Sarene stepped off of the ship to discover that she was a widow. It was shocking news, of course, but not as devastating as it could have been. After all, she had never met her husband. In fact, when Sarene had left her homeland, she and Raoden had only been engaged. She had assumed that the kingdom of Arelon would wait to hold the wedding until she actually arrived. Where she came from, at least, it was expected that both partners would be present when they were married.
“I never liked that clause in the wedding contract, my lady,” said Sarene’s companion—a melon-sized ball of light hovering at her side.
Sarene tapped her foot in annoyance as she watched the packmen load her luggage onto a carriage. The wedding contract had been a fifty-page beast of a document, and one of its many stipulations made her betrothal legally binding if either she or her fiancé died before the actual wedding ceremony.
“It’s fairly common clause, Ashe,” she said. “That way, the treaty of a political marriage isn’t voided if something happens to one of the participants. I’ve never seen it invoked.”
“Until today,” the ball of light replied, its voice deep words and well-enunciated.
“Until today,” Sarene admitted. “How was I to know Prince Raoden wouldn’t last the five days it took us to cross the Sea of Fjorden?” She paused, frowning in thought. “Quote the clause to me, Ashe. I need to know exactly what it says.”
“‘If it happens that one member of the aforementioned couple is called home to Merciful Domi before the prearranged wedding time,'” Ashe said, “‘then the engagement will be considered equivalent to marriage in all legal and social respects.'”
“Not much room for argument, is there?”
“Afraid not, my lady.”
Sarene frowned distractedly, folding her arms and tapping her cheek with her index finger, watching the packmen. A tall, gaunt man directed the work with bored eyes and a resigned expression. The man, an Arelish court attendant named Ketol, was the only reception King Iadon had seen fit to send her. Ketol had been the one to “regretfully inform her” that her fiancé had “died of an unexpected disease during her journey.” He had made the declaration with the same dull, uninterested tone that he used to command the packmen.
“So,” Sarene clarified, “as far as the law is concerned, I’m now a princess of Arelon.”
“That is correct, my lady.”
“And the widowed bride of a man I never met.”
Sarene shook her head. “Father is going to laugh himself sick when he hears about this. I’ll never live it down.”
Ashe pulsed slightly in annoyance. “My lady, the king would never take such a solemn event with levity. The death of Prince Raoden has undoubtedly brought great grief to the sovereign family of Arelon.”
“Yes. So much grief, in fact, that they couldn’t even spare the effort it would take to come meet their new daughter.”
“Perhaps, my lady,” Ashe noted, “King Iadon would have come himself if he’d had had more warning of our arrival. . . .”
Sarene frowned, but the Seon had a point. Her early arrival, several days ahead of the main wedding party, had been intended as a pre-wedding surprise for Prince Raoden. She’d wanted a few days, at least, to spend time with him privately and in person. Her secrecy, however, had worked against her.
“Tell me, Ashe,” she said. “How long do Arelish people customarily wait between a person’s death and their burial?”
“I’m not sure, my lady,” Ashe confessed. “I left Arelon long ago, and I lived here for such a short time that I can’t remember many specifics. However, my studies tell me that Arelish customs are generally similar to those of your homeland.”
Sarene nodded, then waved over King Iadon’s attendant.
“Yes, my lady?” Ketol asked in a lazy tone.
“Is a funeral wake being held for the prince?” Sarene asked.
“Yes, my lady,” the attendant replied. “Outside the Korathi chapel. The burial will happen this evening.”
“I want to go see the casket.”
Ketol paused. “Uh . . . his majesty asked that you be brought to him immediately. . . .”
“Then I won’t spend long at the funeral tent,” Sarene said, walking toward her carriage.
Sarene surveyed the busy funeral tent with a critical eye, waiting as Ketol and a few of the packmen cleared a way for her to approach the casket. She had to admit, everything was irreproachable—the flowers, the offerings, the praying Korathi priests. The only oddity about the event was how crowded the tent was.
“There certainly are a lot of people here,” she noted to Ashe.
“The prince was very well liked, my lady,” the Seon replied, floating beside her. “According to our reports, he was the most popular public figure in the country.”
