Whether you're a newcomer or a friend of many years, I'm glad to be able to show you the opening scenes from The Imlen Bastard. Enjoy!
Never before had Stisele gotten herself in so much trouble. Not the time she caught the drapes on fire in the nursery when she modified Samren’s toy catapult. Not the time she pulled the chandelier down in Mommy Utroneth’s antechamber behind the throne room by pretending it was ship’s rigging. Not even the night she knocked Jrene off the dock and into the sea for making fun of her imaginary friends. That had made Mommy Utroneth angry enough to yell at her, and Mommy Utroneth didn’t like yelling. Now here Stisele was in the antechamber again — the chandelier was all better now, like nothing ever happened — and Mommy Utroneth was deciding what to do with her.
By the door to the throne room, Stisele’s imaginary friends huddled to listen. Flash and Blur were way better at listening than Stisele was. Utroneth’s not even in there, said Blur as the diffuse brightness of her slid down to the floor, where she drifted into a patch of sunlight on the figured carpet. I don’t get it.
Flash bounced against the ceiling in agitation. If Emnir’s in there, and Utroneth isn’t…. He didn’t finish his thought, and Blur didn’t take it up.
“What?” said Stisele.
Nothing, the two imaginary friends said.
Hang on, said Flash. Someone’s in there with Emnir. So Stisele and Blur hung on for what seemed like forever, until Flash said, Stand up straight, Stisele. They’re coming.
She would have liked to ask him who, but there was no time. Flash skittered out of the way of the door as it swung open, and there in the frame stood Emnir of Gorsae in his dress blacks, the silver insignia of the Order gleaming on his chest, and behind Emnir, a man Stisele had never seen before. It was hard to read the stranger’s uniform because she kept getting distracted by his enormous moustache, but Stisele thought he was from the House of Ythrae’s troop levy.
"They say you fight dirty when you play pirates with the other children, Stisele," said the man with the big moustache. "Is it true?"
Stisele glanced over to the corner where Flash and Blur hovered, a mottling of golden light against the dark wooden paneling, but they didn't have any advice for her. So she looked back at the stranger, hoping he didn't notice how she turned to her imaginary friends. Everyone kept telling her she’d outgrown them. "I didn't mean to," she said. "Emnir, you saw. I didn't mean to cut Jrene. I didn't."
Mommy Utroneth's bodyguard said, "Yes, I saw."
The big moustache man turned to look at Emnir. "Describe it."
"The heir had a small wooden practice blade, nothing very sharp. Jrene started a game of Pirates and Commoners, and Stisele was a commoner."
"Like always," Stisele muttered.
"As always," Emnir corrected her. "Stisele pulled Jrene's practice blade away from her and was quick enough to cut her with it. No edge, just speed. Her Royal Highness's children have been getting lessons for two years now. Such lessons were, of course, not planned for Stisele, but it seems she may have a useful aptitude."
The man with the moustache walked around Stisele, looking her over. His uniform jingled quietly from all the medals, and the leather strap of his worn sword belt creaked a little when he rested his hand on the hilt. The hilt was worn, too. He was like nobody else at court, wearing used things in the throne room, where everybody looked shiny all the time. Stisele herself looked shiny in embroidered satins, except for the big dirty streak. "You rolled in the mud, Stisele?"
"I'll show them," she said. She couldn't help it, she was shaking with anger again, just thinking about Jrene. "I'm a pirate, too."
Over in the corner, Flash and Blur fluttered with worry, and Blur drifted over to buzz in Stisele's ear. Do not remind him, she said.
As if anyone ever forgot.
"Emnir, your assessment?" said the moustache man.
"Right in front of her, Trebin?"
Emnir of Gorsae said, "I've seen her take on children two, three years older than herself, some much bigger, sometimes five of them at a time. Jrene’s three years older, and the two of them get into a tussle at least once a week. Nothing deters Stisele. Her limbs are sound and straight, and she's strong for her age. She's a quick study. Her Royal Highness is clearly right, something can be made of the girl. But she has no respect for rank, and she'll never have any talent for weathercalling. I hesitate to set the precedent of taking her into the Order."
At that, Flash bounced frantically around the room. Don't let them! he buzzed. Anything but the Order. Flash and Blur didn't like Emnir, either. They never said so outright, but Stisele could tell. Emnir had always been kind to her, though she was a little bit afraid of the Order.
Big Moustache Man — Trebin, that was what Emnir had called him — raised his eyebrows. "Her, into the Order?"
