Nine months later
In the vaulted corridor outside the queen's bedchamber, Savedra Severos drowsed. Midnight had long since passed and a deep stillness filled the Azure Palace, broken only by the distant drone of crickets. That silence—and the meaning of it—filtered slowly through Savedra's sleepy wits.
The queen had stopped screaming.
She straightened, her stiff neck popping. As she drew breath to speak, a high thin cry rose from beyond the door. Beside her, Nikos startled like a bee-stung horse. His sweaty hand clamped hers hard enough to bruise.
The wail faded and quiet returned. Distant bells chimed: predawn, the hour of release. The hour of the wolf. Nikos and Savedra exchanged a bleary glance; his hair stood in wild cowlicks, his eyes bruised dark as tea leaves from worry and sleeplessness. The labor had not been an easy one.
The door opened to frame the physician. Her robe was stained with blood and other fluids, and a thin streak of rust dried across one olive cheek.
"You may come in, Your Majesty."
Nikos wobbled as he stood. "Is she— Yes, thank you."
Savedra followed on his heels, propriety be damned. She might be Nikos's mistress, but the queen was her friend. And more than that.
The room stank of blood and pain and bitter medicine. Ashlin lay still in the tilted chair, her candle-flame hair dark with sweat and pasted to her face. Too still. Blood spotted the tiles beneath the birthing chair, trickled in a watery rivulet down one pale, sweat-sheened thigh. Her chest rose and fell, but her strong-jawed face was slack. Discarded rags lay in pink-stained drifts around the chair. Savedra fell to her knees beside the queen as a nurse waylaid Nikos with a squirming bundle.
"Your Majesty," said the physician, "you have a daughter."
Ashlin's eyelids fluttered. Savedra's breath rushed out like she'd been punched in the gut.
"You can do that next time," the queen croaked. "I'd rather be kicked by a warhorse." Green eyes flashed under gummy lashes. "And your uncle owes me twenty griffins." For the past month, the child's gender had been a matter of many wagers throughout the palace.
Savedra took her friend's hand, brown fingers twining with pale. Ashlin's hands were hard with a warrior's calluses, but still smaller than Savedra's manicured ones. "I'll be sure he pays."
"You owe me too," Ashlin whispered. Her thumb slid across Savedra's knuckles, a lover's caress instead of a friend's. Savedra shivered.
"Look," Nikos whispered, kneeling next to Savedra. The physician and her staff tactfully stepped into the hall. "We have a daughter."
The new princess of Selafai was a wrinkled lump of a thing, olive skin splotchy beneath fluids and pale birth wax. Her head was already crowned with black fuzz.
The three adults shared a glance, and Savedra read relief in Nikos's eyes—for a healthy wife, a healthy child, and no obvious sign that the baby wasn't his. If they could keep such speculation at bay for a few years, until the child was well settled in the court, scandal would be easier to avoid. The emotion in Ashlin's eyes was harder to decipher.
"What should we name her?" Nikos asked, easing the wrappings back. The baby showed her pink gums in displeasure and waved a tiny fist.
Savedra reached out, stopped short of touching tender, sticky skin: A pink birthmark like spilled wine darkened one side of the baby's neck. A common mark, and nothing ill-omened, but it sent a chill through her all the same.
"Ginevra," she said, before she could call the thought back.
Amber eyes and green turned to her with identical expressions.
"Are you serious?" Ashlin demanded, even as Nikos said "Are you mad?"
The name had belonged to a friend of Savedra's. Too short a friendship—Ginevra Jsutien had been unwittingly caught up in a plot against Nikos's father, and died the same night as the old king. Ginevra's aunt, the archa of a powerful house, had never forgiven Nikos or Savedra for it.
"Probably," Savedra said. "Do you object?"
Ashlin frowned and reached out for the baby. A strange, wondering expression flickered across her face as she settled the bundle, vanishing in an instant. "That would settle the argument about whose mother to name her after, I suppose." Her lips pursed. "Ginevra Idaran Alexios. What do you think?" she asked Nikos.
He spread his hands. "I defer to you in this."
"Ginevra," Ashlin said, softer. "All right. Dan bear witness."
"Saint Astara, you heathen," Nikos retorted. In Ashlin's case it was doubly apt that the saint of childbirth was also the saint of swords. "So be it. I'll increase security before the announcement goes out, in case Lady Jsutien is feeling vindictive."
"Do you want to hold her?" Ashlin asked Savedra.
Her stomach felt full of ice water. She raised a trembling hand and drew it back again. "Better I not." Her voice cracked on the words. She swallowed, and the bulge of her larynx moved against the pearl-studded collar that draped her throat. The pearls were the mark of her station as a royal mistress. The lump beneath them was a mark of her sex, the masculine flesh she'd been born into, that tailored gowns and careful deportment might disguise but never change.
But it was politics that stayed her hand more than any propriety. She couldn't be mother or father to this child, and must never let herself think otherwise. She forced her voice lighter. "When she's been cleaned, perhaps."
The physician cleared her throat from the doorway. "We'll take care of that now. And then you, Your Majesty"—this to Ashlin—"as soon as the afterbirth has passed. And then mother and child will need rest. You look as though you can stand a few hours sleep yourself, Sire."
"I— Yes." Nikos ran a hand through his hair, rearranging the mess. "Yes, rest for everyone. I'll come back later," he said to Ashlin, dropping an awkward caress across her shoulder.
The queen cocked an eyebrow and Savedra nodded, a silent promise of the same. She didn't cast another glance at Ginevra, letting cool resolve drown the butterflies in her stomach.
Nikos wrapped an arm around Savedra's waist as they walked down the dim hall to his own chambers. "I meant what I said about extra security," he said, but a jaw-cracking yawn garbled the words.
"I know. I'll take care of it."
He snorted, but didn't argue as she shoved him gently into the room. Inside, the king's page jerked awake in a chair, eyes wide for news.
"Take care of him," Savedra told the boy, "or he'll fall asleep on the rug." She pressed a kiss on the corner of Nikos's mouth and pulled the door shut as she retreated.
Straightening her spine against the weight of fatigue, Savedra went in search of the royal guard. She might never be a parent to her child, but she would be dead and damned before she'd let harm come to her.