Saylina Sentarsin tossed the folded bit of paper aside, frowning at the growing pile of invitations beside her chair. A mess her brother would have scolded her for. If he hadn’t run off four years before.
“Got one here.” Caela handed a note across the table.
Taking the message, Saylina broke the seal and smoothed out the paper. Yellow and black wax didn’t bode well. The last lordling from the northern lake regions had smelled of fish and wanted nothing more than a pretty face to flaunt on the decks of his boats.
To the highest of ladies and the fairest of maidens—
Rumors of your beauty reach far and wide.
If you will allow me by your side,
Together may our fortunes ride…
“Oh gods above.” Saylina choked on a laugh, waving the note at Caela. “You are joking, right?”
“Rich.” Caela shrugged, but the twinkle in her eyes revealed her. “Your lord father’d be happy with ya bringing in that coin. An’ this one got such a nice—”
Caela burst out laughing, her front cracking at last. Saylina sighed and dropped the message, shaking her head. Every proposal came with more absurdities and proclamations of affection, often with less and less chance she’d ever met the sender at all. And none had a truly legitimate reason for writing her. All just hints that her impending birthing day—and the leap in maturity from girl to woman it implied—had escaped no one’s notice.
Once she might have been flattered. Years ago, when Arkaen had skulked through the corridors to her door nearly every night to deliver forbidden treats and mock the tutors he so disdained and she so adored, she would have loved these messages. She would have seen them as hints that the lower lords thought her important and hadn’t forgotten her in the shadow cast by her much older and more problematic brother. But to receive them now, when Arkaen had been years fighting a war no one expected him back from and she was the only heir? Each meaningless line of flowery praise was an insult to her carefully laid plans.
“We need someone I can use,” Saylina said, sifting through the papers on her polished wood table. “Father will have spoken to everyone here. They’re only writing me because they think I can use my girlish charms to sway his opinion.”
As if her father would ever respect her wishes on matters of state. But the province didn’t know that. High Lord Johannus Sentarsin had mastered his role as doting father when anyone might see.
Caela pulled another missive from the pile and froze. The paper slipped from her fingers, fluttering through the breeze from the window to land with the seal up. Blue and silver wave with a stallion’s head embossed into the seal. Saylina frowned at Caela, grabbing the message.
“What does Count Skianda want?” She slipped a finger behind the seal and pried it free.
“I’m sorry!” Caela’s voice burst from her lips as if she couldn’t contain herself, her eyes wide and childish as she had rarely been despite her age. “I shoulda—” She cut off, scrunching her lips together in a miserable scowl. Pained, ashamed, and resigned.
The Skianda family had been involved in helping Saylina’s father place Caela as a spy. Caela could have shouted the admission from Saylina’s balcony and been more subtle. Saylina’s hands turned cold, her breath caught in her throat as her heart ached. The friend she’d recruited—had trusted with everything—had a secret master. Not so much smarter than her brother, after all. But Caela, at least, looked remorseful as Arkaen’s false guard had not.
“What have you told them?” Saylina could hear the ice in her own voice, her pain transformed into a parody of anger she couldn’t feel. Yet.
“Nothing!” Caela shook her head as if to convince herself as well as Saylina, the gutter speech she’d been working hard to lose creeping back into her words. “At first I’s just—he asked after you. If you’re doing well. Then your father, he wanted to know what your father’s doing. But I said nothing since we agreed ’cept what we told your father.”
“You truly think he sent you here to ensure I was handling the transition properly?”
Caela scoffed, waving the suggestion off. “Nah. He wanted you controlled, but I ain’t the type for it. I’m a starter. I’d bet one of these is his man.” She nodded at the pile of letters, then looked up to meet Saylina’s eyes. “He’s not…I ain’t with him. Not no more. He just wanted another gutter-born to do his dirty work.”
Saylina clenched her hand, considering Caela’s claim. She made a point. And what choice did a common-born girl like Caela have when a nobleman demanded they spy for him? No doubt Count Skianda had simply wanted a source of information. Especially since he’d been away at his estate so frequently over the past years. With Arkaen gone, Lordling Brayden Skianda had no easy access to the palace to gather information for his father. And Caela’s pleading gaze was so desperate.
“Count Skianda is a different force than my father,” Saylina said, deliberately keeping her voice cold. “He needs a different hand.”
Caela nodded, dropping her eyes to stare at the pile of papers. Disappointment and fear flashed across her features. But no anger. No surprise. Caela had never expected Saylina to forgive her.
“Next time, sister, come to me first.” Saylina smiled. “It’s much easier to plot together, and I have a bit of pressure we could have used on the count. Have you met his son Brayden?”
“The younger lord?” Caela nodded without waiting for Saylina’s confirmation. “He’s the one that found me. Never met the older, though I reckon he knew. Lately, though—” Caela frowned. “He hasn’t asked for me. Like he knows something without my news.”
If Brayden had chosen her, that changed things. Arkaen had considered Brayden a friend, though not one close enough to confide in. And if Caela was truly working for the Skianda’s she’d have no reason to correct Saylina’s mistake. Caela hadn’t truly betrayed her any more than before. And sisters forgave each other. Saylina flipped the message open and scanned the note.
My Lady Saylina—
I am led to believe we share mutual interests. I would be honored if you would grace my sister with a visit morrow-eve. Perhaps we will find the chance to speak.
Saylina frowned at the note. “That’s not a proper invitation.” It wasn’t a courtship, either, though she’d never have expected one from the heir to one of the most prestigious holdings in the province.
“What’d he say?”
Nothing,” Saylina replied. “Just that he’d be honored if I visit his sister.”
Caela bit at her lower lip. A habit she hadn’t yet lost from the streets. “He’s smart, that one.”
“Part of why Arkaen liked him,” Saylina said. “I don’t have the resources to learn his plans, though.”
“But I’ll guess he knows you’re planning something even without me.”
Saylina dropped the letter, meeting her gaze. “That’s a poorly kept secret by design. Are you implying he’ll try to stop me?”
She shook her head. “No telling.”
But Caela stared at the message like it held a meaning they were both missing and the urge to look again crept through Saylina. The timing was too close to be chance. A message inviting her to discuss mutual interests right as she was hunting a pliant husband to name heir in her brother’s place? The Skianda family was loyal to Sentarsin rule, but they weren’t fools.
“You gonna see him?” Caela asked.
“I have no reason not to.” Saylina took the message back, examining the too short, too cursory invitation. “I might learn quite a deal from such a meeting.”
Caela nodded. “Then I’m going with you. Not as a maid. Sisters fight for each other.”