Tomboy 19-year-old Daneli doesn’t get along with her mother. She’d rather be riding her horse or perfecting her archery skills than wearing finery and ordering servants around. But as the eldest daughter of House Trageri, Daneli inherits long-standing tensions and a seemingly impossible mission: to create peace between her cooperative, matriarchal nation and the violent, fiercely hierarchical patriarchy to the north. First, she must undergo an arduous training process, then pass a series of tests in order to become Queen. With the help of ten hand-picked spouses of both genders, along with her secret Gift, she must face her greatest challenge: preventing her country from falling into chaos just as a strange spaceship arrives to her country.
Chapter 1: The Northern Court
Daneli stood still and straight, and quieted her mind. The distractions and conflict of the last hour drifted away as she looked straight at the target. As she let the first arrow fly, she felt time slow, and she kept track of the arrow to see whether she needed to nudge it in one direction or another. These days, she rarely did. Before that arrow finished its journey, she had already drawn the next, and pulled the bow back. As the first arrow buried itself deeply in the target with a loud “cthunk,” she let the second arrow fly, which split the shaft of first in half.
Her mentor, Master Garliri, had made a drunken bet last night with some of the Castle guard. His bet: that Daneli could do better than their best archer at making the target with three arrows. That archer had put three arrows inside the bulls eye, so she needed to do better. She dropped her arm with the bow, just before the third arrow split the second shaft in half.
She looked up to see Garliri beaming at her, and the group of guardsmen fishing in their pockets for coins, some with scowls on their faces.
“Well, My Lady, you certainly have proved yourself quite the archer.”
“Garliri, you have taught me well.”
He laughed. “Indeed I have.” The guardsmen handed over the coins, which looked to Daneli like five coins of silver. A hefty bet to lose, Daneli thought, although she imagined Master Garliri could afford to lose more easily than the guardsmen.
Daneli heard the guardsmen’s minds, and along with thoughts of anger at having lost the bet there were thoughts of disgust that a young woman should be able to beat their best archer. She discarded the thoughts, and walked toward the stable where her mare was. A good ride would make her feel better.
She didn’t know why she agreed to participate in the silly bet. Knowing that she was the best archer in Castle Trevalian didn’t really make her feel good; it made her feel as isolated and alienated as she always felt.
Galinsa nickered as Daneli came close. Daneli led her out of the stall and saddled her. She didn’t know exactly where she would ride this afternoon, but she knew she needed to get away from the castle.
She mounted Galinsa, and nudged her away from the stables and toward the south entrance to the castle. As she rode past the guard at the entrance, she sensed hatred coming her way, which she did her best to ignore as she greeted the guards on her way out. As soon as she could, she encouraged Galinsa into a gallop, and rode through the farmland toward the forest.
It seemed that the forest was always her refuge. She’d been coming here since she was first allowed to ride outside of the castle by herself, and she had a particular copse of trees that she liked to find shelter in. Before they entered the forest, she slowed Galinsa down, dismounted, and tied her reins to the saddle. Her horse started to graze.
“Stay here, Galinsa. I’m going into the forest for a little while.”
She walked toward a copse of trees on the edge of the forest, and sat down with her back to her favorite tree, watching Galinsa graze, and pondering her life. In one month, she would be on her way to the Warani Winter Palace far up north, to spend two months at court with her father, mother, sister, and both brothers. It would be her first time at court with the Royal Family. She hated going to court in general—all of the courts she’d been to over the years at this duchy, or that barony, had been stuffy and boring. But she knew it was necessary to show her face again before she settled in Trageri, her true home country, permanently.
She thought back on her last visit to Trageri. She remembered her conversation with Queen Raliro, who had explained to Daneli that diplomacy between Trageri and the Northern kingdom of Warani was essential, and that as the Queen’s potential heir, she needed to continue to forge relationships that would help Warani and Trageri remain at peace.
