is a brute. Odin Tummelt is a fool, and so is his son. And I doubt you'd want to speak to Glauca. He did murder your queen, after all."
Ravus let her hand fall on the banister. It was smooth and polished, comfortingly solid under her palm. "I barely knew the queen," she said.
"Yes, but she was your sisters' mother," Ardyn said. "Awkward for you."
Ravus closed her eyes for a second. "Yes. I suppose."
Her guest room was almost as large as her suite at home, a far cry from the cramped barracks. Still, she found herself missing the impersonal, crowded mess of basic training. At least there, she could suss out what her comrades were thinking. Ravus stood in the middle of the room, a hand on the coverlet of the massive four-poster, and looked up at Ardyn.
"When do you need an answer?" she asked.
"Oh, any time," Ardyn said. "House rules. No murder indoors. Duels are still legal in Niflheim, but don't challenge the brass; They'll bleed loudly, and I have a certain aesthetic I like to maintain. Breakfast is whenever, I suppose, and I sincerely hope you know how to dance."
Ravus blinked. "Sir?"
Ardyn smiled, trailing his hand through his tangled red curls. "I didn't tell you?" he said. "I'm holding an officer's ball at the end of the week." He beamed at Ravus' blank look. "Now, don't worry. I'm sure you'll rise to the occasion."
For a man about to hold a ball for the top brass of the Niflheim military, Ardyn was oddly uninterested in planning ahead. Ravus spent the first few days wandering through an empty estate, opening doors into unused libraries and sitting rooms and stumbling into an entire hallway dedicated to preserved artifacts from the fall of Solheim. When she asked Ardyn if he needed assistance with the ball, he looked at her as though she'd just sprouted wings and declared herself a Zuu.
"You can organize my office, if you must do something," he said, and sauntered off, boots clicking on the dusty floors. Ravus stood in the center of his office, which was a whirlwind of reports, discarded paper, and upended books, and ground her teeth.
Still, perhaps he was giving her an opportunity. The office of the chancellor of Niflheim had to have some valuable intel, and Ravus and Luna would need everything in their grasp to keep afloat. She tied her sleeves at the elbows and got to work, digging through the papers on Ardyn's desk.
There was certainly no lack of information there, at least. Ravus learned more than just the names of the head generals of Niflheim; She learned that Caligo was more than just a brute, undergoing four internal investigations alone in the past two years. General Tummelt was deeply in debt. High Commander Jason had lied about his family lineage to sign up—He was a Lucian by birth. Glauca was...
Ravus sat in Ardyn's enormous leather chair, holding Glauca's file in both hands.
Titus Drautos, it said. Galahdian. Captain of Lucian Kingsglaive.
She thought of King Regis, running through the grass of the Tenebraean manor, his son in his arms, Luna's hand in his. Ravus had been left behind, a spare with no magic or crown to inherit, her mother's body at her feet. Glauca's sword had spilled blood on the grass as he charged for Regis, but Ravus could only notice the way her mother's hair fanned around her fallen crown, silken and fine as a spiderweb.
Regis had left her there so readily. He'd assessed his chances, seen Ravus as she was, as expendable, and acted accordingly. And it was his captain who soaked the grass with Sylva Nox Fleuret's blood.
How much of a fool did a man have to be not to see? Or had he known? Was it a plan, perhaps, an alliance, a chance to keep the future Oracle in Lucis, where she and the precious chosen king could be together?
Ravus lay the paper down and stood, hands clenched on the table. It didn't matter what his motivations were. He was either a coward and a fool, or a coward and a traitor. Ravus couldn't tell which was worse, and she didn't care. To hell with all of them.
She pushed away from the desk and marched through the empty halls until she found her sword, laid carefully right where she'd left it. She unsheathed it, admiring the cool, polished steel, and made her way downstairs to the estate grounds. She threw herself into drills, imagining clever, vicious rivals on the end of her sword, always one step ahead, making her dart back and change her footing in the thick, wild grass of Ardyn Izunia's home. She lunged, piercing them through the throat, and stepped back to the sound of hearty applause.
"Magnificent," Ardyn said, from where he leaned against a crumbling statue. "Why, I could hire you for entertainment at the party. What do you say? You can kill General Caligo's bodyguards, or that pet swordsman of Jason's."
"I don't kill for sport," Ravus said, flicking hair out of her eyes.
"As you say," Ardyn demurred, and turned away, still smiling. Ravus scowled and stalked back to her guest room to clean her sword.
The next morning, Ravus woke to find the whole estate teeming with staff. There were dozens of them, perhaps a hundred, all mopping and dusting and mowing, Ravus like a ghost passing among them. Ravus took refuge in Ardyn's office, where she read reports until her eyes ached, and she stepped out into a hall draped with the dark maroon and white of Niflheim. She scurried to her room, where she put on what passed for her best suit, thanking the gods yet again that she inherited the flat chest on her father's side. She emerged into the hall to the sound of a loud cry downstairs, and forced herself not to run for the staircase.
