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"Hurry up, you goose! If the guard returns, you'll get us all into trouble!" Lagle hissed.
Ava bent to retrieve the towel she'd dropped, then, obedient to her sister's order, broke into a run as she fancied she heard footsteps. If the guards caught the princesses out of the harem, they'd only lock the girls back in, but then they wouldn't get to swim.
And Lagle would definitely blame her. The guards might not punish princesses, but Lagle was the Queen's daughter, making her the highest ranking princess among the myriad daughters of minor wives and concubines, and she would be certain to make Ava's life hell.
So Bianca led the way to the pool, swearing she'd gotten directions from one of the young princes who'd watched soldiers learning to swim there. Lagle strode behind her with her proud head held high, and Ava brought up the rear with a bundle of towels that was too heavy for her to carry without dropping them along the way. When yet another towel slipped from her grasp, earning her a glare from Lagle, Ava was almost ready to give up and head back to the harem. The only thing that kept her putting one foot in front of the other was the thought of the tantalising coolness of immersing her whole body in water, while the rest of the palace sweltered in the unseasonable spring heat. To stop being sweaty and sticky for just a few hours would be bliss, and well worth the walk even with a load of towels.
And Bianca would be there, Ava consoled herself. The expedition might be Lagle's idea, but without Bianca, it could not have happened. Bianca was the only one of her sisters who seemed to see Ava at all. To the rest, she was invisible, a princess so low in the pecking order that they rarely remembered her name. Most of them didn't remember her mother's name, either, for Sumi had died giving birth to Ava, a scant seven months after entering the harem. A captured prize from one of the King's many battles, Ava had heard, who the King had favoured for a few short weeks until some other jewel of his harem caught his eye. A harem Ava had left only a handful of times, because the King protected his daughters fiercely, whether they were as highborn as Lagle or as insignificant as Ava.
If he knew three of them had sneaked out of the harem, heading for the soldiers' barracks…Ava shivered.
Moonlight sparkled on the pool surface, making it look almost magical. Two towels escaped from her arms, which made her deliberately drop the rest in a pile on the tiles. Bianca and Lagle had already started to shed their robes, so Ava shyly followed suit.
Bianca entered the water silently, slipping under the surface before swimming away from the edge. Ava was impressed, and she began to wonder how often Bianca had visited this pool before. She couldn't have learned such swimming skills in the harem.
Lagle jumped into the water with a splash and a squeal. Ava opened her mouth to beg her to be quieter, but she knew it was no use. When had Lagle ever listened to anyone, let alone Ava?
Ava crept across the tiles to the pool edge. The stone was surprisingly warm underfoot, perhaps from lying in the sun all day, and it was with considerable relief that she dipped her toes into the water. "It's cold!" she exclaimed.
"It's best to get in all at once. You'll soon grow used to it," Bianca advised.
Ava pulled her foot out of the water, and a breezy gust chilled her wet skin. If one foot could be this cold, what would it be like when she hoisted her whole body out of the water, soaking wet? Why, she would freeze.
"I've changed my mind," she murmured, backing away from the water.
Lagle sent a wave of water in her direction. "Coward! Swelter, then. See if I care."
Ava reached her clothes and struggled back into them. She couldn't be sure if she'd tied everything correctly, in the dark without a mirror and all, but she did the best she could.
She sat beside the towels, drowsing in the heat while her sisters splashed. None of them had slept well with the heat these last few nights, but her airless cubicle was flush against the western wall of the women's palace, turning it into a veritable oven. Perhaps if she lay here for a few moments until the other girls were finished in the water…
Ava stretched out on the towels and slipped into a dream.
* * *
Bright light beat at Ava's eyelids. She groaned softly. She must have overslept, and now someone had come to fetch her to breakfast.
"Who is she?" a male voice asked.
Ava jerked awake. Men didn't belong in the harem. She sat up, pulling her robes tight around her, and found she was the focus of a dozen pairs of staring eyes.
"Ava," she managed to say, in a voice so small a mouse would be ashamed to own it.
