Lady Saylina


Saylina peeked around the pillar, slight shoulders hunched beside the servant’s benches as her father, High Lord Johannus Sentarsin, paced the great hall. The half dozen lower lords milling about the hall muttered under their breath to the attendants they’d brought, casting uncertain glances at their ruler. In the center, Baron Oskari Weydert stood proudly, head high and pompous chest thrust outward. Like an heiress too proud to let the younger girls join in her play.

“I don’t know, Oskari,” Saylina’s father said. “Arkie’s a bit flighty, but that sounds…”

“Treasonous?” Baron Weydert laid a hand on his sword pommel, indicating the marble and gold room with a sweeping wave of his free hand. “He’s already abandoned your exquisite home to avoid his betrothal. I assure you, my lord, that this information comes at the greatest of costs. He has turned against us.”

“Not wanting to marry your daughter is a far cry from leading an army against our rightfully crowned emperor.” Her father paused, glaring at Baron Weydert for several breaths. “I’ll not condemn my son without solid proof. And the lot of you better keep your gods-damned mouths shut if you find any.”

The other lords stilled, a flock paralyzed in the sight of their most feared predator. High Lord Sentarsin had certainly shown himself a different man than she remembered—the man she wanted to remember. She could no longer find the gentle father who’d soothed her brother Arkaen’s skinned knees and brought her new fashions from imperial court.

Saylina crept a little closer, the hem of her skirts dragging on the polished floors. Her mother’s old maid would scold her again, but the lecture was worth the risk. If her father was protecting Arkaen even after he’d run away he might forgive a little eavesdropping. He might even stop listening to everything Baron Weydert said. Saylina’s father paced the floor again, frowning at his jittery lower lords.

“What the hell are you all staring at?” he demanded. “You can’t wonder at my intent. Arkie isn’t ideal, but he’s my only heir. If you bring me proof he’s a traitor, you’d best bring a replacement for him with it.”

“As it turns out, my lord.” Baron Weydert smiled at the other lords. “That’s part of why I’ve come.”

Saylina’s father shook his head. “The last time you had a plan my heir ran off without a word, Oskari.”

“You said yourself he’s been flighty, high lord,” Baron Weydert replied. “You can’t—”

The far door swung open, admitting a handful of giggling girls ranging from ten to twelve years shepherded by one older girl whose eyes flew wide at the sight of Baron Weydert. Lady Camira Weydert clapped a hand to her perfectly accented lips, her free hand grabbing at the more rambunctious girls. Saylina took the moment of distraction to edge back from the benches, lifting the heavy skirts off the floor to minimize the swish of the fabric. She’d heard plenty of tirades on the impropriety of a child eavesdropping on court business over the few years since she’d learned to escape her nursemaid. No need to add his latest round of criticisms.

“What are you lot doing?” Saylina’s father glared at the young ladies that made up Saylina’s entourage. “You know better than to interrupt a lord’s council, I’m sure.”

“Yes, milord. Begging your pardon, High Lord Sentarsin. We was looking fer—” The trembling response cut off before the girl could reveal they’d been hunting Saylina. It could only come from Saylina’s maid, Caela. Young Lady Camira would never dare speak without permission from her father.

“Have you lost my daughter, lass?”

The eerie calm in her father’s voice held a danger Saylina had come to know far too well in the four years since her brother had run away. She’d known, in the casual way of a younger child listening to her elders, that Arkaen argued with their father over his lessons. She’d even known that their father got angry enough that Arkaen sometimes moved through the palace in a silent creep, alert for any sign his daily tasks might bring him into contact with their father before the fury had calmed. Not until he’d left had she known that fear herself, or the madness in her father’s eyes when he was denied a thing he felt entitled to have. Saylina paused by the hidden servant’s door, torn between her escape and the threat to Caela. But Saylina’s father had never harmed a woman, from his wife to his child to any of the maids, and he’d never done any permanent damage to Arkaen. Not physically, at least.

“Milord, twas jus’ a spat a misunderstanding,” Caela replied. “She’s like as not in her sun garden. We’ll be goin’—”

“Haven’t I told you to keep that gutter speech out of my house?” A pointed break in her father’s speech told he’d stepped forward, though she could no longer see the center of the room and his court shoes made no sound on his newly-laid marble floor. “I could have thrown you to the streets when your mother died, girl. I still could, and maybe—”

“Father!”

Saylina moved before the word left her lips, rushing across the floor against the pull of her skirts against the floor. A weight holding her back, fighting to keep her safe from her father’s wrath. Shoving herself between her father and Caela, she spun around to meet his eyes. Her entire body shook, a tension thrumming in here skin, her nerves, pounding in her chest. The narrowed slits of her father’s eyes bored into her.

“There, lass. I see you’ve more knowledge of where my daughter is than you thought.” He waved Caela back, as if she’d never mattered.

A trap to lure Saylina from her hiding place. Saylina’s breath hissed through her lips, her hands clenched, and nothing she could do would force the tight fists open. But Caela’s face—the glimpse she’d seen of terror and relief—spoke louder than Saylina’s father ever could.

“Caela is mine, father,” Saylina said. “You’ve no right to punish her, and no right to banish her.”

She flinched at his sharp laughter. Another sign of weakness. One he’d exploit if he thought it useful to his case. With the lower lords as witnesses, though, she had a chance. He preferred to be seen as a doting father.

“You’re gaining spunk, little filly,” he said. Calm, some might have said. Possibly even indulgent of her defiance. But she could hear the taunt under the words. “But I’ve a right to punish anyone I choose. And my daughter knows better than to talk back to me.”

