Author’s Note: I strongly advise not reading this story until you’ve finished The Queen of Rhodia. It contains spoilers for the ending, and might ruin your enjoyment of it.
Content Warnings: Physical abuse by a family member.
LEXANDRIE NEVER thought she’d return to Fialia. At least, not of her own free will. It is a quiet sort of place, cold and provincial, and nobody wants to talk about anything except sheep or their byproducts—wool, cloth, cheese, oil.
Not even her parents care to spend any time at home. They return once a year to review the books and verify that the manor has not burned down in the meantime. Her siblings are gone, all bound to various spouses and temples—save for her eldest brother, Eric, the future Duke. And he has no time for her.
There’s little for Lexandrie to do. There are certainly no suitors. On warm days, she wanders through fields and over stony pathways that she has not explored since childhood. She remembers the names of the wildflowers, taught to her by nursemaids. But she does not pick them, for she is not a child anymore.
On cold days, she sets a game of chess-men and plays against herself. She spices wine and stares into the fire, replaying the events of the last two years in her mind but changing them so that she is the heroic one, the victor, the one they love and praise.
There is a particularly handsome gardener at the manor. She casts doleful smiles at him until he brings her a vase of spring blossoms. He is not terribly witty, but he is honest and warm. He traces her scars with a reverent hand, and the concern in his face is far more painful than the act of receiving them was. It is a little frightening to know that there are still good people in the world.
Her brother finds out. He threatens to break her arm. The gardener is sent away. Lexandrie is not sure if she’s upset or not, but she cries anyway just to pass the time.
She can feel herself aging, and she is disgusted with herself. She always swore she would never grow old. But it seems there is nothing else to do here. She observes her hair and fingernails and imagines she can hear them growing longer.
Still, it’s better than being in Rho Dianae.
It’s better than being within arm’s reach of her queen.
THE COURIER HAS milky skin and her hair is dark, braided, and coiled. Before she even approaches, Lexandrie knows her eyes will be gray.
Even so, Lexandrie does not assume the letter will be for her. Couriers are women—and sometimes neutroi, and occasionally men—of freedom. They cross continents and seas, and their nationality does not always align with the origins of the messages they bear.
But the courier says, “Alixis.” It is the name that the Ieflarian peasants collectively assigned her, and for a moment she is eighteen years old again, standing in the middle of a crowd of chattering farmers and watching as they press flower bouquets into Esofi’s hands. Then the courier corrects herself. “Lexandrie.”
Lexandrie leaves the letter on her desk for an entire day. She cannot imagine what Esofi has to say to her. Except, yes, she can. She certainly can.
But when she approaches the letter the next morning—cautiously, as though it is a viper—she realizes it does not have Esofi’s personal seal, nor the seal of a Rhodian princess. She does not recognize the mark.
Curiosity overtakes fear, and she opens the letter.
SVANA’S HANDWRITING is not as delicate as Lexandrie might have expected. Still, it’s legible. Lexandrie has not spoken in the Ieflarian language for so long, and she struggles at first. But as she reads on it returns to her, first in droplets, and then in waves, and finally a crushing waterfall.
Svana does not write of what happened at Fenstell, or on the Silver Isles. The letter is pleasant, casual. Almost suspiciously so. Lexandrie thinks that perhaps there is some secret to it, some hidden message that, when decoded, would propose a plot to kill the Ieflarian queens-to-be.
But no. Svana’s intentions are simultaneously straightforward and incomprehensible. The twins are back in Valenleht, and their parents have very nearly forgiven them. Svana writes of herself, of the dresses she has commissioned, the parties she has hosted, the gossip she has heard and her opinions of it all—and then she writes of her brother, and the shoes he has commissioned, and his opinions, which usually align with Svana’s own. Lexandrie feels herself smile, imagining herself in Valenleht, surrounded by glittering, laughing nobles.
Then Svana asks, Do you think you might come back?
THERE IS A TEMPLE of Nara not far from the estate. She’s Eleventh here, so her temples are far more common than they were in Ieflaria. Lexandrie meets a priestess on one of her many rambling walks, wingless but still beautiful, with sun-browned skin and flaxen hair.
She teaches Lexandrie the names of the dark songbirds in the fields and whistles their tunes back at them so perfectly that they gather around like stars—or perhaps the opposite of stars, for they are specks of blackness in pale daylight. Her kisses taste like lightning.
Again, her brother finds out. This time he does break her arm, twisting it behind her back until it snaps. The priestess is transferred to another temple in the west, near the border with Eskas.
