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Lila was born to be a wife.
Deep in the Andalonian Forest, in the very heart of the Great Keep, there lived a girl. A daughter of the Great King, born to him by his fifth and final mate, she was the youngest of ten royal babes, the very last to leave the cradle. A splendid child, bonny and spry, she grew up in the very highest of grandeur, a darling of the court and an especial favourite of her stern and serious Papa. The King doted on her—she had dresses, and kittens, and ribbons to her heart’s content—and only as she began to grow, changing from a girl into a woman, did she begin to see the differences.
High in her father’s palace, peering down on the busy, bustling streets, Lila had put her questions to her brother, Remus, who watched her from the corner chair in her tower bedchamber.
“Where are all the girls?” she had asked, her bright, green eyes peering over the edge of the sill. Down below there was a crowd of men, all making their way through the busy streets. Gentlemen blacksmiths, hammering at the forge to make new swords and shields. The man who owned the bakery, setting his stall for the morning market. Schoolboys, all in their trim, starched uniforms as they trailed after their Master, and others, their occupations and ranks unknown, milling through the crowd. Lila saw gentry, marked by their high dress and swagger, and some poor men who lived on the streets, but nowhere, in any corner, did she see a hint of femininity.
“Where are all the women?”
Her brother looked at her sadly, closing his book with a sigh.
“Gone,” said Remus, his voice quiet and sombre. “Gone, and lost.”
“Lost?” cried Lila. “Lost where?”
“No one knows,” he replied. “There are no women, dearest… not anymore.”
“Women for mating, brought in from other kingdoms far away,” he said, a tender, sad smile on his handsome face. “No woman you’d ever see, sweetheart, for they are hardly fit for your company. Only women for breeding, but never a wife, and never a daughter.”
“But I am a daughter.”
“And you are a wonder.” Her brother had hugged her close then, drawing her near so that she might rest her cheek against his chest. At once, Lila felt herself calm. It would be years before she heard the full story—the tale of loss that had changed the course of her people’s history.
In days long ago, when the Kings of old had reigned and thrived, there had been wives and daughters for rich and poor alike. Wives, born noble or common, had found husbands in gutters and palaces. Daughters and sons had run together, scrambling through the weeds and the creeks. There had been both women and men, each as common as the next, until the Great Undoing that had brought such heartache, and such tragedy.
The sickness took the little girls first. Babes in their mothers’ arms, children playing in the streets and alleys… even maidens, still blooming with the summer sun, were stricken, and felled, and buried before the winter.
It came for the women next—first the young, and then the very old, and then every female in between until there was no one left but boys and men. Her ancestors had buried their women among the trees—so many dead that the traditional grounds could not hold them all—and they were given back to the earth in big, communal graves. The forest had reclaimed its dead—there was not even a marker to show the place where they had rested—and though the Andalonian people had kept up their strength and numbers through captured bed slaves, none ever stayed, and none ever thrived.
None until Lila, born to a King in the coldest throes of winter beneath a bright, blue moon and a terrible, storming blizzard. Lila, whose own frightened mother had fled in the night just hours after her birth, and who had been born so small, so feeble, that her father had feared that she would not last the night. Lila, whom the people called Wonder, and Mystery, and Angel… Lila, who was thought half a goddess, as well as a princess.
The first girl in three hundred years, born to an aging king.
And today, for the first time in centuries, a princess would come of age.
“Come, my sweet,” said her father, his voice carrying over the granite and marble of the great throne room. In the hush of the crowd, dressed in her very finest silks and satins, Lila felt her cheeks flame red, her eyes downcast. “Come to me, my dearest, and stand just here, at my side.”
At once, Lila felt all the eyes in the throne room shift to her. She was used to the stares—she got them everywhere she went, even from palace servants. This time, it was the eyes of the gentry that watched her—eyes that seemed to devour, to consume. They milled about the room in quiet conversation, each small family packed tightly together.