“We need to begin to look at Warani as allies. I have hopes that the peace agreement that brought your mother and father together is lasting. If that is so, you’ll need to know who your friends are. You, Daneli, and your siblings, are the keys. Born of both Warani and Trageri.”
“But Queen Raliro, I already know that many in Warani don’t like my father much, and don’t like me or my siblings. They feel like we stole Castle Trevalian, and the name, and aren’t really of Warani.”
“I know that, child, but you will find that many there are weary of war, and will wish to make allegiances. And you need to be open to them. Having some friendships will help hold the peace. Please try your best.”
Daneli had promised to do her best, and she had, for the Queen. And she would see how this played out at court. She drifted off to sleep, and was awoken some time later by Galinsa’s wet tongue on her cheek. She saw the sun low in the western horizon and she realized that if she didn’t get back soon, she’d be late for dinner.
A month later, Daneli was running late, again. Master Maxi had promised the pantaloons would be done hours ago, but here he was, doing the last minute stitching on the last pair while she was in them. Luckily, almost everything was packed, and, of course, the entourage up to the Winter Palace wouldn’t leave without her. Daneli was looking forward to the trip, although not at all to the destination.
“Ouch! Maxi, you stuck me!”
“I’m so sorry, Sulea Daneli. I’m almost done, I promise.”
She really couldn’t complain. He had done a wonderful job of creating clothes that split the difference between her preferred Trageri Southern style, and the more formal Warani gowns that Northern women wore at court. Her mother, of course, had insisted that Daneli wear Northern-style gowns, and even went so far as having her tailor make some, but Daneli had refused them, and her father had supported her. She was sorry that she’d not get to wear the standard Trageri formal attire to court, but at least these pantaloons wouldn’t make her feel silly.
She heard her mother’s thoughts in her head before she heard the slam of a door, and looked up to see her walking in, face screwed up as she looked at Daneli. Daneli was used to the litany of thoughts from her mother, and it was a good thing that she only verbalized a part of it. Daneli wondered what her mother would think if she knew that Daneli could hear almost everything she thought while near her. Daneli put her filters up, not wanting to hear anymore.
“Daneli, I wish you had listened to me. You will be the talk of the court—and I don’t mean in a nice way.”
Daneli’s mother had a way of saying her name that de-emphasized the long ‘ee’ of the ending. Sort of like “Danel-eh”. Because she was the daughter of a Trageri man, he had named her, and he chose a name with an ending that Northerners saw as masculine, but there was no such Southern convention. Daneli was the name of her father’s favorite parent, a woman that Daneli had sadly not been able to meet—she had been killed while fighting in the War of the Forest, twenty-three years ago—four years before she was born.
“Mother, please. We have talked about this over and over for years. Can you let it rest? I chose the Trageri path years ago, and have agreed to the Tala Shari. There isn’t anything else to say. It is a concession that I didn’t order Southern-style attire to wear to court.”
“I can hardly imagine that Southern attire would shock the court more than this!” Her mother looked disdainfully at the beautiful pantaloons that Maxi had made. Daneli looked down at the pair she was wearing. The fabric was a gorgeous azure blue, with small flecks of gold and gold trim. The legs of this particular pair were narrower than the others, but it was still hard to tell that Daneli wasn’t wearing a skirt if her legs were somewhat together. It certainly fell far short of the voluminous gowns that her mother preferred, but it was comfortable for her, and she loved the colors and style.
“My Lady Daneli, I’m all finished.” Maxi, or more properly, Master Maxi Garela Eta, never called her “My Lady” except in the presence of her mother or other Warani nobles. Calling Daneli by her proper honorific, “Sulea” would be impolitic, and Daneli understood that many staff in Castle Trevalian who came from Trageri had to tread carefully in the presence of her Warani mother. Daneli called him Maxi mostly, but sometimes she would properly address him as Master Maxi, but never in the presence of her mother.
“Thank you Maxi. These are wonderful. I hope that you have a fabulous winter holiday season at House Trageri. I’ll see you in the spring.” She looked at Maxi, and could see his face fall, and his dark mustache twitched just a little. She realized that he’d miss her. Maxi was not only her tailor, but also one of her teachers. She would miss him too. “And I won’t forget the homework you gave me.”