"Look at the cloth. That's silk. She must be a maid to some great lady, if she gets to wear silk." The speaker thrust his face close to Ava's. "What are you doing here, serving maid? Don't you know a soldiers' camp is dangerous? Or did you meet your sweetheart here last night?"
Loud laughter rang out.
Ava tucked herself up smaller. If she could have magicked herself invisible, she would have.
"Who were you meeting, girl?" an authoritative voice demanded, and the laughter died. A soldier more richly dressed than the others stepped forward. "Tell me his name!"
"I wasn't meeting anyone," she whispered, feeling tears form. She wasn't used to being shouted at.
"Then tell me the name of your mistress. She will get his name out of you, I have no doubt."
Ava shook her head. "I am no one's mistress. I am a maiden, sir." Her cheeks grew hot. A maiden among so many men – this was why she should have stayed in the harem. "My sisters…" She stopped, not willing to draw Lagle and Bianca into her predicament. Perhaps they had made it back to the harem already, missing her in the dark, thinking she had already left.
"What about your sisters?" the man in charge asked.
"They will miss me at breakfast," she admitted. "They will search the harem for me. Perhaps they are already. It is past breakfast, I think."
The man muttered a curse, then pointed at two men. "Batu, Esen. Take her to the harem, and find out who her mistress is. When she is safely inside, return with names."
Both men bowed. "Yes, General."
Batu offered his arm to help Ava to her feet. At first, she hesitated, then realised if she didn't accept his assistance, these men might take hold of her and carry her back. She rested her fingers lightly on his arm and leaped to her feet, breaking the contact before she was burned by it. For she would be, she was certain of it – to touch a man or be touched by him was to be changed forever.
She rubbed her tainted fingertips against her skirt, hoping that such a tiny, brief contact wouldn't be enough to change her. She scarcely had any place in the harem as it was. Where would she go if they threw her out?
The doors to the women's palace loomed like they never had before. Two guards stood sentinel, relaxing in relief when they spotted Ava.
"You found her!" the guard on the left said.
The soldiers exchanged glances. "We did."
"Where?" Right asked eagerly.
Batu said, "By the barracks pool."
The guards bowed low. "Princess, how did you get to the barracks?"
She could not betray her sisters. Ava shook her head. "I do not know. I woke up and there were men…" She shuddered and her voice died.
"Tell the Queen she is found. Summon servants to help the Princess. Quickly!" Left said to someone inside the palace.
"Princess." The soldiers seemed to realise it at the same moment, sinking to their knees and touching their foreheads to the tiles.
Ava wanted to sink through the floor. "I'm tired. I want to sleep," she lied. Anything to get her out of their sight.
"Come, Princess," said a female voice. Two wide-eyed maids took her arms and led her into the palace.
Ava was too weak to protest as she was taken to her chamber, undressed, and put into bed.
She wasn't changed, she told herself. She wasn't.
But she couldn't help thinking of the soldier she'd touched, however briefly. Batu, that was his name. He'd rubbed his arm as he walked away, with a stunned look of something like awe on his face. She might not be changed, but Batu would not forget this day. She lay back and wished she could forget.
* * *
Ava expected to be summoned to her father's throne room at any moment, but as the day dragged on, boredom overtook fear in her mind. There was nothing in her sleeping cubicle but the bed, and lying on it didn't bring her any rest. Curse her for falling asleep last night.
What would her punishment be? If it involved incarceration in a chamber as small as this one, she would lose her wits within the week. She could feel them slipping even now…
Someone threw open the door and Ava blinked in the light, trying to focus on the person who stood in the doorway. "You are to come with me," a female voice said, gesturing imperiously.
Ava clambered to her feet and followed the woman she did not know to a part of the women's palace that was forbidden to her, and, in fact, most of the other princesses: the Queen's apartments.
As the King's principal wife, her apartments were as big as the rest of the harem the other women shared, and the two were separated by a set of double doors that looked gold, or gold-skinned, at least. Her father had conquered enough territory to own solid gold doors, if he so chose, Ava knew, but she wasn't sure why he would want them here, where few people would see them. Why, only the Queen, and the Queen's servants ever entered these chambers. If the King wanted any of his wives or concubines, he summoned them to his own chambers.