Eric seems to realize that something must be done to curb Lexandrie’s boredom. He promises to find her a suitor—a husband, naturally. That goes without saying. This is not Ieflaria.
Do you think you might come back?
THE SECOND letter comes from Brandt, six months after the first. He does not mention the one his sister sent, the one Lexandrie never replied to. Perhaps he thinks it never reached her. Or perhaps he simply does not wish to address her rudeness. Either way, Lexandrie is grateful.
Brandt has always been softer than his sister. He writes of Valenleht as though the city is a woman, dressed in early snows and diamond frosts. Midwinter preparations are beginning, and there’s so much to look forward to, light and color and song. He ends his letter with a question that is not a question: I hope you are well?
Lexandrie addresses her reply to both of them. She begins the letter with I am well, and then words fail her.
The silver moon has never felt so cold, so distant. Lexandrie does not miss the Silence, though she would return to it if invited, simply for something to do. But Gaelle rules the Silence just as completely as she rules Rhodia. So perhaps not.
Lexandrie prays for Gaelle to die so that she may return to Rho Dianae before it is too late, before she is a spinster with sixteen cats. She directs the prayer to no particular god, casting it wide for anyone or anything to catch. She does not care if it is Iolar who answers it, or Cytha.
THE SUITOR that Eric has found for her cannot be called handsome, but he is upright and breathing and his parents have titles. He loves to hear himself speak. Lexandrie asks him if he can sing, and he stares at her in confusion.
He does not ask her about her time in Ieflaria, which is a little strange. Most people want to hear about the dragons. But then, he does not ask her about anything at all. She is his audience, not the other way around.
When he is gone, Eric asks her what she thinks. Lexandrie shrugs. She is twenty-two years old. She’d have really liked a husband who could sing. But she’s in no position to be picky.
THE THIRD LETTER comes four months after the second, and only weeks before her wedding. It’s delightful to receive, even though Lexandrie has no idea why the twins are still trying to write to her when she’s not responded to either of their messages after all these months.
This letter is penned by both of them, the handwriting alternating every few paragraphs. She imagines them sitting side by side, passing the page between one another. We hope you are well, say Brandt’s neat, precise letters. You should come to Valenleht, suggest Svana’s sloppy curls. We can’t stand the thought of you living in the same palace as that awful woman.
Lexandrie stares at the line in confusion before she realizes she’s never told them that she’s back in Fialia.
You’ll like Valenleht. It’s far prettier than Birsgen, and the parties are better too. She can practically hear Svana’s voice in that line. You’ve never seen it properly, have you?
Esofi says things are done differently in Rhodia, says Brandt. So differently that she can barely describe them. Or maybe she just doesn’t want to. I don’t think I blame her. I suppose people can tolerate anything if they’ve grown accustomed to it.
But we were stationed with the Rhodian mages, adds Svana. We got a good idea of things, even before Gaelle came to Ieflaria.
You don’t have to live like that, promises Brandt. Not if you don’t want to.
Her wedding dress stands in the corner of the room like some great, looming monster.
Dear Lord Brandt and Lady Svana,
Thank you very much for your thoughtful letters. I apologize for being so hideously slow in my reply. It seems that so much, and yet so little, has happened since I returned to Rhodia.
I’d forgotten how cold the climate is here. That’s a bit foolish, isn’t it? I was barely in Ieflaria for two years. And yet, sometimes I wonder if those two years were longer than the other twenty. In any case, I think you are correct—I will enjoy Valenleht very much. If not for its own merits, then simply because of what it’s come to represent to me.
I do not know what Princess Esofi thinks of me, and I am a little bit afraid to find out. But I expect I shall have to throw myself upon her mercy sooner or later. Perhaps you could ask, in a roundabout sort of way, how she feels? If she is amicable, maybe I will request an audience. Though I do not know what I will say to her. I suppose I have some time to work that out.
But then, Valenleht is a large city. So perhaps I can simply avoid her for the rest of my life? I’m sure you would aid me in that. Though I do not wish to overstay my welcome. Do forgive my rambling; it seems I am a bit overcome.
I hope the courier manages to reach you before I do, so I do not turn up on your doorstep unexpectedly. But the captain says the weather is very good. If we are not delayed too badly by Emperor Ionnes’ warships, you may expect to see me in Port Valenleht ten weeks from the date of this letter, on a ship called The Falcon. I hope, perhaps, that you will meet me there.
Please forgive the marks on this page. I do believe it is starting to rain.
Lexandrie of Fialia