"But for her unfortunate parentage, I would have claimed her for training months ago.”
Stisele began to suspect that Mommy Utroneth hadn't left her with these men for punishment after all. Months after her seventh birthday, nobody had yet decided how best to school her. It was past time.
Trebin shook his head. "Cutting the heir with her own weapon seems a poor prelude to a career in the Order. Especially for this one."
"Jrene started it," protested Stisele. "It's not fair."
"There's all the difference in the world between fairness and necessity," he said. He sounded like he really regretted saying so.
"I know." She looked down at her shoes. She'd torn the beadwork on the left one. Stupid shoe.
"Would you like to play Pirates and Commoners?"
That didn't make any sense. "With you?"
He laughed. It was a great big laugh that filled up the whole room, and right then Stisele decided she liked him. "I hadn't thought of that,” he said. “Would you want to play Pirates and Commoners with me?"
"Only if I get to be the pirate."
"I'm awfully big."
"I'm fast. Emnir said so."
"Yes, he did," Trebin agreed. "But I'd had in mind that you would play with my daughter, if you don't mind my watching."
Stisele stood a little straighter. "She'll be the commoner, and I'll be the pirate?"
"If you like. She’s a good sport."
"Come with me, then." And he led her through the halls of the palace to the armory, where Stisele had never been allowed before. She could hear the place before she saw it — a constant clangor punctuated by barked commands and grunts of exertion poured into the hall from the practice courtyard. At the big doors, one of Mommy Utroneth's uniformed young cousins shouted, "Colonel Trebin of Ythrae," to announce the moustached man.
Inside the armory, various members of the House of Ambra let up their practice and turned to salute the Colonel with their weapons. A girl who had been sitting quietly on a chair much too big for her and polishing two wooden practice swords stood up and saluted Trebin with one of them. He called her over to him. "Harentil, bring them with you."
"Coming, Father." Harentil was bigger than Stisele, and maybe a year older. Her good court clothes were a lot less fancy than Stisele's. No mud, though, and Harentil looked like a proper child of the Crown Houses, with sleek, straight blonde hair and a square jaw.
The two girls sized each other up, and Stisele bristled at Harentil's frankly curious gaze. Harentil of Ythrae had never seen anyone like Stisele. Nobody ever had, because there was no one like Stisele. No one left living, anyway. "What?" Stisele demanded, though she knew what.
"Nothing," said Harentil, though it was everything.
"I get to be the pirate," Stisele announced, and watched to see what Harentil would make of that. The Ambra children usually laughed when she made a bid to play the winning side. All of them but Samren.
But Harentil cocked her head in thought. "Sure." She handed the practice swords to Stisele and said, "You pick."
They were nothing like the wooden knife Jrene had. These were light, almost springy, with no edge on them at all. It didn't matter which she chose, they were both the same, so she kept the one in her right hand and gave back the other.
Trebin looked around the armory, decided it was too crowded for children's games, however serious, and so led them out to the gardens. Flash and Blur faded into the sunlight. Stisele could still hear them buzzing apprehensively, following her through the hedge maze. It was too tall for her to see over, but Trebin seemed to know where they were going. Once he'd found them a suitable open space presided over by an apple tree in full white flower, he turned to the girls and said, "Ready?" They were. "Go."
Harentil loosened up her knees and just stood there waiting. This was going to be way too easy. Stisele charged at her, shrieking.
Maybe not so easy. When Stisele swung her sword at Harentil, the Ythrae girl slid past it and bonked her lightly on the head.
Stisele swung again, and Harentil ducked, then butted Stisele in the stomach with the hilt, hard enough to knock the breath out of her. "Oh!" said Harentil. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to…"
But Stisele threw down her sword and ran to slam her body, full force, into her foe and knocked her clear over onto her back on the perfectly trimmed grass. "Surrender!" she said, and swung her fists against Harentil. "Commoner filth!"
"That's enough," said Trebin.
"I said I was sorry," Harentil protested, trying to roll out from under Stisele's blows.
But Stisele had waited too long for her turn to be the pirate. She couldn't stop. "Yield the city!" she demanded. "Say it!"
Harentil struggled one last time to dislodge Stisele, who straddled her chest. "I will not."
"I said, that's enough." Trebin reached down to pick Stisele up by the back of her shirt and lifted her clear off of Harentil.
