Nissa Premiere looked at Michael, her King, the old soldier, who had picked the eldest of the twelve dancing princesses. Not the prettiest, not the cleverest, but the one with the greatest will. The first of them.
He grinned at her and reached over with a weathered old hand to take the first sip of her cup. He always took the first sip of her cup, and the last sip. He always had the first slice of her meat. The first crust of her bread. He ate little else at their feasts. That was why there were so many courses. He knew what kind of feast she wanted to give him. He was an old soldier. They enjoyed their campaigns against each other. Eventually, she was going to win.
When the banquet was over and the dancing would begin, it was always signalled by the sharp shots of rifles. Three of them in quick succession. He always smiled at her when the rifles were fired. The silver and gold and diamond branches were always prominently placed on the table.
Nissa Premiere smiled sweetly in reply, "Where were you shot again?"
His answer was always different. This time he replied, "The thigh." It meant he wouldn't be dancing that night. Neither would she. They had made another child together in her Queen's bed that did not descend into the floor. Another type of battle. The baby weighed her down. Her shoes with thick and comfortable. They would not wear out for years.
There were prince's heads on pikes above the castle gate. The first one was the head of the prince she'd once worn out shoes with in a magic palace when he'd come to disrupt Nissa Premiere's wedding dance. It sat first in the line; it was followed by the heads of the dead princes that she'd given cups of drugged wine. Ambassadors from those countries smiled at her coolly as she stepped down from the dais on her King's hand.
She smiled coolly back. They would never go to war over princes on a wall, but it was good for them to see who they dealt with. She looked across the ballroom and saw her sister, Iya Secunda, dancing. They nodded at each other, allies in a long war.
Nissa Premiere was no longer the first of dancing princesses. Nissa Premiere was the Queen.