My seventh year of life yielded the start of many things in my world. Not only was my mother pregnant with a second child, but Queen Rahlaou was as well. There had been speculation that our royal Lady had been cursed, as all her children were stillborn, so each new pregnancy brought about an intake of apprehension for the whole country. Rashiz, as of yet, had no heir. King Garde was adamant that, one way or another, he would have an heir. At seven, I was just starting to realize what 'or another' might entail, and why that comment of the king's made the nobles uneasy.

Yet, none of this mattered in my mind. This year, we would learn the basics of the Dance of Crimson Steel. That was the only fact that held any importance in my life.

We entered our second year at Rose School on the next recurring month of set. Some of us (meaning me) were already seven years old. Still, even if it was a bit late for me, I was about to learn the dance! My spirits weren't even dampened by Zhinse making it very clear that we wouldn't know all the steps until our ninth year at the school, as the process of learning it took a long time. With each step we learned, there was the history, the importance of the move, that had to be memorized. We were given very durable papyrus paper with which to take notes; the importance of the steps was a verbal test the year we auditioned for Fene, and longer after.

Now, I had, more or less, become friends with Ferinza. Obviously, as an adult, she couldn't make much time for the relative who was less half her age, but I learned a little more about the upper levels. She had been in her obe year, meaning that that was the last year that she could live at the school. She did, of course, audition for Fene. Needless to say, Amershka kept her position. I was surprised to learn that you could still audition after graduating – yes, you did graduate, whether or not you surpassed the Fene. Anyway, so long as when you came back year after year, you had the papers that proved you graduated from the Rose School, you could audition.

I took very careful and neat notes of step names and meanings, as they would have to last me my life. I really meant 'my life,' too. As long as I could dance, I would audition.

I was also, apparently, correct in my earlier guess that Molkana and the three others that shared her room would never be on good terms again. Now, however, she didn't even recognize that we were there unless she had to. She never talked about us, either, and she didn't cry anymore. Teacher Zhinse just wasn't buying it anymore. The only reprieve I got from her moods were the occasional holidays the School allowed us.

On such holidays, my parents expected me to dine with them at the impossibly long and very empty table. I felt more grown-up than I wanted to feel, alone at one end, while my father sat at the head of the table, my mother seated to his left. Her belly was starting to swell from my would-be sibling.

"Your studies are progressing?" he asked cordially one evening.

I looked up from my plate of yerm, the meat of an animal imported from Obenke. "Of course, Father."

I could never address my father by his given name, and neither could my mother, not that there was much danger of that. Only when I had grown, given him grandchildren, and was speaking privately to him would I dare.

When my father suddenly put down his utensils and nobly wiped his mouth upon the linen napkin, my mother gave him a sharp look, which he was quite content to ignore.

"I would like for you to demonstrate what you know of the dance, Candenca."

My mother then looked sharply at me in the way that told me she wanted me to stay put, for whatever reason. My father, seeing my hesitation, looked now to my mother, who then looked back down at her plate, the submissive gesture in this eyeing dogfight.

"Please, Candenca, if you're finished."

Looking down at my empty plate, I knew there was no way to get out of dancing what I knew. My mother's looks bothered me, made me wonder why she was so adamant that I didn't do as my father asked.

Reluctantly I stood, my legs feeling wobbly. In the school, performing was no nervous thing for me – Teacher Zhinse just walked lazily between us, correcting a posture here and there, and we were all equally bad at it thus far. Now, in front of my parents, my father in particular, with whom I had such a distant relationship, and in the quiet of the room, I was nervous. My mother's nervous and slightly pained look from before turned to one of clumsily hidden interest as she watched me attain a space on the floor.

Shashra help me, I thought, imagining the music in my head. The constant, somber notes of the flute played out in my mind's eye, and the beat of the drum in time with the changing octaves. I started slowly, still struggling to keep the feel of the music as I'd been taught it in my head, but I went quicker as the tune came to me more easily.

First, I slid out my right foot, pretending, as always, that there was a thick gold band around the arch, and little golden ornaments on my heels. I twisted the ankle artfully, sliding it forward as I did so while my hands fluttered with bent elbows at my thighs. I had forgotten to tilt my head to one side, and I quickly corrected this, albeit a little clumsily, and even then a little too much.

The other moves are too various to mention; as detached as you must be from my devotion, I'm sure I've bored you already. Anyway, I continued through the only other five moves I was comfortable with, before sheepishly becoming motionless, gazing at the ground, awaiting certain ridicule.

It never came, but neither did overwhelming praise.