"The city is mine!" said Stisele as she hung from his grip like a kitten. She was crying now, crying and spitting, and what would Trebin think? She'd liked Trebin, and now nobody would ever teach her anything, and she'd be a useless bastard brat all her life. "It's my city, too." Whether she ever set foot there or not, it was one of the things she knew. Flash and Blur had been insistent on that point.
Harentil stood up and brushed broken blades of grass off her green-stained clothes. "Are you all right?" she asked Stisele.
Stisele knew to be ashamed of her dark hair, her loathing for Jrene, her temper, her bastardy, her dead commoner father, her dead slut mother, her cheekbones, her pointy chin, and her bad handwriting, but all of it together was nothing to the shame she felt dangling there by her shirt in mid-air above her unvanquished foe. "I'm fine," she said, though she couldn't stop crying. "You're not." Harentil's nose was bleeding all over her court satins. "I'm sorry."
Trebin sat on a marble bench and set Stisele back down on the grass. "Well, that was considerably more than I'd expected."
"You told me she'd fight dirty, Father," said Harentil. "It's my fault. I'd been warned."
"Come here," he said, and tended her nosebleed. "If it's anybody's fault, it's mine. Now. What did you learn from that match?"
Harentil sat next to her father on the bench. "People who aren't taught the rules of fencing don't follow them. It can be a kind of advantage."
They were talking about Stisele as if she weren't even there. Typical. "Can I be dismissed?" she said.
Trebin looked at her. "From now on, you don’t ask for my dismissal. You wait for it."
But he didn't live in the palace. "Am I coming with you, then?" It was a dizzying thought. Leave Ambra Islet? What would Mommy Utroneth say?
"No," said Trebin. "Not yet. But I'll leave instructions for your training with the chief of the armory, and if you do as you're told, maybe later. Do you like horses?"
"I never saw one."
Trebin blinked. "Never saw one?"
"Samren wants one for his birthday, but Mommy Utroneth won't let them on the Islet."
Harentil looked at her father. "Mommy Utroneth?"
"You can't very well call the Sovereign Princess of Beltresa that in the city, Stisele."
Stisele's heart beat fast. In the city. In it. She'd been born on the Islet, and everybody knew she was never going to leave it. Anytime Jrene came home from her lessons in the realm she was to inherit, she'd boast of her travels to Stisele. When Stisele tried to correct Jrene on obvious errors of fact, things their tutors had been drumming into their heads as long as they'd been learning letters and numbers, the royal heir would say, But how would you know? You'll never see it.
Stisele said, "I can't go." Maybe nobody had told him.
"Will you do as you're told?"
"Are you going to tell Mommy Utroneth?"
He blinked again at the name. "Of course. Will you do as you're told?"
"Do as you're told, Stisele, and you can hope to see the world, and please Her Royal Highness well, too."
At that, Stisele picked up her dropped weapon and saluted Trebin in showy imitation of Emnir. Grinning fit to split her face open, she said, "We live to serve."
"We do, indeed. You will report to the armory first thing in the morning. Your tutors will see to it. Now," he said, rising from the marble bench, "to inform Her Royal Highness. She wishes us to discuss the matter privately."
Flash and Blur were bouncing around among the appleblossoms overhead.
"Can I stay in the maze?" Stisele asked Trebin. "Just to think a little bit?"
Harentil turned her curious dark eyes back to Stisele and said nothing.
"You have plenty of new things to think about," said Trebin. "Get your thinking out of the way. Tomorrow, you'll have to start obeying. Dismissed."
"It was lovely to meet you," said Harentil, and that was when Stisele knew she'd been entirely bested.
"You can be the pirate next time."
Harentil shrugged, and her father took her hand and led her away.
Stisele watched them go, then climbed into the apple tree to catch up with Flash and Blur. "I'm going to see horses," she declared.
Blur, who languidly suffused the crown of the tree, said, Trebin's all right.
Flash bobbed about in circles around Stisele where she perched in the wye of the trunk. Horses, nothing. You'll get to see the city. Come on. He hopped up to the crown of the tree and brightened around Blur's faint edges. Well? Come on!
