There was a quiet knock at the door.
“Come,” called Cesca brusquely, getting to her feet with a groan, joints aching with age. The guard entered, and bowed, bending at the waist, his sword pulled across. In that position, he spoke. “My lady, there is a Lanceman with a prisoner to see you,” he said, his voice rounded and tight, muffled by his bow.
“Show them in,” Ana said, rising to her feet, regality back in place. She dabbed her kerchief to her face, wiping away the tell-tale glisten of the two tear tracks slashing lines down her face.
The guard rose to bow again, backing out. A moment later, a grimy girl entered, followed by a portly Lanceman-Sergeant, according to the insignia on his chest.
“Kneel,” said the Lanceman, and when the girl did not move, he pressed his boot into the back of her knees, pushing them forward, making her stagger and drop to her knees. He took a bow, sword across, one hand on his chest in greeting.
Ana’s curiosity got the better of her, and she took a step towards the girl, watching the exhaustion and grief carving her face better than any chisel, an odd sense of recognition tugging at her mind. She dismissed it, turning instead to the Lanceman, taking in his face.
“What is your rank and name, Lanceman?”
“Lance-Sergeant Stroman, my lady Elanalivieldera,” he replied, bowing again.
“Why did you bring her here?” Ana asked.
“Shortly before her death, the Queen issued a proclamation that any and all people living outside the city walls on the Plain should be brought to the Palace. This woman was found trying to leave the city, just after Gatefall.”
Cesca, who had crossed to look at the girl, let out a brief exclamation of shock. “The locket!”
The girl watched her warily, pulling out the locket from where it swung on a fine golden chain around her neck. She popped it open, to reveal the miniature portrait of the High Queen Elaynaeldera, smiling beatifically, and, opposite it, two small faces, chubby newborns both and identical in every detail, even the two bronzy circlets atop their tiny heads.
“What is your name, girl?” Cesca asked, her voice barely above a whisper.
“Lyahn, ma’am. Elchalyan.”
The voice made Cesca fall to her knees. Ana staggered backwards as if struck, bearing an expression of utmost shock at the voice, so similar to her own as if to be identical. And then she took in the face properly, at last: it was the face that looked back at her in the silver-glass every morning, the face that graced posters hung around the city. Her face.
“It cannot be!” breathed Cesca.
“Who is she, Cesca? Why does she wear my face, my voice?” The tone of panic in her voice was barely concealed, her regality fading fast.
“She is your sister, Ana. The Crown Princess Elchalyahneldera.”
“You can’t be!”
“My name is just Elchalyahn, my lady. I had no parents. I was raised on the streets of the undercity. I’m not anything to do with any of the Noble Houses!” The girl sounded impassioned, reminding Ana oddly of herself.
“Cesca! What’s … what’s going on?”
“You are twins… Lyahn, only a few minutes older than you. It nearly killed Elayn, having both of you. You were both healthy babies, then, almost a month later, Lyahn was stolen. We never knew by who,” said Cesca, dreamily, remembering the time, years ago.
“I remember people when I was really young… they kept calling themselves the Elilith.” “The Queen-breakers?” translated Ana, murmuring perplexing.
“As near as I hear it, my lady,” said Cesca, her High Kihedran more finely honed than Ana’s. “They were anti-monarchy. They wanted Kihedra to be ruled by a dictator, an overlord of the city, hiking taxes to benefit only the Elilith. They wanted to kill the Queen, to destroy the Shining Crown.”
“You’re lying,” said Ana. “You’re lying!”
“I wish I were, my lady,” said Lyahn, head hung low.
“You’re an assassin sent by another house to finish me and shunt the Crown to another house!” With each word, Ana’s stance became tenser and tenser, tighter and more focussed, and her voice became more and more certain, dominant, vicious.
“Ana, be careful!” Cesca stood taller, trying to interpose herself between the two women, one standing tall and proud, the other looking dejected.
“No! NO! NO!” Ana screamed. “Cesca, move!”
There was a dangerous hiss of metal on leather, as Ana slid both her daggers free of their holsters at her hip, holding them ready before her.
“I call e’hirrim on the impostor! Bear witness!”
“Elanalivieldera!” Cesca’s cry was as loud and sharp as Ana’s.
“No, Cesca! MOVE!”
Without waiting for an answer, she lunged forward at the girl before her, knives outstretched.
Lyahn looked up at last, to see Ana charging towards her, irrationality in her eyes clouding her judgement. With a tiny half-smile, she swayed, stepped, danced, as Ana passed, letting the other woman – no, she thought, her sister – meet nothing but air, and clipping her foot just enough to cause her stride to falter.
“You’ve evidently never been in a knife-fight before, have you?” asked Lyahn, sounding sharp, confident. “I have. I have fought off dozens of armed men, knives glistening like the crown you should be wearing… and look at me. No missing head, no missing limbs, not a major injury on me.”
“SHUT UP!” howled Ana.
“I will keep talking until you cease to attack me, little sister,” said Lyahn calmly, making Ana’s fury even more blinding.
She watched as Ana slashed one knife, supporting the blade with the pommel of the other, a traditional and easily blocked motion, and with a quick slip of the hand, and another easy step to the side, Lyahn broke her grip, and once again let her meet air.