Sarene nodded, walking down the passageway Ketol had made for her. Prince Raoden’s casket sat at the very center of the tent, guarded by a ring of soldiers who only let the masses approach so far. As she walked, she sensed true grief in the faces of those in attendance.
So it is true, she thought. The people did love him.
The soldiers made way for her, and she approached the casket. It was carved with Aons—most of them symbols of hope and peace—after the Korathi way. The entire wooden casket was surrounded by a ring of lavish foods—an offering made on behalf of the deceased.
“Can I see him?” she asked, turning toward one of the Korathi priests—a small, kindly-looking man.
“I’m sorry, child,” the priest said. “But the prince’s disease was unpleasantly disfiguring. The king has asked that the prince be allowed dignity in death.”
Sarene nodded, turning back to the casket. She wasn’t sure what she had expected to feel, standing before the dead man she would have married. She was oddly . . . angry.
She pushed that emotion away for the moment, instead turning to look around the tent. It almost seemed too formal. Though the visiting people were obviously grieved, there tent, the offerings, and the decorations seemed sterile.
A man of Raoden’s age and supposed vigor, she thought. Dead of the coughing shivers. It could happen—but it certainly doesn’t seem likely.
“My . . . lady?” Ashe said quietly. “Is something wrong?”
Sarene waved to the Seon and walked back toward their carriage. “I don’t know,” she said quietly. “Something just doesn’t feel right here, Ashe.”
“You have a suspicious nature, my lady,” Ashe pointed out.
“Why isn’t Iadon having a vigil for his son? Ketol said he was holding court, as if his own son’s death didn’t even bother him.” Sarene shook her head. “I spoke with Raoden just before I left Teod, and he seemed fine. Something is wrong, Ashe, and I want to know what it is.”
“Oh, dear . . .” Ashe said. “You know, my lady, your father did ask me to try and keep you out of trouble.”
Sarene smiled. “Now there’s an impossible task. Come on, we need to go meet my new father.”
Sarene leaned against the carriage window, watching the city pass as she rode toward the palace. She sat in silence for the moment, a single thought crowding everything else out of her mind.
What am I doing here?
Her words to Ashe had been confident, but she had always been good at hiding her worries. True, she was curious about the prince’s death, but Sarene knew herself very well. A large part of that curiosity was an attempt to take her mind off of her feelings of inferiority and awkwardness—anything to keep from acknowledging what she was: a lanky, brusque woman who was almost past her prime. She was twenty-five years old; she should have been married years ago. Raoden had been her last chance.
How dare you die on me, prince of Arelon! Sarene thought indignantly. Yet, the irony did not escape her. It was fitting that this man, one she had thought she might actually grow to like, would die before she even got to meet him. Now she was alone in an unfamiliar country, politically bound to a king she did not trust. It was a daunting, lonely feeling.
You’ve been lonely before, Sarene, she reminded herself. You’ll get through it. Just find something to occupy your mind. You have an entire new court to explore. Enjoy it.
With a sigh, Sarene turned her attention back to the city. Despite considerable experience serving in her father’s diplomatic corps, she had never visited Arelon. Ever since the fall of Elantris, Arelon had been unofficially quarantined by most other kingdoms—no one knew why the mystical city had been cursed, and everyone worried that the Elantrian disease might spread.
Sarene was surprised, however, by the lushness she saw in Kae. The city thoroughfares were wide and well-maintained. The people on the street were well-dressed, and she didn’t see a single beggar. To one side, a group of blue-robed Korathi priests walked quietly through the crowd, leading an odd, white-robed person. She watched the procession, wondering what it could be, until the group disappeared around a corner.
From her vantage, Kae reflected none of the economic hardship Arelon was supposed to be suffering. The carriage passed dozens of fenced-in mansions, each one built in a different style of architecture. Some were expansive, with large wings and pointed roofs, following Duladen construction. Others were more like castles, their stone walls looking as if they had been directly transported from the militaristic countryside of Fjorden. The mansions all shared one thing, however—wealth. The people of this country might be starving, but Kae—seat of Arelon’s aristocracy—didn’t appear to have noticed.
