Twenty-Five

Ysabelle loved the view from her balcony. From the perch of Highspire, all of Ebontarn was rendered in miniature. “What the falcon sees,” her mother had called it.

As a child, that confused Ysabelle, and she asked her mother what she meant.

“Our smallness,” she replied. Ysabelle remembered how she had giggled at that answer, delighted. She was small, and she hated it. Surrounded by Councillors in voluminous robes and knights in sturdy sets of gleaming armor, everything around her felt big, and in its bigness, important. She hated the feeling of smallness she had when she sat at a table with adults, or stood, staring at their knees, while they discussed heavy matters that still somehow floated above her head. So the idea that they were all small absolutely delighted her.

From above, the houses of the city looked tightly packed. All you could see was a knot of shingled roofs with a few shy gables peeking out. Here and there, occasional plumes of smoke wafted out of chimneys like wastrels, their trails drifting lazily this way, then that, then back again.

Darwyn had taken to burning a fire in his manor any day he was not at the castle. He would start when the sun was directly overhead–the same time every day. That way, as Ysabelle looked out, she could find his plume and take comfort in it. It had taken her some days to figure out which of the ribbons of smoke was his, but once she knew, it drew her eye every time, like a beacon. 

She watched it now and it had never felt so far away, so fragile, but neither had the fire that made it burned more deeply in her. She wondered if he would keep it burning for her, even after.

There was a knock at the door and she heard Alfraed’s muffled voice strain to push through the timber. “Prince Holden requests an audience.” There was a pause. “A proper audience.”

She rolled her eyes and let out an irritated sigh. The door of her chamber was a small blessing, allowing her to indulge her pettiness, her anger. Sometimes her door and her balcony were all that kept her sane, her room the only pocket of air in this dusty, suffocating catacomb.

She wouldn’t give them up.

“You may send him,” she replied flatly.

“But Your Highness,”–the door now creaked open and his inconvenienced, poisonous little face poked in–“do you really think that would be appropriate?”

Her stare cracked like a whip. “You mean to wed me to him. He can see my bedchamber.”

“Yes, of course. My mistake.” Alfraed scurried away.

She returned her attention to the city below. She did love the view, until she started to think about it from the other end. What did they see when they looked up?

The smoke from Darwyn’s chimney was thinning into a diffuse haze. She planted her elbows on the rail of her balcony and propped her head on her hands. A slow breeze fluttered the hem of her dress, but everything else was still. The day was bright and crisp with white sunlight, but motionless, as if everything was arrested, frozen in a glinting glass bead. It was all just a lovely knick-knack to sit on a shelf and collect dust.

“A tremendous view,” Holden said, lingering by the threshold. 

Ysabelle didn’t turn to look at him, and remained hunched over the rail. “In some lights.”

He joined her, approaching slowly, leaning onto his forearms. He turned to look at her but said nothing. When she finally met his glance, he greeted her with a kind smile.

She tried to return it.

He showed mercy and turned back toward the view, saving her the effort. “I know this must be…” He hesitated, searching for his words among the pitched roofs and peaking gables. “…strange. It’s all a bit strange, isn’t it? The life of a princess. A prince. You live as much for the kingdom as yourself. To be told whom you must love–”

“Whom you must marry.”

“Yes. I misspeak. I know all that must trouble you.”

“Does it not you?”

“I’ve spent my life preparing for it. ”

“I have, too. And yet somehow I’m still not ready for it.”

“Was your parents’ marriage arranged?”

A tiny bird darted by, a small bunch of grass in its beak. It landed on the canine of a snarling gargoyle and placed the clump carefully, adding it to a partially-built nest, like a mason lays a brick. The nest sat perilously in the beast’s agape jaws. Ysabelle nodded.

“Was it a happy marriage?”

Her eyes narrowed. “That’s quite a thing to ask.”

“Forgive my forwardness.” He rubbed the back of his neck, felt it was getting sweaty. Nerves? Must be the sun, he thought–it was always hidden behind a heavy blanket of ice gray clouds in Talvivald. “My parents’ marriage was arranged,” he offered.

“Most royals’ are.”

“But it was a happy one. I remember when father was ill–was dying–how she held vigil over his bed, though the kingdom still relied on her every decision. And somehow, she managed not to neglect that. But she sat with him for so many hours. And read to him. He had a keen interest in the magical arts, and she was something of a hobbyist in them. She would keep him company reading him the driest of textbooks.” Holden’s eyes were now lost over the cityscape, watching how the plumes from the chimneys mingled with, became indistinguishable from, the clouds. Their dim sootiness became invigorating white as they traveled further up and out and away, until eventually they were invisible, just air and freedom. It was the first moment Ysabelle liked him–when she recognized his errant gaze. “I’ll never forget,” he said, “their last exchange. He grabbed her hand and said, ‘I’m sorry I have to go,’ and she looked at him with the tenderest eyes and said ‘I’m sorry I have to stay.’ I think about my father often, but still, all these years later, the thing that makes me cry is her eyes when she said that.” He turned to her, again seeking permission. “Your parents, were…”

“They happy?”

He nodded.

What was the honest answer?

Sometimes. 

Like so many marriages. Sometimes. Sometimes happy. Sometimes sad. And sometimes not happy, which wasn’t the same as sad. That’s what she remembered most of all–the nothing times.

“Still quite a thing to ask,” she said and left him with the bird.

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