Princess Jenna has been raised in supreme luxury—and ignorance.
Within the sweet-scented, golden confines of the palace seraglio,
she’s never seen the sun, or a man, or even learned her numbers.
But she’s been schooled enough in the paths to a woman’s power.
When her betrothal is announced, she’s ready to begin the
machinations that her mother promises will take Jenna from ornament
I grew up in paradise.
Tropically warm, lushly beautiful, replete with luxury, my childhood world was without flaw. My least whim was met with immediate indulgence, served instantly and with smiles of delight. I swam in crystal clear waters, then napped on silk. I chased gorgeously ornamental fish and birds, and enjoyed dozens of perfectly behaved pets of unusual coloring and pedigrees. My siblings and I spent our days in play, nothing ever asked or expected of us.
Until the day everything was demanded—and taken—from me.
Only then did I finally see our paradise for what it was, how deliberately designed to mold and shape us. A breeding ground for luxurious accessories. To create a work of art, you grow her in an environment of elegance and beauty. To make her soft and lusciously accommodating, you surround her with delicacies and everything delightful. And you don’t educate her in anything but being pleasing.
Education leads to critical thinking, not a desirable trait in a princess of Dasnaria, thus I was protected from anything that might taint the virginity of my mind, as well as my body.
Because I’d understood so little of the world outside, when my time came to be plucked from the garden, when the snip of the shears severed me from all I’d known, the injury came as a shock so devastating that I had no ability to even understand what it meant, much less summon the will to resist and overcome. Which, I’ve also come to realize over time, was also a part of the deliberate design.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me go back to the beginning.
I grew up in paradise.
And it was all you’d imagine paradise to be. A soft palace of lagoons and lush gardens, of silk bowers and laughter. With little else to do, our mothers and the other ladies played with us, games both simple and extravagantly layered. When we tired, we napped on the velvet soft grass of the banks of the pools, or on the silk pillows scattered everywhere. We’d sleep until we awoke, eat the tidbits served us by watchful servant girls, then play more.
Hestar and I had our own secret games and language. All the ladies called us the royal pair, as we were the emperor’s firstborns and we’d been born less than a month apart.
My mother, first wife, the Empress Hulda, and the most highly ranked woman in the empire, spent much of her day at court. When she was home in the seraglio, she preferred to relax without noisy children to bother her. Hestar’s mother, Jilliya, was second wife and kept getting pregnant, forever having and sometimes losing the babies. So, by unspoken agreement, we kept clear of her apartments, too. Something else I understood much later, that the miasma of misery has its own brand of contagion—and that those who fear contracting the deadly disease stay far away.
Saira, on the other hand, third wife and mother of our half-sister Inga, had a kindness and sweetness to her, so we kids often played in her apartments when we grew bored of games like climbing the palm trees to see who could pluck the most dates while a servant counted the time. Inga, along with my full brother, Kral, were the second oldest pair—the second-borns, also arriving in the same month, to my mother and Saira. Less than a year younger than Hestar and me, they completed our set of four. Our six other brothers and sisters played with us, too, but they were babies still, needing to be watched all the time. Whenever we could, the four of us ditched the babies, exploring the far corners of our world, then making hideouts where no one could find us.
Though, of course, when the least desire took our fancy, someone always appeared instantaneously to satisfy us. Another of the many illusions of my childhood.
Hestar and I, we had a cave we’d made under a clump of ferns. He’d stocked it with a box of sweetmeats and I’d stolen one of my mother’s silk throws for a carpet. Embroidered with fabulous animals, it told tales of a world beyond our corner of paradise. We loved it best of all our purloined treasures, and made up stories about the scenes and creatures, giving them names and convoluted histories.
One day—the kind that stands out with crystalline clarity, each detail incised in my memory—we played as usual. Hestar had been mysteriously gone for a while the day before, or perhaps several days before or for several days in a row. That part fogs in with the timelessness of those days that never ended, but blended one into the next. What I remember is the elephant.
“And the miskagiggle flapped its face tail, saying nooo—”
“It’s called an elephant,” Hestar interrupted me.
“It’s not a miskagiggle. It’s an elephant, and the face tail is a trunk.”
Hestar beamed with pride at knowing something I didn’t.
“You’re making that up.”
“No, I’m not! My tutor told me.”
“A teacher. My tutor is named Ser Llornsby.”
“Is that where you went?” Hestar and Kral had been whisked off by servants, and no one would tell me or Inga where they were, just that we’d see them again soon.
Hestar’s blue eyes went wide and he looked around to see if anyone was listening. “Want to know a secret?”
Oh, did I. Even then I understood that secrets were the carefully hoarded and counted currency of the seraglio. “Yes!”
We pulled the silk throw over our heads to make a tent. It was the usual grass beneath, so we didn’t really need the carpet. Having it just made our hideaway more special—and the throw became a blanket, excellent for exchanging secrets.
“We went through the doors!” Hestar told me, whispering but much too loudly.
I hushed him. I didn’t question how I knew, but this secret held power. Most of our secrets had been silly, frivolous things, like how Inga kept candied dates under her pillow. Or ones everyone already knew, like that Jilliya was pregnant again. With the unabashed enthusiasm of children, we absorbed all the murmured gossip and repeated it with equal relish. This, though—I recognized immediately how important it was.
No wonder no one would tell us where they’d gone. Children didn’t go through the doors. Only my mother and some of the women. The rekjabrel and other servants, they went in and out all the time. But a lot of times they came back crying or hurt, so we understood the doors led to a terrible place. And yet Hestar had gone and returned, beaming.
“Was it terrible? Were you scared? Did Kral go, too?”
Hestar nodded, solemnly. “We were brave boys though. And it’s not like here. There aren’t the lagoons and it’s not as warm. They took us to a library and we met Ser Llornsby. We looked at pictures and learned animal names.”
I couldn’t bring myself to ask what a library might be. I wanted to look at pictures and learn animal names. Though I didn’t know the emotion to name it at the time, a jab of envy lanced through my heart. Hestar and I always had everything the same, only I had the better mother, because she was first wife. It wasn’t fair that Hestar got to go through the doors and learn things without me. An elephant. I whispered the exotic word to myself.
“Elephants are huge and people ride on their backs, and the elephants carry things for them in their trunks.” Hestar continued, full of smug pride. “Ser Llornsby is going to teach me everything I need to know to be emperor someday.”
“Why do you get to be emperor? My mother is first wife. Yours is only second wife. Besides, I’m older.”
Hestar wrinkled his nose at me. “Because you’re a girl. Girls can’t be emperor. Only empress.”
That was true. It was the way of things. “Well then you can be emperor and I can be empress like Mother.”
“All right!” Hestar grinned. “We’ll rule the whole empire and have lots of elephants. Kral and Inga can be our servants.”
For the rest of the day we played emperor and empress. Kral and Inga got mad and decided they would be emperor and empress, too, not listening when we said there could only be one of each and we were firstborn so they had to be our servants. They went off to play their own game, but we got Helva to be in our court, and also her little brothers, Leo and Loke. The boys were identical twins and liked any game they could play together. Baby Harlan could barely toddle, so he stayed with his nurse. Ban went off with Inga, of course, as he followed her everywhere, but her full brother, Mykal came to our side.
We didn’t care, because our court was the biggest. Besides, everyone knew the emperor gets to pick his own empress, and Hestar already promised me I’d be first wife and I could pick his other wives, just like Mother did. Which meant Inga wouldn’t get to be one. Maybe not Helva, either, though I told her she would be.
Mother didn’t much care for Saira and Jilliya, so maybe I wouldn’t have other wives at all. I didn’t need them to be empress.