“That is good, My Lady. There is still much for you to learn…” He added in thought, “… before you return home for the Tala Shari.” The home he was referring to wasn’t Castle Trevalian, where she grew up.
He bowed, and walked out of the room. Her mother still stood a few feet from her.
“Mother, I’ll be ready in just a few minutes. I have to change into my traveling clothes, and put the rest of these clothes into the chest. I’ll bring the chest…”
“You will do no such thing. I will send Jema into the room to bring out the chest after you’ve finished.”
This was yet another of many points of contention. Between Daneli’s self-sufficient nature, and Trageri tradition that nobility did not have servants, she hated the Northern way where everything possible was done by servants. Her mother even had servants dress her! Daneli shuddered. Her mother twirled on her heel, and walked back out of Daneli’s rooms.
Daneli shucked the pantaloons and formal shirt, and carefully folded them and placed them along with the others in her chest. She put on her favorite traveling pants—they were soft suede with a silk lining. She put on a light undershirt, a heavy tunic, and a suede vest on top. She put on her riding moccasins. She closed the chest, grabbed her bow and slung it over her shoulder, and buckled her quiver to her back. She slid her dagger into its scabbard at her waist, and picked up her small leather saddle bag. After a moment’s thought, she placed the saddle bag on top of the chest, and picked up the chest to bring it out to the carriages.
Jema saw her as she rounded the corner of the hallway with her rooms.
“My Lady, let me take that from you! You know your mother will have a fit if she sees you carrying it.”
“Alright, Jema. It’s heavy, though.”
“If it’s too heavy for me, My Lady, I’ll find a squire, don’t you worry.”
Daneli dropped the chest, grabbed her saddle bag, and kept walking through the front halls of the castle and out into the courtyard, where there was some amount of chaos. She looked for her horse, and failed to find her. She found Henri, the stable-master, who was busy harnessing the horses for her mother’s carriage.
“Henri, where’s Galinsa?”
“My Lady, your mother insisted that you would be riding in carriage this trip.”
“No, Henri. I will not be riding in the carriage, since I have to travel south after the court season. I’ll go get Galinsa myself. You look busy.”
She turned and walked toward the stables before she could hear Henri complain. He would complain, of that she was sure. Daneli was seething inside. It didn’t seem to matter how petty, or how small—her mother was going to try her best to shape Daneli into the woman that her mother wanted her to be, and Daneli couldn’t figure out why her mother hadn’t figured out that it was futile.
She walked into the stall with Galinsa, her mare. Galinsa was only three, and could ride faster than any horse she’d ever had. When she rode Galinsa, she felt as if they were one. Galinsa looked at her, and neighed lightly, as if in reproach. Daneli gently stroked her head, and scratched behind her ear.
“I’m sorry, love, they don’t know what they are doing.” Daneli led Galinsa out of her stall, and saddled her. She put some carrots and apples in a small canvas bag, along with a bit of grain, and mounted Galinsa, and they trotted out to the courtyard.
“Daneli! Put your horse back in the stable this minute! You are to ride in the carriage!” Her mother had her seemingly permanent look of outrage, but this time her face was suffused with red. Daneli ignored her, turned Galinsa, and rode to the front of the caravan, where her teacher Master Garliri was. She saw her father ride back to the carriage, and he smiled at her as he passed. She imagined he was smoothing her mother’s ruffled feathers. She pulled Galinsa up alongside of Garliri and his horse.
“Master Garliri, will my mother ever stop trying?”
He laughed. “No, Sulea. She will not. I’m betting that when she’s on her death bed, and you’ve ruled Trageri for years, she’ll still be upset at you for wearing pants!”
It always made her uncomfortable to be reminded of the possibility, or in Master Garliri’s mind, the probability, that she would rule someday. She’d chosen to undergo the Tala Shari test, so she knew her future. But it still made her uneasy.