A young man—No, a boy, not much older than Luna—held his cheek in the foyer, his face red with fury. He had dusty blond hair and wild eyes, and he held himself like an aristocrat, back straight, chin high. The man standing over him, tersely tugging his glove back on, had the same look about him, and his chest gleaned with medals.
Ravus caught herself pulling a disgusted face, and remembered Ardyn's advice. It was hard, terribly hard, to will herself into a calm, steady expression, with a man standing below her who saw no issue with striking his son.
Hardly noble, she thought, descending the staircase. The nobles of Niflheim were mostly new money in any case, their lines barely long enough to warrant a place in the lists of Tenebrae. Ravus cast a cold look over the crowd by the foyer, and the boy glanced her way, face flushing darker still.
"If you cannot behave," the boy's father said, "I will send you home."
"Yes, father," the boy said. His gaze followed Ravus hungrily as she passed. "I understand."
Ravus stepped into a large dining room she'd only seen as a dusty space covered in sheets, now polished to a shine and sparkling with light. Ravus wound through the crowd, listening to snatches of conversation, noting how few of the guests were as young as she was, and marking their faces in her mind.
"Ah, Apollo." Ardyn's voice called out over the din, smooth and unmistakable. Ravus stopped a few feet from his side and bowed shortly. General Caligo Ulldor was with him, a large man with cheeks already flushed with liquor, swaying slightly from side to side.
"Sir," she said to Ardyn. She nodded to Caligo. "General."
"Young for your tastes," Caligo said, as Ardyn said, "Apollo, Caligo and I..." Ardyn's voice trailed off, and he raised an eyebrow. "Ah."
"Don't act the fool, Ardyn," Caligo said, a little too loudly. "We all know you collect degenerate strays when you're bored. Where'd you find this one?"
Ardyn looked to Ravus, expectant. Ravus only just stopped herself from holding her hands behind her back.
"I can't speak for the chancellor's tastes," Ravus said, in a clear, low voice. "But I can speak for my own, and I'm afraid I can never find myself fancying a man who wears plaid and florals in the same outfit. Sir," she said to Ardyn, seemingly to take the sting off her words. Ardyn looked positively delighted.
"Well, that settles it," he said. "I will have to pencil in time to be utterly heartbroken. Now that's settled, of course, I thought our young friend might contribute his own thoughts to our current quandary."
"Which is?" Ravus asked.
"The question of women joining the Niflheim military," Ardyn said. He lifted a glass to his lips, watching Ravus carefully. Ravus felt as though she'd turned to stone.
"I can't say I have an opinion," she said.
"It's a pointless debate," Caligo said. "Women are satisfied where they are. Why put themselves at risk? Military life is hard. It'll change them, make them unsuitable for marriage, distract the men on the field—"
Ardyn coughed slightly, and the front doors by the foyer opened. Ravus heard a hush run through the men gathered by the door as a young woman about her age walked through them. She wore her silver hair in an inelegant ponytail, her uniform was roughly made and slim-fitting, and her eyes were sharp, casing the crowd like a hawk among mice. Ravus felt the bottom drop out of her stomach, and Caligo grunted in distaste.
"Really, Ardyn," he said. "One of them?"
"The Highwind Mercenaries are an elite fighting force, Ulldor," Ardyn said. He leaned closer to Ravus, lowering his voice. "Finding ourselves a bit distracted, are we?"
"What?" Ravus tore her gaze from the girl stalking through the room. "Pardon?"
"What'd I say?" Caligo muttered. Ravus' heartbeat leapt to her throat as the girl saw them, making a beeline for Ardyn. She stopped just inches from Ravus, a hand on her hip, eyes narrowed dangerously.
"A small party, you said," she snapped. Ardyn sighed.
"You know how these affairs can be," he said. "Everyone and their father wants to attend, and I can't very well refuse them."
"Bullshit," the girl said.
"At least your dance card won't be empty," Ardyn said, and the girl rolled her eyes. "Apollo, may I introduce Aranea Highwind, the newest leader of the Highwind Mercenaries?"
"Charmed," Ravus croaked.
"Whatever," Aranea said, still glaring at Ardyn. She took his drink from his fingers and downed it, then handed the glass to Ravus. "You have thirty minutes. Then I'm out."
She stormed off, heading for the doors opening into the garden. Caligo snorted.
"Degenerates," Caligo growled.