She reached her father with a sigh of relief and smiled—that perfect sweet, courtier’s smile she’d learned very early in her young life. He watched her, his lips pursed tight, before he turned instead to his nine other children, konyaaltı escort all strong sons, who stood in a row behind his chair. There was Remus, the oldest and Lila’s especial favourite, who had taught her how to sing and hold a pen. The twins, Harmon and Laurel, came next, each nearly identical to the other but for the slightest difference in the shades of their eyes—Harmon’s a deep, dark brown and Laurel’s flecked with hazel. After them came Peter, called the Pious for his devotion to the Gods, and then Samson, the hunter. Then there were Lancet and Jory, born just six months apart to different mothers, each with a face so like the other’s that outsiders could not always tell them apart. Second last was Granger, who loved his books and his quill, and then the youngest brother, Jason. He had been three when Lila was born, and Lila, having shared her nursery with him for some years after, had come to see him as a playmate.
“My sweet girl,” said her Papa softly, kissing the apple of her cheek as she leaned forward. “My sweet, darling girl.”
“You are of age today, darling.”
“And do you understand what that means?”
At once, she felt her face go blank.
“It means…” Lila reached in her mind for the right words to say. “It means that I am a woman.”
Papa beamed at her.
“Indeed, yes,” he said. “Yes, a woman. No longer a little girl.”
Lila blushed a lovely shade of pink.
“And do you know what it means to be a woman?” continued Papa.
“That I am not a child,” she said at once, and behind her, she heard one of her brothers chuckle. “That I am… grown.”
Her father, seating himself atop his throne, gestured for Lila to sit on the stool by his feet. At once, a servant appeared, two cups of wine in hand. When he handed one to her, Lila sipped it, feeling the warm, spiced drink course through her. Her father did not follow. Instead, he held the goblet between his palms, his gaze fixed on the warm, red pool within.
“Aye, you are grown. Do you know that I, myself, am growing old, child?”
Lila frowned at him.
“Not so old,” she protested. “Not so very old…”
The King laughed outright.
“I am old, Lila, and it’s beginning to show. Look at all I have done. A Kingdom at peace, my people prosperous, and ten extraordinary children to show for it.”
At once, Lila’s gaze flickered to her brothers, who were watching the pair of them with a strangely urgent curiosity. Remus, in particular, seemed rapt, and Lila could not fathom why.
“Ten children,” continued Papa and Lila, her attention reverted, waited for him to finish. “Ten strong children.”
Lila sipped her cup.
“Ten children, my girl, and not one grandchild to show for it.” Lila, her face hidden by her goblet, froze at once.
“You know what will happen when I am gone?”
The Princess frowned.
“Yes, Remus.” Both father and daughter glanced back, watching as Remus broke his vigil to whisper to Laurel. Their conversation was too faint to hear and though Lila could sometimes read lips, she had no time to decipher their secrets.
“Remus will be King,” said Papa, and Lila saw an alarming wave of sorrow overtake him. “Yes, Remus will take my place, as I took my own father’s before.”
Lila had never known her grandfather—only Remus, nearing thirty, was old enough to remember him—but stories of abuse and malice had trickled down to her like rot on a wall. She knew her grandfather was unkind, she knew he could be downright cruel, and it though she had heard so much as a whisper of it from her father’s own lips, she knew that his children—her father and his brothers—had borne the brunt of that anger.
The thought made her shiver and she frowned, turning away.
“It is a son’s duty,” said Papa softly and Lila, feeling his hand on her arm, turned again to look. The sadness was still there—she could see it, etched in the lines of his face—but though he spoke with sorrow, his lips were pulled into a soft smile.
“A son’s duty,” he said again. “A man’s duty.”
Lila reached her arm around to hug him, letting him pull her close. She saw the crowd begin to grow unsettled, small groups of strange men breaking out in quiet argument, but when her concern began to show her Papa shushed her.
“Do not fret, my sweet,” he said at once. “Do not fret.”
Before she could say another word, her father turned to the crowd. He rose from his seat, leaving the dais altogether, and began to speak.
“Gentlemen of the court!” he shouted, and at once, the noise died down. “Gentlemen, please! I beg your attention!”
Kings did not need to beg—especially a king like Papa, who was powerful and strong—and the noise died down at once, as if someone had cracked a whip. Hundreds of faces stared at their King, eyes shining with anticipation and Lila, left alone by the throne, felt a sudden, queer chill.
At once, her brother kültür escort Remus left his place by the wall to stand by her side, offering a hand to help her up.