“Ho!” She heard the captain’s voice from a little bit behind her. She turned to see him signaling that they should start. The two horses ahead of them, carrying a squire and a member of the guard, started forward, and they followed, walking their horses at a pace that Daneli wished were faster.
Daneli loved to travel. The trip from Castle Trevalian to the Warani Winter Palace took about 5 days or so, depending on the pace. As they moved forward, Daneli looked back to see the caravan. It was surprisingly large. The amazing thing was that it was really only to bring her family to the Winter Court. If she’d had her druthers… Well, there was no point in dwelling on that. The servants and guards that were deemed necessary for such a trip seemed excessive to her, but it was Northern custom.
“So, Sulea, I have been told by Master Maxi that you’ve been doing quite well in your history lessons.”
“I like history, Master Garliri.”
“As much as you like archery?”
Daneli smiled. Master Garliri was her weapons teacher, and he had been the first to teach her the bow and arrow when she was eight. She eagerly took to it, and Garliri insisted that she was now the best archer in all of Castle Trevalian. She had even proved it.
“Well, honestly, I do like the bow a bit better.”
“I thought so. Tell me, what have you learned lately from Master Maxi that you find most interesting?”
“The most recent thing we’ve been talking about is the history of Castle Trevalian.”
“What about it is interesting?”
“Well, I’m trying to figure out why father took the name for our family. It seems that the Trevalians had been nothing but trouble for our country, and particularly for our House.”
“Sulea Daneli, your father did not choose to take the Trevalian name—it was imposed upon him, as part of the agreement between King Holei Roqui and Queen Fero.”
Daneli knew some of the story, but hearing this made her realize there was more to learn. Twenty-three years ago, the Northern kingdom of Warani and the southern country of Trageri were again at war, as they had been many times over more than two hundred years, and they had reached a stalemate. Trageri had succeeded in capturing Castle Trevalian, one of the southernmost castles in Warani. The Trageri forces were surrounded and under siege, and Trageri suggested an agreement or truce. In Warani, that was most often accomplished by marriage, and Trageri agreed.
Duke Trevalian, who had been a hero in a past war with Trageri, had been killed along with his two sons in the battle to take his Castle. His wife and daughter survived. The agreement between Warani and Trageri was that Jorli, the eldest son of House Trageri, should be married to Kilea, the surviving Trevalian daughter. These were her parents, the current Duke and Duchess Trevalian.
King Holei Roqui died a few years later, and was succeeded by his eldest son, Holei Gasri. Queen Fero retired, and was succeeded by Raliro, her father’s sibling, eldest daughter of House Trageri. Daneli was the eldest daughter of House Trageri in her generation, and even though she didn’t grow up there, and her father didn’t traditionally marry in Southern style, she had been given the title of Eldest. She had had spent a lot of time with her Southern siblings in House Trageri. Her own brothers and sister had split their chosen affiliations. Her eldest brother, heir to the Ducal throne, officially affiliated himself with Warani, as did her younger sister. Her younger brother had just returned from a visit to the House, and would return there when he came of age.
She always had to be careful around Northerners when she spoke of siblings. In the South, siblings were not all related by blood.
Daneli brought her mind back to the issues at hand. “That agreement was also what allowed me to be autonomous, and be in the Trageri line of succession?”
“Yes, Trageri insisted that any female offspring of a Warani-Trageri marriage must be allowed autonomy. Warani wanted to know that female offspring would have influence in the South. Your mother, of course, didn’t like that part of the agreement.”
“Yes, I know. Somehow she thinks that her own status is connected to whether or not I affiliate with Warani. She’d never actually say that to me, of course. Why does she think that, Garliri?”
“I’m not exactly sure, Sulea. I’ve lived in Warani now for almost twenty years, and there are still many things that confuse me. Your mother was basically forced to marry your father and bear his children. You’d think that she would be happy to know that her daughters need not share the same fate.”
They rode on a while in silence, while Daneli pondered this question, and others related to her status in life.