Prologue

Janithe hated winter. Bleak and cold and dark. It wouldn’t have been so bad outside, but she was trapped in her gilded tower just as surely as was any criminal in her husband’s dungeons. She hunched over her embroidery beside a fat taper candle and just knew she would be completely blind after another year or two more of this. If she didn’t die of stale air first. Her heart longed for her childhood home in the buttery warmth of southern Arinth.

She glanced back at the door. What were the odds that anyone would come to see her before supper? She may have been queen, but she was under no delusions of actual importance. Her only purpose in the royal household was to provide a royal heir, and she had failed to do so in more than five years of marriage. Her honored husband, away at war despite the brutality of the season, was the only one who placed any value on her, the only one who saw her as anything more than a failed gamble. As for the rest of them, they would be happier if she just disappeared.

Nobody was coming. So why bother with their conventions? She hugged her embroidery against her chest and dragged her chair over to the shuttered windows. They were tiny, the sort an assassin would have difficulty clambering through, but there were scores of them ranged across the outer wall of the room she shared with the king. She settled beside one and dragged back the bolt, grown stiff with disuse and ice. She allowed herself a small grin as it finally gave and then shoved the shutters out into the open sky. Cold fog billowed in, pooling around her ankles, and she settled back into the seat with a satisfied smile as pale sunshine lit the embroidery in her lap. Pale blue skies over ice-frosted forests, not a snow sprite in sight. It was beautiful. She didn’t even care that the doctors would never forgive her. Even when she obeyed them, they never fixed her anyway.

Janithe leaned her head against the back of her seat, her needlework resting on her knees. Finally dragging her gaze away from the outdoors, she examined her embroidery with dissatisfaction. It was poor work. Winter work always was, but still. There was something about sunshine that seemed to soak into the cloth, to make the thread glow with warmth and color. Winter’s embroidery was always stiff, cold. Clumsy with darkness and numb fingertips. She didn’t know why she bothered. There were so many things she bothered with while refusing to wonder why. Scooting closer to the windowsill, she leaned over the cloth and began the mindless work again, passing the needle back and forth, leaving dark stitches on pale cloth in its wake. It was best not to think about those things. Sometimes, it was best not to think at all.

A shriek rose from the courtyard below and Janithe’s heart clenched in her chest. She threw herself at the sill, her eyes darting along the outer gates. Dwarves? Were they under attack?
But it was only a pair of children, their chores forgotten with the fling of a snowball. Janithe blew out a long breath and stared down at them. Laughing and screaming and lobbing fistfuls of snow at one another… Ancestors, they were perfect. She could never match that careless happiness. The terror of an attack receded, replaced by a new fear.

She would never be a mother. She wouldn’t. And nothing else would ever matter in the wake of that failure.
Her throat tightened and she clenched her eyes closed. But she could still hear the laughter. And in that moment of weakness, Janithe made a very poor decision.

***

The last of the sycophantic courtiers and inept doctors filed out of the room, shuffling and awkward in the face of their king’s devastated wrath, and Aerold collapsed into a seat beside his wife.

He couldn’t look at her. A glance of her still hand in his periphery was all he could manage without running screaming from the room.

Then the baby started to cry.

Aerold hushed her cautiously, bobbing her against his shoulder with the uncertain gentleness of a new father. She’d need to eat and Ancestors knew what else. It was terrifying how helpless she was. How helpless he was. Both of them suddenly without the person they each needed the most.

His eyes closed, spilling tears down his cheeks, and he reached timidly toward his wife of five years, his fingers brushing against hers. She was still warm. He felt certain she’d still be beautiful, too, if he could just get up the courage to look at her. He’d come to know death well over the years, and helped it get its fill, but not like this. Not his wife. Not Janithe. His fingers tightened around hers and he recalled how she had looked when he had first seen her, all those years ago in that century-old tower encased in brambles and the bones of failure. A beautiful girl. Only asleep.

Aerold swallowed and looked up at her. Her eyes were closed, her cheeks pale. Her golden hair still moist with the sweat of labor. A beautiful girl. Only asleep.

He sobbed and his fingers slipped from hers, never to touch her again. His daughter cried again and he howled with her, ragged with grief, with the loss of the only thing that mattered to him, the only thing he had felt was truly his own, that truly owned him.

He didn’t care that the baby wasn’t a boy. He didn’t care that she didn’t look anything like him. Or like his wife, for that matter. He didn’t care that the midwife swore her eyes had changed color in the moment she first opened them. She was the last trace of his Janithe in the world. And he would live and die for that little girl.

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