“Come,” he said and Lila, letting him draw her near, went willingly to the shadows where her brothers stood. Remus, his arm about her shoulders, led her, ensconcing her safely between himself and Peter. It was Peter who kissed her—he always greeted her this way—and she closed her eyes when his lips lingered, soft and sweet, on the crown of her head.
“Do not fret,” he said, recalling their father’s words. “Father would not let you go for all the world.”
Lila shivered anyways.
“Gentlemen!” shouted Papa and the men, who were already silent and waiting, clung to his words like gospel. “You have come today to witness a miracle. Eighteen years ago, under the bluest and coldest of moons, a child came to the royal family!”
The crowd shouted its approval.
“A child!” repeated Papa. “My own sweet child, born a girl in our plague of men!”
“This child, growing lovelier by the hour, who has, this very day, come of age.”
This time, above the shouts, Lila heard the pounding of feet and the thumping of fists. The sound made her anxious—Remus, holding her tight, felt her start.
The room obeyed at once.
“My daughter, come of age, a Princess of royal blood.”
This time, no one said a thing. Lila, frozen, glanced up at Remus.
“Be at ease, baby sister,” he said in an undertone. Shivering, she leaned in closer. All her brothers were watching her now—all except Jason, who stared frowning at Papa—but Lila paid no mind.
“A Princess of the Blood,” continued Papa, “must find a mate!”
This time, Lila felt her face go slack. The word rang in her head like a bell. She knew, of course, what it meant—she knew that it meant a union, though she did not understand how, and she knew it would mean children, most likely a legion of sons. The men began to talk again, this time with a burst of excitement, but Papa’s face grew stormy and the noise trickled away, each nobleman taking his lead from the sternness of his King. Papa’s eyes were ablaze with passion, and no one, not even his own children, could say whether that passion was joyful or angry.
“And so you have come,” finished Papa, taking his seat once more on the edge of his high, hard throne. He surveyed the crowd with cold displeasure. “You have come here, to my halls, and for what?”
The men shifted uncomfortably.
“To claim her hand?”
At once, the voices rose again.
“To claim her hand!” Papa shouted over the din, and this time, the noise did not die down completely. “To claim a Princess, and take her as your wife!”
Lila’s knees began to shake. Remus, glancing down in alarm, knelt down to face her.
“You’re white as a sheet,” he said with some concern and Peter—their only brother with any knowledge of healing—broke away from the rest. “You look a fright, darling…”
“I will not,” Lila said with sudden passion, “go away with a strange man.”
Her brother scowled. Peter, touching his fingers to her forehead, simply frowned.
“Sit,” he said. “Sit and be calm, dearest. Do not work yourself into a frenzy.”
“I cannot be a wife…”
Remus, urging her down onto a stone bench, shook his head.
“You could, if it was asked of you,” he said softly. “Do not fret, Lila. Trust Papa to do what is right.”
The men, having roused themselves to a riotous noise, had not noticed Lila’s worry. Papa, banging his fist against the wood of his chair, had not seen it either. Only when he turned, glancing back at his sons, did he notice Lila’s pallor, and at once, he scowled and rose up.
“Since you are all gathered here, on this holiest of days, I will make an announcement,” said the King. At once, all ears were primed to listen. Lila, her heart pounding, felt suddenly faint. “An announcement that will put an end to all your vying, and all your speculation.”
The men looked suddenly stormy.
“I will not,” said Papa, “hand my dear child to any one of you.”
A hissing whisper rose from the rear of the room.
“I will not make her your wife, or your concubine. She will not keep your house, and she will not bear your sons!”
An angry titter, like the rattle of a snake, made Remus’ face darken.
“For my daughter is a princess,” continued Papa. “The first in generations to be born a woman, and the only daughter to be born to my house. She is our first, and possibly our last, and so her gifts must be kept close in the family from whence she hails.”
As if in tandem, Lila saw tens and hundreds of heads turn, all eyes suddenly fixed on Remus. Remus, for his part, did not react, but simply stared on ahead, his gaze fixed on Father.
“My daughter will be a wife,” finished Papa with a sigh. “She will be a mother too, Gods willing, but the children markantalya escort she will bear will be of royal blood, and royal blood alone. She will be the mother of generations. She will be the mother of your King!”