Of course, one disturbing shadow still hung over the city. The enormous wall of Elantris rose in the distance, and Sarene shivered as she glanced at its stark imposing stones. She had heard stories about Elantris for most of her adult life, tales of the magics it had once produced, and the monstrosities that now inhabited its dark streets. No matter how gaudy the houses, no matter how wealthy the streets, this one monument stood as a testament that all was not well in Arelon.
“Why do they even live here, I wonder?” Sarene asked.
“My lady?” Ashe asked.
“Why did King Iadon build his palace in Kae? Why choose a city that is so close to Elantris?”
“I suspect the reasons are primarily economic, my lady,” Ashe said. “There are only a couple of viable ports on the northern Arelish coast, and this is the finest.”
Sarene nodded—the bay formed by the merging of the Aredel River with the ocean made for an enviable harbor. But even still . . .
“Perhaps the reasons are political,” Sarene mused. “Iadon took power during turbulent times—maybe he thinks that remaining close to the old capital will lend him authority.”
“Perhaps, my lady,” Ashe said.
It’s not like it really matters that much, she thought. Apparently, proximity to Elantris—or Elantrians—didn’t actually increase one’s chances of being taken by the Shaod.
She turned away from the window, looking over at Ashe, who hovered above the seat beside her. She had yet to see a Seon in the streets of Kae, though the creatures—said to be the ancient creations of Elantris magic—were supposed to be even more common in Arelon than in her homeland. If she squinted, she could barely make out the glowing Aon at the center of Ashe’s light.
“At least the treaty is safe,” Sarene finally said.
“Assuming you remain in Arelon, my lady,” Ashe said in his deep voice, “at least, that is what the wedding contract says. As long as you stay here, and ‘remain faithful to your husband,’ King Iadon must honor his alliance with Teod.”
“Remain faithful to a dead man,” Sarene mumbled with a sigh. “Well, that means I have to stay, husband or no husband.”
“If you say so, my lady.”
“We need this treaty, Ashe,” Sarene said. “Fjorden is expanding its influence at an incredible rate. Five years ago I would have said we didn’t need to worry, that Fjorden’s priests would never be a power in Arelon. But now . . .” Sarene shook her head. The collapse of the Duladen Republic had changed so much.
“We shouldn’t have kept ourselves so removed from Arelon these last ten years, Ashe,” she said. “I probably wouldn’t be in this predicament if we had forged strong ties with the new Arelish government ten years ago.”
“Your father was afraid their political turmoil would infect Teod,” Ashe said. “Not to mention the Reod—no one was certain that whatever struck the Elantrians wouldn’t affect normal people as well.”
The carriage slowed, and Sarene sighed, letting the topic drop. Her father knew Fjorden was a danger, and he understood that old allegiances needed to be reforged—that was why she was in Arelon. Ahead of them, the palace gates swung open. Friendless or not, she had arrived, and Teod was depending on her. She had to prepare Arelon for the war that was coming—a war that had become inevitable the moment Elantris fell.
Sarene’s new father, King Iadon of Arelon, was a thin man with a shrewd face. He was conferring with several of his administrators when Sarene entered the throne room, and she stood unnoticed for nearly fifteen minutes before he even nodded to her. Personally, she didn’t mind the wait—it gave her a chance to observe the man she was now sworn to obey—but her dignity couldn’t help being a little offended by the treatment. Her station as a princess of Teod alone should have earned her a reception that was, if not grand, at least punctual.
As she waited, one thing struck her immediately. Iadon did not look like a man mourning the passing of his son and heir. There were no signs of grief in his eyes, none of the haggard fatigue that generally accompanied the passing of a loved one. In fact, the air of the court itself seemed remarkably free of mourning signs.
Is Iadon a heartless man, then? Sarene wondered curiously. Or is he simply one who knows how to control his emotions?
Years spent in her father’s court had taught Sarene to be a connoisseur of noble character. Though she couldn’t hear what Iadon was saying—she had been told to stay near the back of the room and wait for permission to approach—the king’s actions and mannerisms gave her an idea of his character. Iadon spoke firmly, giving direct instruction, occasionally pausing to stab his table-map with a thin finger. He was a man with a strong personality, she decided—one with a definite idea of how he wanted things done. It wasn’t a bad sign. Tentatively, Sarene decided that this was a man with whom she might be able to work.