"She awaits you inside," the serving woman said.
Ava took a deep breath and pushed open those gleaming doors, then stepped through. Rich carpets covered the floors here, all the way up to a dais where the Queen lounged on a pile of cushions. A throne room without a throne, for the Queen's power came not from a chair but a bed.
Ava shivered. The most powerful woman she knew only had power because she opened her legs to a powerful man, so that she might bear his children. Was that the best destiny she could aspire to? If importance came at the price of letting some man paw her, then Ava didn't want to be significant. Men could keep their hands and all their other parts to themselves, as far as she was concerned. At least her body would be her own.
Unless the man were one who was so awed by her, like Batu had been, that his every touch, his every caress, was like a paean of worship to a goddess.
Ava almost laughed aloud at the thought. She was no goddess. She was barely even a princess, for her mother had been only a concubine, and the King could have chosen not to acknowledge her as his daughter. If she was the goddess of anything, it was shyness. A deity so minor, no one ever noticed her to pray to her, which was probably a good thing.
Ava reached the foot of the dais and bowed low, touching her forehead to the floor, then waited.
"So you are the girl who escaped the harem to seduce some common soldier," the Queen said.
It was on the tip of Ava's tongue to tell her the whole expedition had been Lagle's idea, but she kept her mouth firmly shut. The Queen hadn't asked her to speak, let alone rise, yet.
"But what more could one expect? Your mother was little more than a common whore when she seduced my husband on the battlefield. That he brought her here to the harem was an insult to all the noble-born wives who had to share it with her. And you!" The Queen surveyed Ava, her lip curled in disgust. "Running off to the barracks at the first opportunity! You can't be kept in the harem with the other, more virtuous princesses."
"Like Lagle?" Ava retorted before she could think to close her mouth.
The Queen pounced. "Exactly! You should be trying to emulate my daughter. In fact, that is exactly what you will do. Henceforth, you shall be her lady-in-waiting so that you learn how a proper princess behaves."
Like a spoiled brat, Ava thought darkly but mercifully managed not to say. At least she wouldn't be forced to serve Lagle for long. Her sister's upcoming nuptials were common knowledge. The Queen wouldn't want her…
The Queen continued, "You will accompany Lagle to her husband's palace when she marries, for she must have attendants. That should keep you out of trouble, and far from the young princesses who might be corrupted by your bad example. Lagle is too far above you to sully herself in such things."
Ava's mouth dropped open and she couldn't seem to close it. Leave the harem as Lagle's servant? Did the Queen not know her daughter at all?
"You had best pack your belongings. Lagle leaves within the week."
Coldness settled over Ava. Exile. She had thought the Queen would send her to the Summer Palace, as rumour said she did with any other princess who irritated her. But sending her to a foreign court with Lagle would be much worse.
"Consider yourself lucky, girl. There are dozens of other highborn girls who would be honoured to serve Lagle when she becomes a queen in her own right. If you do not thank me, I will think you terribly ungrateful."
"I thank you, Your Majesty," Ava said dully.
"You may go."
Ava backed out of the Queen's presence with all haste. It was only when the golden doors closed behind her that Ava dared to breathe again. Her shoulders drooped as her heavy fate settled on them.
Exile with Lagle. Horrors.
Perhaps life imprisonment wouldn't have been so bad. Too late now.
Ava sighed, and accepted her fate. What choice did she have?
She hurried back to the harem to find Bianca, her only friend, and tell the other girl what had happened.
* * *
"You're going where?" Bianca exclaimed.
"To the nether hells, where I'll have to serve Queen Lagle," Ava repeated.
Bianca shook her head. "I don't understand. Why? Lagle doesn't even like you. Why would she ask for you to accompany her to her new court?"
"Because of last night," Ava admitted.