And with a kind of shock that Lila rarely felt, she stared, first at Papa, who did not meet her eye, and then at Remus, who most certainly did.
“I love you,” he said softly and Lila, too dumb to speak, simply stared. “We all love you, sweetheart, and we will always keep you safe.”
Lila did not know how the crowd was dismissed. She did not know how many angry words were hurled, in petulant envy, at the castle gates. She did not know how the nobles talked—how they called her father mad, her brother a fool, and Lila—poor, sweet, pretty Lila—a veritable slave to her lecherous, vile kin.
Little did they know how wrong they were.
“My sweet?” said Papa, his voice hedging through her fog of confusion. The throne room had emptied—indeed, all the men were gone, save for Papa, Peter, and Remus. “Lila, my love?”
Lila, blinking, shook her head.
“Papa.” Her voice cracked. “Papa, what does it mean?”
Her father closed his eyes.
“You are of age, darling,” he explained gently. “It is what’s right.”
“Remus asked me, months ago,” continued Papa and Lila, stricken with shock, stared up at her brother instead. Remus said nothing. “He asked me just as soon as the city began to talk, deciding which noble would claim you, and whose children you might bear.”
Lila did not know what to say.
“Are you unhappy?” asked father softly. “Does the idea… repulse you? Long before, it was the way of things to marry Princes and Princesses, to preserve the royal blood…”
Lila, her cheeks mottled red and white, shook her head.
“No,” she said. “No, I am not disgusted.”
Remus kissed her cheek.
“We will do right by you,” he said at once. “You know we will.”
Father glanced at Peter.
“Your brothers,” he said gently. “As many or as few as you’ll have.”
“There will be no jealousy,” Remus assured her. “We are all close, and even when we are not, we are all joined by our love for you.”
Peter, silent, simply brushed his hand over her long, pale hair.
“We have all loved you,” said Remus, “since the day you were born. Cared for you like brothers should. Who better to love you as a mate but those who’ve loved you from the first?”
And at once, as if she were pulled from a thick, boggy well, Lila felt a rush of relief so powerful that she cried, letting two, fat tears roll down her cheeks. Father looked concerned—indeed, he stood from his seat, ready to lean forward and brush the drops away—but Remus beat him to it, kissing each cheek.
“I would never hurt you,” he said at last. “None of us would. You know that?”
And Lila nodded, because she did.
“Do we have your blessing, Father?” asked Remus, peering back at their father, who looked suddenly frail. “Do we have your blessing, as your sons, to claim your daughter?”
“I would trust no one more,” said Papa, and Lila heard the distinct quaver in his throat. “I would trust no one else to care for my own like I know you will. May she make you happy, and by the Gods, may you make her the happiest of queens.”
“She already is,” he replied. Peter, grinning, nodded his agreement. “Do not fret, Father. She already is.”
When Remus, leading Lila up the long, winding staircase to his own chambers, leaned down to kiss her, Lila blinked in complete and utter surprise.
“It is what you do with those you love,” Remus explained, letting his sweet, warm breath wash over her face. “It is how you greet your mates, when you want to show them love.”
Lila, seeing the sense in this, pressed her lips back up to his. Remus let her, feeling the gentle, soft breaths between those parted lips before he reached out his tongue to taste her, making her giggle. She pulled away with a curious smile, bringing her full, pink lips into her mouth, and he laughed.
“Never mind just now,” he said. “Before long, I’ll teach you all the intricacies of kissing.”
When they made it to his bedchamber, whose door was slightly ajar, Lila opened it with eager hands. Beyond, in the familiar room she’d seen countless times, she found herself in the company of her eight remaining brothers. Though the evening was still young, someone had drawn the window shades, blocking out the twilight from the room. The hearth fire was lit, casting a warm, orange glow across the floor, and there were candles on the tables by the bed. Her brothers sat about in various stages of relaxation—some on the sofa, and one on the sill. Laurel, with Jason at his side, rested on the end of the bed and Granger, true to himself, was bent over at the desk. The others sat on cushions near the fire, heads bent low in conversation that had stopped dead when the door had opened.
At once, Remus stopped, grinning.
“Welcome, darling,” he said, closing the door behind her. Lila, feeling suddenly shy, glanced around the room. “Come. Let us make you a wife.”
At once, Lila felt the entire room shift.
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