She was to revise that opinion shortly.
King Iadon waved her over. She carefully hid her annoyance at the wait, and approached him with the proper air of noble submission. He interrupted her halfway through her curtsy.
“No one told me you would be so tall,” he declared.
“My lord?” she said, looking up.
“Well, I guess the only one who would have cared about that isn’t around to see it. Eshen!” he snapped, causing an almost unseen woman near the far side of the room to jump in compliance.
“Take this one to her rooms and see that she has plenty of things to keep her occupied. Embroidery or whatever else it is that entertains you women.” With that, the king turned to his next appointment—a group of merchants.
Sarene stood in midcurtsy, stunned at Iadon’s complete lack of courtesy. Only years of courtly training kept her jaw from dropping. Quick but unassertive, the woman Iadon had ordered—Queen Eshen, the king’s wife—scuttled over and took Sarene’s arm. Eshen was short and slight of frame, her brownish-blonde Aonic hair only beginning to streak with gray.
“Come, child,” Eshen said in a high-pitched voice. “We mustn’t waste the king’s time.”
Sarene allowed herself to be pulled through one of the room’s side doors. “Merciful Domi,” she muttered to herself. “What have I gotten myself into?”
“. . . and you’ll love it when the roses come in. I have the gardeners plant them so you can smell them without even leaning out the window. I wish they weren’t so big, though.”
Sarene frowned in confusion. “The roses?”
“No, dear,” the queen continued, barely pausing, “the windows. You can’t believe how bright the sun is when it shines through them in the morning. I asked them—the gardeners, that is—to find me some orange ones, because I so adore orange, but so far all they found were some ghastly yellow ones. ‘If I wanted yellow,’ I said to them, ‘I would have had you plant Aberteens.’ You should have seen them apologize—I’m sure we’ll have some orange ones by the end of next year. Don’t you think that would be lovely, dear? Of course, the windows will still be too big. Maybe I can have a couple of them bricked off.”
Sarene nodded, fascinated—not by the conversation, but by the queen. Sarene had assumed that the lecturers at her father’s Academy had been skilled at saying nothing with lots of words, but Eshen put them all to shame. The queen flitted from one topic to the next like a butterfly looking for a place to land, but never finding one suitable enough for an extended stay. Any one of the topics would have been potential fuel for an interesting conversation, but the queen never let Sarene grab hold of one long enough to do it justice.
Sarene took a calming breath, telling herself to be patient. She couldn’t blame the queen for being the way she was—Domi taught that all people’s personalities were gifts to be enjoyed. The queen was charming, in her own meandering way. Unfortunately, after meeting both king and queen, Sarene was beginning to suspect that she would have trouble finding political allies in Arelon.
Something else bothered Sarene—something odd about the way Eshen acted. No one couldpossibly talk as much as the queen did; she never let a silent moment pass. It was almost like the woman was uncomfortable around Sarene. Then, in a moment of realization, Sarene understood what it was. Eshen spoke on every imaginable topic except for the one most important—the departed prince. Sarene’s narrowed her eyes with suspicion. She couldn’t be certain—Eshen was, after all, a very flighty person—but it seemed that the Queen was acting far too cheerful for a woman who had just lost her son.
“Here is your room, dear. We unpacked your things, and added some as well. You have clothing in every color, even yellow, though I can’t imagine why you would want to wear it. Horrid color. Not that your hair is horrid, of course. Blonde isn’t the same as yellow, no. No more than a horse is a vegetable. We don’t have a horse for you yet, but you are welcome to use any in the king’s stables. We have lots of fine animals, you see, Duladel is beautiful this time of year.”
“Of course,” Sarene said, looking over the room. It was small, but suited her tastes. Too much space could be as daunting as too little could be cramped.
“Now, you’ll be needing these, dear,” Eshen said, pointing a small hand at a pile of clothing that wasn’t hanging like the rest—as if it had been delivered more recently. All of the dresses in the pile shared a single attribute.