"Excuse me," Ravus said. She set the empty glass on a decorative case and drifted towards the garden. The grass had been cut short and dotted with framed candles and lanterns, which made the effect of a starlit night at her feet. A few men wandered the garden, speaking softly to each other, but Ravus made for the one spot they conspicuously avoided, where Aranea sat on the edge of a fountain with a drink in her hand, speaking to the boy from the foyer.
"We pay well," she was saying, taking a sip from her glass. "Even cut from every job, doesn't matter who you are, and a percentage taken out for medical expenses. You get your own room at HQ, too."
"I don't know," the boy said, crossing his arms. "Father says I can be a general if I apply myself."
"Generals are assholes," Aranea said. "Think about it, anyway. If you can sneak out, I can get you a job cleaning the ship to start with, no problem." Aranea turned at the sound of Ravus' feet in the grass. "Huh. If it isn't Prince Charming."
"I." Ravus cleared her throat. "My name is—"
"Apollo," Aranea said. "Yeah. I know." She held out her drink. "Want a taste? It's expensive, whatever it is."
Ravus hesitated just long enough for Aranea to scowl, then, with a speed that made the small, noble part of her shrivel up in horror, took a long draught of wine. She handed it back, and Aranea smirked in approval.
"So what's up?" she said. "You and Loqi here part of the Future Generals of Niflheim club?"
"He isn't a future anything," Loqi said. "My father says he's a bastard."
Ravus opened her mouth to say something scathing and terribly inappropriate, but Aranea only smiled.
"Really?" she said. "Sounds like my kind of person. Alright, Apollo." She slipped off the fountain, handing her drink to a bewildered Loqi. "Let's find out where Ardyn's keeping the good shit."
“Oh, I know that,” Ravus said. The others stared at her, and she shrugged a shoulder. “He has a wine cellar beneath the library.”
“Of course he does,” Aranea said. She scoffed loudly. “A library. Really. How pretentious can you get?”
“I’ve seen worse,” Loqi said, trailing behind them. They strode across the grounds, dew dampening their boots, but only Aranea seemed not to care. She stomped a path through the grass, and Ravus found herself straightening a little, trying to look taller, more aloof.
They snuck down a dark hallway to the library, where Aranea startled two young officers into fleeing for the foyer and secured the door with a high-backed chair. “Good,” she said, as Ravus yanked open the trap staircase. “That’ll hold them for a while.”
For all that Ardyn was unscrupulous, unfeeling, and as chaotic as a cat in a fishtank, Ravus had to admit that he had excellent taste in wine.
“Thing is,” Ravus said, somewhere around her third glass of Altissian red, “thing is. The thing is about the military, is it’s—”
“Fucking bullshit,” Loqi said. He drained his glass. “I wanted to be a painter.”
“Really?” Aranea took a sip of Ravus’ drink, and their fingers brushed, just slightly. Ravus’ cheeks were on fire. She lifted a hand to cool them down.
“But a Tummelt has to serve,” Loqi said. He glared into his drink, and blinked as Ravus leaned over to refill it. “Thanks. You’re not too bad, Apollo. Maybe it comes from your, you know. Heritage. One side cancels the other side out.”
“Best not to ask which side he means,” Aranea mumbled. Ravus grinned. “Well, I think the problem is that they’re all assholes, but they’re all assholes over in Lucis, too. That’s what war is. Figuring out which asshole is the biggest.”
“That’s an image I’d rather not…” Ravus squinted her eyes shut. “Gods. I’ve seen King Regis before. I don’t want to imagine that.”
“Yikessss,” Aranea said. She popped open a bottle of sweet rose wine, and Loqi rolled from his bench and onto the floor.
“I’m going to lie down here now,” he announced. “Tell Father I’m dead.”
“Sure,” Aranea said. She winked at Ravus, who flushed so dark she suspected even her roots were glowing red. “Me and Apollo’ll make do.” They watched Loqi settle under the bench, and Ravus couldn’t help but feel like she should help him upstairs and put him to bed properly. The poor soul never had an older sibling, that much was certain.
“He’s cute,” Aranea said. “In a sad, whipped puppy kind of way.” She looked at Ravus. “So are you. Ardyn said he had someone staying with him. That’s you, then?”
“I suppose. I’m not sure if I’ll be taking any of his offers,” Ravus said.
“You should. He’ll actually do what he’s supposed to.” Aranea set down her drink and sprawled on her bench, flinging her arms behind her head. She smiled, and Ravus looked away. “Lie down—There’s too much of you.”
Ravus obligingly lay next to Aranea on the bench, their shoulders pressed together. “I’ve never, um. Never done this before,” she said.
“What?” Aranea rolled to her side. Her breasts brushed against Ravus’ arm. “Lain with a woman, you mean? I can’t imagine.”
“Don’t be an ass,” Ravus said. “But no. Wasn’t supposed to lie with anyone.”