Bianca clapped her hands to her mouth. "You mean you were caught coming back? Is that why no one could find you this morning? Last night, when we finished swimming, Lagle said she saw you leave, so we should hurry back before we were caught."
"I fell asleep in the garden and when I woke up this morning, the courtyard was full of soldiers."
Bianca paled – quite a feat, seeing as her skin was the palest of any of the princesses already. "Surrounded by men? What did you do?"
Not wanting to admit the embarrassing truth, Ava asked, "What would you have done?"
"I would have done my best to disappear," Bianca began, then stopped. "Run, of course. What did you do?"
"I…" Ava reddened. "I tried to disappear, but there were so many of them. I'm no witch, who can make myself invisible at will." From the way Bianca avoided her eyes, Ava suspected her sister knew more of such things than she did. More than once, she’d seen a shimmer of magic around Bianca. "I did what I always do. I fell to pieces. I'm not brave like you, or even Lagle. They marched me back here until the Queen summoned me to tell me my punishment. Hell serving Lagle."
"How many soldiers were there?" Bianca demanded.
"Dozens. I didn't think to count them."
Bianca waved her hand in dismissal. "Any girl surrounded by a dozen men, let alone more than that, would be crazy not to be afraid. Yet you must have done the right thing, for they didn't hurt you, did they? Against a dozen men, I'm sure I wouldn't have your presence of mind. You are as brave as you need to be. As brave as Lagle, or me, or any one of us. You are our father's daughter, and he fears nothing."
Ava managed a watery smile. "Sometimes I wonder."
Bianca shook her head. "Don't. You were born here, which makes you one of us. The daughter of a slave, a concubine, a wife or a queen, it doesn't matter – you are the daughter of the King. A princess in your own right. In any foreign court, that makes you Lagle's equal, and don't let her airs and graces fool you. She is no better than any of us." She grasped Ava's hand. "Once you leave here, forget everything you thought you knew of harem politics. You are a princess, and you bow to no one but your king and your husband. And who knows? Maybe a husband awaits you, too – Lagle might marry the king, but he could have brothers or sons who are worthy of you. They will not notice a servant…but they will notice a princess who stands proud. The Queen might think this a punishment, but she is wrong. This is freedom for you. I only wish I could be so lucky."
Ava's fingers tightened around Bianca's. "Come with me. Please."
Bianca bowed her head. "I cannot. The Queen's attention fell on me today while we searched for you, and she chose to send me away, too. I leave for the Summer Palace."
Bianca smiled sadly. "Yes. It is not so bad. Without you here, I should be lonely. At least at the Summer Palace, I will have the company of other banished sisters. Hazel was sent there, I believe. And Brenna. There is a lake there, I have heard, where we may swim in summer."
Swimming. Not something Ava ever wanted to do. "You will like that," she said grudgingly.
"Only if you promise to make the most of this wondrous opportunity, too. Swear to me that you will not be a mouse any more. Once you leave this palace, you will have the courage and strength of a koi, swimming upstream. No matter how high the waterfall, you will leap to the top. Promise me!" Bianca insisted.
Ava choked out a laugh. "You want me to promise to be a fish?"
"The bravest, most determined fish, who will one day become a dragon, while the rest of us must swim in the stream. Sumi would want this for you, though she is among the ancestors now. Be the fish who flies, Ava." The entreaty in Bianca's eyes brought Ava to tears.
"I will," Ava swore. "By our shared ancestors, and my mother, I swear to you that I will do everything in my power to leave the mouse behind. For you, I will be a leaping koi."
She only hoped she would have the strength to keep her promise.
Would you like to read more?
Two princesses. One prince. And the war has just begun.
Once upon a time…
Princess Ava was sent to a neighbouring kingdom as a lady-in-waiting to her sister, their future queen. Until a runaway horse, a case of amnesia and a cold-hearted king conspire to bring her to the prince’s attention.
Now the prince believes Ava is his bride, and her sister is just a serving maid. One thing is certain: the prince must marry one of the princesses, or there will be war.
But when all’s fair in love and war…who will win the battle for the prince’s heart?
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