So Stisele climbed to the highest big branch she thought could hold her weight, where she could pop her head up out of the dome of blossoms. Such a perfectly happy smell. From here, she could see over the hedge maze and across the water to the city's many islands, where the spires of Beltresa's Guild Halls and the cupolae of the Crown Houses' palaces rose above the Sea of Oë. The early afternoon sun silvered the waves around Beltresa proper, and a few regulation clouds, under the management of the Royal Weather Agency, watered the mainland orchards of the Upriver Protectorate. The House of Ambra's tutors had taught her place names by pointing to shapes on maps. Sometimes she'd been allowed onto boats, when Jrene and Samren were getting lessons. Stisele’s foster brother, who was almost a year older, had taught her some names while he pointed across the water: Point Quay, Morningside, Laddercrew Bridge, Southedge, and the tower at Calnir's Palace, which had been the seat of rule until Mommy Utroneth took over. From here, the spires all looked the same, and the bells all rang at once — even on Ambra Islet, Stisele could hear them ringing the hours, if the wind was favorable.
They rang second hour now. Today's lessons would be letting out in the nursery — the lessons she'd missed because she'd been bad. Stisele didn't like missing lessons. If Jrene and Samren got lots more of them than Stisele did, then lessons must be really good, so she loved the ones she got and stole others when she could. "What do you think they talked about without me?" she asked Flash and Blur. Sometimes they knew things like that.
Flash bounded out of the tree, bounced around the hedges, and was back in an instant. Ask Samren. He's looking for you.
"Hey!" she called. "Samren!"
"Where are you?" His voice came faintly from somewhere over by the fountain, three loops of hedge passage away.
"Apple tree!" she hollered back.
A few moments later, he crawled under the foliage between two yew bushes. "Aha!" He scrambled up the apple tree, and Blur drifted aside so he wouldn't touch her. Flash and Blur didn't like touching anybody but Stisele.
"What did I miss?"
He brushed the garden dirt off his knees. "Accomplishments of the House of Imlen."
She gripped her branch hard. "While I was gone?" It was so unfair.
"Because you were gone, they said. Your old cousin did some big things. Tutor says Mother would never have had to take over, if Mocred of Imlen hadn't died in battle."
"As big as all Upriver."
"Is Jrene still mad?"
"She's been waving her bandaged hand around, calling you a traitor. What did Mother do?"
"She got me a new teacher, and I'm going to the city, and I'll see horses, and Trebin of Ythrae says I'll get to see the world."
Samren looked wounded. "You don't have to lie about it."
"But she did!"
"Trebin of Ythrae? Who's he, anyway?"
"I don't know. He's got medals. And he let me be the pirate."
Samren looked skeptical about the whole thing. "Why would Mother do that?"
"Don't know. But I might get to ride a real horse."
"I got some bread." He pulled a crumbly slice of raisin loaf out of his pocket.
"Can I have some?"
He handed her the whole thing. "It's for you, silly. For stabbing Jrene."
"It wasn't that hard."
"Yeah, but I never get to stab Jrene."
Flash raced up the trunk of the tree to hover by Stisele's shoulder. Utroneth's coming.
So Stisele changed the subject. Mommy Utroneth wouldn't like the way Samren talked about stabbing his sister. Come to think of it, she might not like them talking about the House of Imlen's accomplishments, either. Stisele of Imlen wasn't supposed to know about certain things, or think about certain things — she definitely wasn’t supposed to talk out loud about certain things. Without Flash and Blur looking out for her, she'd have been in trouble all the time. "Do you think you'll get a horse for your birthday?"
Samren shook his head. "A boat, probably. I'm supposed to want to join the Fleet. Mother's talking about starting a school for it and sending me there as an example."
It was the first Stisele had heard about it. "But you won't go? Will you?"
"Mother gave me the speech again about how I'm supposed to be good at something and be all useful to Jrene when I grow up. Only I'm not good at anything. Serves Jrene right."
Stisele looked down from the tree, then whispered, "Your mother's almost here."
"We live to serve," said Samren, a little too loud.
Below them, Utroneth, Fifth Sovereign of the Principality of Beltresa, peered up into the flowers and foliage. Flash and Blur hid behind Stisele.
Mommy Utroneth considered the sight of her son and her adopted daughter covered with crumbs in an apple tree. "Samren," she said.
"I didn't do it."
"Whatever it is. It was probably Jrene."
"Come down from there, Samren."
He scrambled down the tree. "I have to go to next lesson," he said.
"Early? Your sailing master may die of shock."
"May I be dismissed?"
Mommy Utroneth sighed. "Yes, my darling. You may be dismissed."
He ran from the tree, scrabbled under the entangled branches of yew, and was gone through the maze.