The tension kept her vibrating, almost as though she were a string and a musician had plucked at her. There was nothing she could do. He was the ruler and her father, and she just a child. But if she backed down now—

“You gave her to me. Caela is mine. If you hurt her…”

The empty threat hung between them, her father smirking down at her. The muttering of the lower lords cut through their battle of wills, a reminder of the stakes. Saylina could do something. She could run away, as Arkaen had, and leave her father childless. Leave her people with no heir, no stability, and no one to speak for them when the lower lords demanded higher taxes from the poor and more indulgence from the crown. And for all his anger, her father had never hurt her. Yet.

“Of course, Sayli.” Her father’s indulgent smile promised his fury would return when he had the time to address her in private. But she’d won this round.

He turned away, sauntering back to his lower lords with a casual reminder over his shoulder. “But don’t forget the girl only works for you. Even Emperor Laisia frowns on slavery.”

Saylina’s terror drained from her in an instant, leaving her unstable on her feet. And still her body shook, a retort she didn’t dare voice lingering on her tongue. Like the boy you hired for Arkaen? She muttered the words under her breath as Caela led her toward the door, giving voice to the disgust Arkaen hadn’t known to feel.

Technically, Arkaen’s boy had been a personal guard. To all appearances, the two had been the closest of friends. Saylina had only recently learned about the threats her father had made to keep the boy loyal to the crown and not Arkaen. What could her father have feared so badly that he’d threatened murder on his own citizens to place a spy on his own son? But he must have been right. Arkaen had fled at the first rumors of a marriage between himself and Baron Weydert’s daughter, Camira.

Biting at her lower lip, Saylina pulled away from Caela and took the lead. Beyond the confines of her father’s great hall, Saylina smiled at her entourage. More playmates than true courtiers, only Lady Camira Weydert was older than her. Six years older, in fact. At nineteen years, she would be far too old for a child’s retinue under normal circumstances.

But Lady Camira shined here, shouldering the disgrace of being relegated to the children’s court with a pleasant disposition and a willingness to play with the younger girls that Saylina often borrowed. If she held herself distant from Saylina herself, who could truly blame her, after Arkaen’s actions?

“Lady Camira.” Saylina looked up at the older girl. “Would you do me the favor of bringing the other ladies to my solarium? I need to attend a few minor matters in my chambers.”

“Of course, my lady.”

Lady Camira’s curtsy was as proper as any full lady, her bowed head at Saylina’s level for just a moment. She rose with a carefree poise and gestured to the other girls. The group followed her away, turning a corner mere breaths before Saylina’s control broke.

Her trembles rushed through her, leaving her in a fit of shivers as her eyes burned with tears. Caela grabbed her arm and led her down the hall. Further from any prying eyes and as close to privacy as she could get in her father’s palace. Saylina sank to the floor as soon as Caela stopped, hugging her knees to her chest to still any visible signs of her distress. Caela sat beside her, quiet and waiting for Saylina to speak.

“I—” Saylina choked on her words, coughing to clear her throat. “I can’t believe I did that.”

Caela nodded. A quick glance revealed she was shaking as well. Of course she was. Two girls facing down the ruler who sent people to execution for defying him. Even if Saylina was his daughter.

“Don’t wanna know what mighta happened if ya ain’t come out,” Caela said finally.

“What else could I have done?” Saylina asked. “I couldn’t have just left you. Not when you were following my orders.”

Caela frowned, her small face puckering into an anger she rarely admitted. “Could wish yer brother felt the same. His lad…”

“I don’t think he knew, Caela.” Saylina sighed. “Gods, but if he ever learns what happened, he’ll be devastated. He thought they were real friends.”

“I ain’t thinking ’bout how he’ll feel.”

Caela’s dismissive reply couldn’t mask the unintended question that had slipped into Saylina’s words. Saylina’s father had purchased a spy against his son with the threat of blood. Caela had been a gift from Saylina’s father, hired as her first personal attendant with no task beyond Saylina’s whims. And Saylina’s father had made good on his threat when Arkaen ran away, leaving Saylina as the sole child of the Sentarsin bloodline. The high lord had good reason to keep tabs on Saylina.

Fiddling with her skirts, Saylina tried to find some to say. Anything to distract from the thought that now wouldn’t leave her alone. But Caela must have been thinking the same thing.

“Ain’t like he never asks,” Caela admitted. She glanced up, small hands clenched in the folds of her plain skirts, dull compared to Saylina’s own fine gown. “I told him some, now and then, ’cause a what he did to yer brother’s guard. But it ain’t like I want ta talk. He don’t protect me. Don’t treat me kind, or let me see me cousin when I need.”

Saylina nodded, her eyes burning harder and bits of liquid forming at the inner corners. She should have expected that. Caela was as much as spy as Arkaen’s guard had been. Wiping the tears away before they could fall, Saylina forced herself to sit upright. The knowledge hurt, but it gave her a bit of power. As much as she might ever get from her father.

“Milady.” Caela laid a hand on her knee. “You tell me what he needs ta hear. That’s what I saw.”

“But you can’t,” Saylina said. “That’s dangerous.”

“Ain’t like his way is safe.” Cale nodded back toward the great hall. “You saw. And yer brother’s guard did just what he’s told. Least we work together, we got a chance.”

Saylina smile, heart pounding as she held up a hand with one pinky extended. To defy her father with his own spy… But what choice did she have? He’d given her no other resources.

“Sisters?” Saylina offered her hand.

After a moment, Caela linked her own pinky through Saylina’s “Aye. Sisters.”


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