“You need to feel that your life is in danger before the forms you have learned become natural,” said Lyahn. “Why don’t we make you feel that danger?”
Quick as lightning, Lyahn darted forward, unarmed hands flattening, stiffening. She jabbed, twice, meeting flesh and bone both times, each time making Ana cry out in pain.
With a quick peppering of blows to the body, precisely placed, she left one of Ana’s arms useless by her side, the broad blade clattering to the floor.
“Have you studied advanced dagger-work, my lady? One blade at a time?”
“No,” hissed Ana, pain blurring her vision as strongly as fury.
“Perhaps you would like to cede the e’hirrim?”
“NO!” barked Ana.
“In that case, learn quickly,” sneered Lyahn, gloating somewhat, as she smoothly flipped the blade from her foot to her hand, hilt meeting palm with a fleshy smack that made her feel alive and aglow again.
The two blades met with a harshly musical chiming, and then, as smoothly as two dancers, they stepped to and fro, blades flickering, clashing, clanging.
“Guards! Arrest her!” cried Ana.
Both the Lanceman and the guard started forward, and without looking, Lyahn tossed the dagger between her legs, caught it, and laid a fast, slashing blow across the chest of both men, just close enough to draw a razor-thin line of blood. There was something of a sense of cold precision about the woman, her hair tossing and fluttering as she moved,
“I would never kill my own sister!” screamed Lyahn, her hair flying as she spun, meeting the sluggishly descending blade, and with a scream of metal scraping, forced the tip down to the ground. She waited a moment, then released it, slipping the blade into the blade-grabber at her waist. She turned, walking towards Cesca, who shrank back in terror.
“My lady,” she said, bowing formally to the elderly woman, who stared back at her, terrified.
Behind her, Ana’s eyes zeroed in on the unprotected body bowing to the matron, and with startling speed, brought her blade up to a fighting position again.
Lyahn straightened, rolling her eyes. “Some people never learn, my lady,” she said, exasperatedly, spinning, and with a sizzlingly fast blow, knocked the blade out of Ana’s hand, leaving her to nurse a suddenly violently shaken hand.
“Please, my lady, please, just listen to me. Kill me later, or throw me out, or lock me up, but please, just listen!”
Ana stood, breathing heavily, glaring at her. Behind her, both the Lanceman and the guard stood, staring in shock at the girl.
“I can almost feel you, standing there in front of me. I know where you are… I always have. It feels like a little tugging, just here,” she placed her hand over her heart, “and I know you must be able to feel the same thing. Just close your eyes, push all your thoughts and emotions out of your mind, breathe, reach towards me, feel towards me…”
Ana closed her eyes, one hand outstretched, and for a moment, there was silence, perfect motionless silence.
With a gasp, she opened her eyes. “I can feel you! You’re … you’re there! And, and, and…” She stuttered to a halt. “You are my sister.”
“All I am is a servant, my lady. I run errands for nobles,” murmured Lyahn, her self-assuredness fading away again.
“You’re so much more than that, my lady,” said Ana, kneeling.
Lyahn shook her head. “Get up, little sister. I’m not your lady,” she said, but as Ana did not move, she kneeled too, to gently lift Ana’s face to hers. “I’ve had years to meditate on what I can feel… I can see your emotions sometimes, when you’re angry, when you’re sad, when you’re happy.”
She pulled the other woman to her feet, and wrapped a gentle hug around her, resting her chin on the top of Ana’s shoulder blade.
They stood like that for a few minutes, catching up on nineteen years apart, forgiving each other for all the life-changing moments they spent apart.
“My lady,” began Ana, at last.
“No more ‘my lady’, please, my sister,” Lyahn murmured back.
Ana began again. “Lyahn,” she whispered, feeling the name in her mouth, a name that should have been plastered across her lips for the last two decades. “Lyahn, our mother is dead.”
Lyahn stiffened, momentarily.
“The Queen is dead, and now I’m supposed to have the crown, the throne… but I can’t,” said Ana, quietly, peacefully, then she sniffed. “She was one of the finest queens our city has ever had, and I can’t possibly take her place.”
“I’m sorry, Ana.”
“Please, big sister…” She paused, feeling yet another unspoken word un-rusting itself from her mouth. “You have always been first in line to the throne. Please, take it.”
Lyahn pulled back, slowly, and Ana saw the expression on her face: hunted, panicked. “I… I’m not… I’ve, I’ve got no idea what I’d do, Ana. I can’t do it.”
She turned, trying to pull free of the embrace, but her sister held her close.
“Lyahn, please,” she begged, the plea choking in her throat.
“I can’t be in power,” Lyahn whispered, and turned and ran.
Ana stood there, stunned, staring at the doorway that Lyahn had just disappeared into, hearing her footsteps thudding quietly down the stairs, feeling like a part of herself was pulling away –
“Find her, get her some nice chambers, and dinner, now!”
The guard looked puzzled, but at a firm glare and sharp gesture, he bowed deeply, turned, and jogged out.
Cesca moved to Ana’s side, gnarled hand resting atop an arm with a thin patina with sweat. “Was that such a good idea, my dear?”
Ana looked down at her matron, who looked suddenly, unnaturally, old and shrunken; her usually firm if light voice had picked up a worrying, quavery tone.
“I don’t know. But she’s now my only hope.”