The Sovereign Princess of Beltresa hitched her robes of royal red up just a little and sat in the tree's lowest wye. "It is a hard thing, Stisele, to be feared by one's children."
"I'm not afraid of you, Mommy Utroneth," said Stisele, and she climbed down to keep her adoptive mother company. Flash and Blur fluttered behind her, but she ignored them. What had Mommy Utroneth ever done to them?
"Did Samren tell you what he'd done? What he's so afraid I'll catch him at? Today, of all days, everyone can see how forgiving I am."
"He just brought me some bread, is all. He thought I was in trouble."
Mommy Utroneth smiled. "But instead, we have at long last figured out what to do with you. I knew we would. Anyone else would have had you killed when you were a baby."
"And some people still would." Stisele knew how Mommy Utroneth liked to see her kindnesses remembered.
"Many, many. But I knew, Stisele, that you would grow up to have a purpose. Long have I considered what that purpose ought best to be, and now I see it laid out before you. Will you show everyone that you're from good pirate stock, no matter what they say?"
"Will you lay my enemies low?"
Stisele was so proud to be asked. "I'm not afraid of anybody."
"There are those who have called that a problem, but you and I know better, don't we?"
"There is no act more virtuous than to repay trust with trust."
"Yes, you are. Now, I'm trusting you to be obedient, no matter what the armory master tells you to do, no matter what Trebin tells you to do."
Stisele knit her brows. "What are they going to tell me to do?"
"In particular? I don't know. I'm trusting them, just like I'm trusting you. In general, though, they'll be making a mighty weapon of you."
Stisele knew this part, too. "Because there's no better weapon than the right person in the right place."
Utroneth was so pleased, she kissed Stisele on the forehead. "A mighty weapon in the service of the Crown. Now, you prove me right. Everybody will be watching."
Everybody always was. "I'll make you proud."
"Just one more thing, then."
"Don't cut Jrene again." She wagged her finger in the air between them, an amused smile on her lips. "No cutting the heir. Got it?"
"For some time, I will be away," said Mommy Utroneth. "The Protectorate requires my attention. When I return from Twenty Locks, though, I expect to hear great things about your progress. I will be thinking of you, my dear."
"Not for too long." And the Sovereign Princess of Beltresa permitted her adopted daughter to hang about her neck and kiss her on the cheek. After a moment, Utroneth adjusted the gold circlet over her slightly mussed golden hair. She stood, smoothed her red robes, and left Stisele in the maze.
When Utroneth had gone, Blur drooped about on the grass, and Flash rolled listlessly along the hedgetop. They were sullen all afternoon, and Stisele knew better than to bother asking why. Instead, she played pirates all by herself, commanding the good ship Marble Bench to beset the beautiful city of Appletree, whose absolute submission she demanded, though after an hour of the tree's steadfast resistance, she accepted a conditional surrender. When the sky began to pink, she trailed one hand along the hedge and made her way back to the palace.
She was not the first to get back to the nursery for dinner. Clevi of Ambra, who was nurse to the three royal children, was fussing over Samren and barely noticed Stisele's return. "I'm fine," he protested.
"What happened? Did Jrene stab you?"
Jrene stuck her tongue out at Stisele. "He fell in the drink. Again. Samren, I hope Mother puts you into the Fleet to drown. It'll serve you right."
Clevi said, "The Fleet'll be your good right hand, one day. Are you wise to disparage it?"
"No," said Jrene, slouching in her chair.
"And your brother will be your good left hand, one day. It's not wise to disparage him, either."
"I'll disparage who I want."
"Whom," Clevi corrected her, and finally she noticed Stisele's clothes. "You can't eat dinner like that!"
Stisele had forgotten all about the grass stains. And the mud. And everything. "I'm sorry."
"I didn't mean to."
Jrene sat up straight in her chair. "That's what happens when you dress commoners in silk."
Hands on her hips, Clevi turned to the eldest of her charges. "Jrene…"
"So if the Fleet's my right hand, and my brother's my left hand, what does that make Stisele? I know! She can be my…"
"Don't you say it out loud, child."
Blur, who had curled up under the table, stirred. Oh, say it, she muttered. Go on, brat. Try me.
But Stisele didn't like what Blur could do when she was angry. "Don't," she said.
"Are you trying to give me an order?" Jrene demanded.
Stisele swallowed her bitterness. "Please don't." Mommy Utroneth had been so mad last time it happened, and never again could Stisele blame anything on Blur. Nobody believed her about it.