“Black?” Sarene asked.
“Of course. You’re . . . you’re in . . .” Eshen fumbled with the words.
“I’m in mourning,” Sarene realized. She tapped her foot with dissatisfaction—black was notone of her favorite colors.
Eshen nodded. “You can wear one of those to the funeral this evening. It should be a nice service—I did the arrangements.” She began talking about her favorite flowers again, and the monologue soon degenerated into a discourse on how much she hated Fjordell cooking. Gently, but firmly, Sarene led the woman to the door, nodding pleasantly. As soon as they reached the hallway, Sarene pled fatigue from her travels, and plugged the queen’s verbal torrent by closing of the door.
“That’s going to get old very quickly,” Sarene said to herself.
“The queen does have a robust gift for conversation, my lady,” a deep voice agreed.
“What did you find out?” Sarene asked, walking over to pick through the pile of dark clothing as Ashe floated in through the open window.
“I didn’t find as many Seons as I had expected. I seem to recall that this city was once overflowing with us.”
“I noticed that too,” Sarene said, holding up a dress in front of the mirror, then discarding it with a shake of her head. “I guess things are different now.”
“They are indeed. As per your instructions, I asked the other Seons what they knew of the prince’s untimely death. Unfortunately, my lady, they were hesitant to discuss the event—they consider it extremely ill-omened for the prince to die so soon before he was to be married.”
“Especially for him,” Sarene mumbled, pulling off her clothing to try on the dress. “Ashe, something strange is going on. I think maybe someone killed the prince.”
“Killed, my lady?” Ashe’s deep voice was disapproving, and he pulsed slightly at the comment. “Who would do such a thing?”
“I don’t know, but . . . something feels odd about the prince’s death. This doesn’t seem like a court that is in mourning. Take the queen, for instance. She didn’t appear distraught when she spoke to me—you’d think she would be at least a little bothered by the fact that her son died yesterday.”
“There is a simple explanation for that, my lady. Queen Eshen is not Prince Raoden’s mother. Raoden was born of Iadon’s first wife, who died over twelve years ago.”
“When did he remarry?”
“Right after the Reod,” Ashe said. “Just a few months after he took the throne.”
Sarene frowned. “I’m still suspicious,” she decided, reaching around awkwardly to button the back of her dress. Then she regarded herself in the mirror, looking at the dress critically. “Well, at least it fits—even if it does make me look pale. I was half afraid it would cut off at my knees. These Arelish women are all so unnaturally short.”
“If you say so, my lady,” Ashe replied. He knew as well as she did that Arelish women weren’t that short—even in Teod, Sarene had been a head taller than most of the other women. Her father had called her Leky-stick as a child—borrowing the name of the tall thin post that marked the goal line in his favorite sport. Even after filling out during adolescence, Sarene was still undeniably lanky.
“My lady,” Ashe said, interrupting her contemplations.
“Your father is desperate to talk to you. I think you have some news he deserves to hear.”
Sarene nodded, holding in a sigh, and Ashe began to pulse brightly. A moment later the ball of light that formed his essence melted into a bust-like glowing head. King Eventeo of Teod.
“‘Ene?” her father asked, the glowing head’s lips moving. He was a robust man, with a large oval face and a thick chin.
“Yes, Father. I’m here.” Her father would be standing beside a similar Seon—probably Dio—who would have changed to resemble a glowing approximation of Sarene’s head.
“Are you nervous for the wedding?” Eventeo asked anxiously.
“Well, about that wedding . . .” she said slowly. “You’ll probably want to cancel your plans to come next week. There won’t be much for you to see.”
Ashe had been right—her father didn’t laugh when he heard Raoden was dead. Instead, his voice turned to one of sharp concern, the glowing face worried. His worry increased when Sarene explained how the death was as binding as an actual wedding.
“Oh, ‘Ene, I’m sorry,” her father said. “I know how much you were expecting from this marriage.”
“Nonsense, Father.” Eventeo knew her far too well. “I hadn’t even met the man—how could I have had any expectations?”