"That was lovely, Cadenca." My father said more or less without feeling, though his eyes twinkled in the way that they did when he was pleasantly surprised.

He didn't say another word to me the rest of the evening. I eventually excused myself, trying to shake off the bad feeling growing in my stomach. I knew that it was entirely possible that my father really just wanted to see how his little girl was doing, but something told me there was another reason for his actions.

That thought bothered me all night, and I didn't get much sleep. My dreams were haunted by Teacher Zhinse, her hands like talons as she clawed at me; and Amershka, cackling in a way I never thought she would, saying again and again how I would never surpass her; my father, pulling me by strings like a puppet, telling me to dance. Finally, my mother showed, shaking her head as she sewed closed the head of a doll that looked like Molkana. "My little girl, my poor little girl…" she kept sighing in Ferinza's voice. The dream ended when a pair of hands descended on me from behind, smothering my breath.

I awoke with a scream, cold sweat running down my back. My maid rushed into the room and gathered me up in a fleshy hug which, for the fist time, I didn't want to be free of. Whose were the hands that sought my death?


My return to the school was lonely. Only my maid and the driver accompanied me, as my mother felt under the weather, and my father was busy with some business or other. After breaking away from Jarneskja and making my way up to my room, I was surprised to see that Danica had not yet returned; Molkana was also as of yet absent. It was Anthel that now kept me company.

"How was your holiday?" she asked. "My parents gave me a new horse!"

"I didn't get any presents." I replied, not entirely without my general moodiness.

Anthel didn't know what to say to that. She flushed and busied herself with primping her bed while waiting for something more interesting to happen. As if on cue, many feet suddenly pattered through class C's hall, Danica at the head, as I saw when I went to see what was happening.

"The Queen! The Queen!" she shouted happily in unison with the other girls. "The Queen had a baby!"

Breathless, her face glowed while she told us all about the new addition to the royal family. Danica was raised a great patriot, so the subject, to her, came before all else. Queen Rahlaou, to her husband's overwhelming pleasure, had a son. His name was to be Haled, and the astrologers were already abuz about how handsome and wise he would be when he grew up. Of course, with a name like Haled, how could he not? Let me explain. King Haled, who had come to the throne at seventeen, was the first sovereign to defeat the forces of Selakesh. Of course, he lived a very long time ago, but everyone knew his story. He also married the 77th Fene.

Now, thinking of the Queen and her child, I thought about my mother, who would be delivering my sibling in two months. I was sure that worry crossed my brow then (as well it should), for Anthel, mimicking my expression, asked me what was the matter. Mortality was the matter. Humans were mortal, I realized, and my mother might well die in childbirth. My mother's death didn't bear reality – I couldn't possibly go on without her!

Now, at that age, I was unaccustomed to hate. So far, the things I hated weren't tangible; things like arithmetic, though I also hated vegetables. Now, though, I harbored a very small spark of hate for my future sibling, who, before then, I hadn't really thought of. The fact that this little helpless child might take my mother from me, unfortunately for the baby, scared and enraged my normally docile little mind.

"Isn't this great, Candenca?" Danica suddenly broke through my thoughts. "This must be an omen from Shashra that your mom will have a good birthing!"

Yes. The fact that my mother didn't have the country's finest physicians around to help her made no difference whatsoever.


Apparently, the last half of the year wasn't done giving us surprises. Two weeks later, the Rose School was in an uproar because the first Fene's ­zarsh had been stolen. As Rashiz was a superstitious country of omens, this was symbolic beyond all previous repertoire.

Rumor one: Amershka would soon come to great folly, meaning either death, succession (this was a favorite among the obe and previous graduates), or perhaps a falter in her private life.

Rumor two: Rashiz would soon come to great folly. Either there would be plague in the ocean or among the people, there would be a bad harvest, the heir to the throne would die, someone in the royal family would be assassinated, or Selakesh would finally wipe our country off the face of the continent.

Rumor three, and by far the most horrid of them all: there was something wrong with Shashra herself, eliciting a mushroom in the sales on incense, no doubt also causing the start of more than a few heretic cults.

From the standpoint of the country and the Fene, this was a very bad omen, almost as bad an omen as could be. Of course, I seemed to be the only one who wasn't surprised at the news; they kept the first Fene's heirloom in a room without a door, coming off another room without a door, coming off the main room…without a door. Whatever sorcery was supposedly put in place to protect the robes obviously needed to be checked out. I myself never believed in such a thing as magic – only the divine power of the Goddess, so I very much thought doors necessary to the protection of this precious relic.