“Well, don’t get any ideas,” Aranea said. She leaned over her, silver hair falling into Ravus’ face, and gently pressed her lips to Ravus’. There was a single, breathless moment when all Ravus could feel was the warmth of Aranea’s lips on hers, the touch of a hand on her arm, and then Aranea was sitting up, looking pleased with herself.
“I thought you said not to get any ideas,” Ravus protested, pushing herself up on her elbows.
“I know,” Aranea said. “So I gave you one. Excuse me.” And she got up, walked briskly to one of Ardyn’s antique potteries, and vomited into it.
“What’s wrong?” Loqi asked muzzily, his voice dull beneath the bench.
“Nothing,” Ravus said, as Aranea retched into the vase. “I just had my first kiss.”
“Lucky you,” Loqi drawled, and passed out again, face mashed to the carpet.
It took some time before Ravus felt aware enough to stand. Aranea fled the house as soon as she was done spitting bile, and Loqi remained under the bench, snoring softly. Ravus eased her way out of the room to the faint sound of music in the ballroom, and wondered just how they would get on with a dance without any women present.
Perhaps, she thought, smiling a little, she would have to just dance with everyone herself.
She needn’t have worried. Ardyn had, in true fashion, it seemed, elected to bribe every eligible woman in a fifty mile radius to come to the ball. They milled about, latching onto officers and laughing in small groups, and Ravus felt a pang of envy as a number of them rushed by, their gowns flickering like dragonflies in the candlelight.
What she would give for a gown like the ones in her closet at home, dark blue and glimmering with diamonds at the hem. She sighed after them wistfully for a moment, then forced herself to seek out Ardyn.
He was standing off to the side, speaking fervently with a massive man in a black uniform. The man had a kind face, with laugh lines at his mouth and short-cropped hair, and he was a few inches shorter than Ardyn even in sensible black boots. Ravus stepped forward, driven by the dizzying effects of too much wine, and managed a bow.
The man raised his brows and looked her up and down. Ravus blushed. “Well,” the man said. “This is a surprise.”
“This is the young man we were just discussing,” Ardyn said. “Apollo, this is—”
“Your new commanding officer,” the man said. He held out his hand, smiling faintly. Ravus extended hers. He had a firm grip, calloused by the sword. “If Ardyn doesn’t try to lay a claim.”
Ravus snorted in disbelief, and Ardyn shrugged. “A pleasure,” she said. “Sir.”
“Not yet,” the man said. “Please.”
“General Glauca seems to find titles distasteful,” Ardyn said, raising his champagne glass. “I can’t imagine why.”
Ravus let her hand drop. “Of course,” she said, in a distant voice. Glauca said something else, but she didn’t catch it through the roaring in her ears. He nodded curtly and left Ravus swaying next to Ardyn, the shining ballroom blurring around her.
“Ah,” Ardyn said. “Perhaps we should sit you down, Apollo.”
“Right,” Ravus said. She let Ardyn lead her into the garden, where he sat her down on the lip of the fountain. He crouched to look her in the eyes, and she struggled to focus, fighting past the horror in her belly.
She’d been so close. She’d touched his hand.
“It’s a good assignment,” Ardyn was saying, somewhere above her. “But if you feel it doesn’t match your strengths—”
“I’ll kill him,” she said, numbly.
“Good thing we’re outside, then,” Ardyn said, almost to himself. “Kill him later, darling. For now, you have a choice.”
“I never had one,” Ravus said. “You took it from me. You’re always taking it from me.”
“Yes, we’re monsters.” Ardyn chuckled faintly, but his eyes held no humor. No emotion. For the first time, Ravus saw herself in the reflection of those golden glass eyes. “Work with me, Ravus. I could use a clever young girl with something to lose. Daemons always fight fiercest when they’re cornered, do they not?”
Ravus pulled back. “You said my name.”
“Give it time,” Ardyn said. “I can keep your sister safe. I’ll give you power—More than you need, more than you can imagine. And I can give you the chance at revenge.”
For an instant, Ardyn’s face seemed to be cast in shadow, his eyes deepening, the lines of his mouth gone inky black. “And all you’ll need is my soul, I suppose.”
“Maybe,” Ardyn said, and Ravus shuddered. “In time. But you’ll get what you want, won’t you?” He stood, and Ravus fell into his shadow, staring up at his massive shape against the night sky. “Sleep on it. I’ll have your answer in the morning, one way or another.”
“I don’t need to,” Ravus said. “I’d say yes anyway. You knew I would.”
Ardyn only smiled, teeth flashing in the dark.
“Very good,” he said, and Ravus’ skin prickled—with fear, or dread, or maybe even anticipation. Ardyn stepped back, cloak swirling around his feet, and held out a hand. “Then let’s get started.”