“You hadn’t met him,” said her father’s soothing voice, “but you had spoken with him through Seon, and you had written all those letters. I know you, ‘Ene—you’re a romantic. You would never have decided to go through with this if you hadn’t thoroughly convinced yourself that you could love Raoden.”
The words rang true, and suddenly Sarene’s loneliness returned. She had spent the trip across the Sea of Fjorden in a state of disbelieving nervousness, both excited and apprehensive at the prospect of meeting the man who was to become her husband. More excited, however, than apprehensive.
She had been away from Teod many times, but she had always gone with others from her homeland. This time she had come by herself, traveling ahead of the rest of the wedding party to surprise Raoden. She had read and reread the prince’s letters so many times that she had begun to feel she knew him, and the person she’d constructed from those sheets of paper was a complex, compassionate man that she had been very anxious to meet.
And now she never would. She felt more than alone, she felt rejected—again. Unwanted. She had waited all these years, suffered by a patient father who didn’t know how the men of her homeland avoided her, how they were frightened by her forward, even arrogant, personality. Finally, she had found a man who was willing to have her, and Domi had snatched him away at the last moment.
Sarene finally began to let herself feel some of the emotions she had been keeping in a tight noose since stepping off the ship. She was glad the Seon only transferred her features, for she would have been mortified if her father had seen the tear rolling down her cheek.
“That’s silly, Father,” she said. “This was a simple political marriage, and we all knew it. Now our countries have more in common than just language—our royal lines are related.”
“Oh, honey . . .” her father whispered. “My little Sarene. I had so hoped this would work out—you don’t know how your mother and I prayed that you would find happiness there. Idos Domi! We shouldn’t have gone through with this.”
“I would have made you, Father,” Sarene said. “We need the treaty with Arelon far too badly. Our armada won’t keep Fjorden off our shores for much longer—the entire Svordish navy is under Wyrn’s command.”
“Little Sarene, all grown up now,” her father said through the Seon link.
“All grown up and fully capable of marrying herself off to a corpse.” Sarene laughed weakly. “It’s probably for the best. I don’t think Prince Raoden would have turned out as I had imagined—you should meet his father.”
“I’ve heard stories. I hoped they weren’t true.”
“Oh, they are,” Sarene said, letting her dissatisfaction with the Arelish monarch burn away her sorrow. “King Iadon has to be just about the most disagreeable man I have ever met. He barely even acknowledged me before sending me off to, as he put it, ‘go knit, and whatever else you women do.’ If Raoden was anything like his father, then I’m better off this way.”
There was a momentary pause before her father responded. “Sarene, do you want to come home? I can void the contract if I want, no matter what the laws say.”
The offer was tempting—more tempting than she would ever admit. She paused. “No, Father,” she finally said with an unconscious shake of her head. “I have to stay. This was my idea, and Raoden’s death doesn’t change the fact that we need this alliance. Besides, returning home would break tradition—we both know that Iadon is my father now. It would be unseemly for you to take me back into your household.”
“I will always be your father, ‘Ene. Domi curse the customs—Teod will always be open for you.”
“Thank you, Father,” Sarene said quietly. “I needed to hear that. But I still think I should stay. For now, at least. Besides, it could be interesting. I have an entirely new court full of people to play with.”
“‘Ene . . .” her father said apprehensively. “I know that tone. What are you planning?”
“Nothing,” she said. “There’s just a few things I want to poke my nose into before I give up completely on this marriage.”
There was a pause, then her father chuckled. “Domi protect them—they don’t know what we’ve shipped over there. Go easy on them, Leky-stick. I don’t want to get a note from Minister Naolen in a month telling me that King Iadon has run off to join a Korathi monastery and the Arelish people have named you monarch instead.”
“All right,” Sarene said with a wan smile. “I’ll wait at least two months then.”
Her father burst into another round of his characteristic laughter—a sound that did her more good than any of his consolations or counsels. “Wait for a minute, ‘Ene,” he said after his laughter subsided. “Let me get your mother—she’ll want to speak with you.” Then, after a moment, he chuckled, continuing, “She’s going to faint dead away when I tell her you’ve already killed off poor Raoden.”
“Father!” Sarene said—but he was already gone.