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The year Mally turned five was the most exciting of her life, and quite honestly, she was always grateful that nothing that followed it had ever really compared.

It was such a torz stereotype, she knew, she should almost be ashamed to espouse it. But while she didn’t necessarily mind upheaval, action, excitement, or danger, she was much happier when life was calmer, more peaceful. When her days had a routine that she could expect and predict and act accordingly on.

Boring, some might say, but not for her. Even if she wasn’t the heir to the torz prime—even if her father wasn’t the son of the sweela prime—even if her mother’s lover and siblings’ father wasn’t cousin to the queen of Cozique—even if her mother didn’t work for the king—even if she didn’t spend her days surrounded by the bustle of important people making important decisions—well, all of those people were people she loved, all of the work important to her. Even if, to the world at large, they meant absolutely nothing, they would mean everything to her. Why would she ever want anything else?

 

Mally clearly remembered meeting Chandran—he was at the center of the upheaval of the most exciting year of her life, after all—but she barely remembered what her life was like without him in it.

Ever since he and Leah figured things out, he had been as much of a father to her as her own (even more so, in some ways, given that she actually lived in his household), but she’d always simply called him Chandran, and he’d never objected. He’d never treated her any differently than his own children, and she’d always believed that he loved her just as much (and that she, in turn, loved him just as much as Kiran or Marzanna did).

It hadn’t always been easy for their little family to come together, of course, though the two new children certainly helped in creating a new, cohesive unit. Before then, there was a subtle little strain that Mally, in her youth, barely noticed until it had been relieved, not recognizing until the presence of ease was in her life just how much she had missed it. After Mally’s kidnapping and the revelation of her role as heir to the torz prime, the exhale after the resolution to all the tension and conflict had carried everyone through for months, but the truth was that it had taken some adjustment for all of them to share Mally, for her to balance all of the demands on her attention. Taro needed time to start training her, and he overwhelmingly preferred to do so on his estate; the king wanted Mally to make regular appearances at court, more and more the older she became, which required her to socialize with the primes and their families, as well as any visiting foreign royals or diplomats (especially representatives of Chandran’s family, once those relations became firmly established). She wanted to spend time with both of her large and sprawling families and all of her friends, and Leah, of course, wanted to have as much of Mally as possible, to make up for the years of complete absence.

Of all of the demands on her time (though she rarely truly saw them as such; obligations, certainly, but ones that were born of affection or duty, both things Mally took seriously and didn’t mind fulfilling), Mally’s mother, to her mind, was always the most urgent, the most legitimate. The one that took precedence over all others. Mally had not once ever truly lacked for affection or love, not even in the motherless first few years of her life, but she had frequently imagined what it might be like to have a mother. Of course she had.

The reality of Leah was, in some ways, very different than her fantasies; she had always imagined it would bring her life more peace to have a mother, that it would make things even more settled, and instead everything had become a thousand times more complicated, and she had always imagined her mother as a calming force, a source of reassurance and stability—much like her great-aunt Virrie—whereas Leah, inexperienced at being a mother (inexperienced with stability in and of itself) often faltered, sometimes let impatience and temper overcome her, still found herself learning every day, even years into having the care and keeping of Mally. And in some ways, it was exactly the same: Mally had imagined a resemblance so strong it was undeniable, and she’d gotten that; she had imagined a love so absolute, so thorough, so pure and all-consuming that nothing could shake it, and the reality had been even stronger than she could possibly have thought of herself.

She had known that were she ever to meet her mother again, it would feel like a missing part of herself returning to her heart, rendering it whole again—it would feel like belonging, so right it would make her heart sing. But she hadn’t known that she would have the gift of feeling connection through flesh, the ring of resonance, of shared origin, of family—her own skin singing with recognition, with certainty, I came from her, I am hers—that the power that ran through her veins would enhance the love she felt, already so overwhelming she sometimes felt she might drown in it.

She touched Leah as often as possible—crawling into her lap, embracing her, resting her head on Leah’s shoulder or in the crook of her arm, leaning her cheek against Leah’s, taking her hand—loving the rush of warmth, of familiarity it always gave her. Leah never objected; she seemed to want to hold Mally as often as possible, too, as if to remind herself that her daughter was real. When they were together, even in a room full of people, it was as if they existed in their own sphere: mother and daughter, in a world of their own, so perfect nothing could piece its tranquility.

Though it wasn’t always easy. There was a period of adjustment, of uncertainty—of Leah in turns erring on the side of overprotective or distant, of Mally chafing under the presence of a new adult in her life whose wishes for her superceded all others—and the turning point came when Mally was eight, and Leah and Chandran told her, expressions caught directly between tentative uncertainty and purest joy, that they were expecting a child.

Mally was delighted, of course; she loved children, and the newest Lalindar baby was just emerging from his infancy. She would have a new one to spoil just in time, and this one would be hers as no other child had been. She would have more of a claim to this one. She would be able to touch this one and feel recognition, to know that they had come from the same place. A sibling. She could hardly wait.

Both Chandran and Leah had been surprised but pleased by her reaction, and the three of them had celebrated that night; they were the only ones who knew, so far, and they would make the appropriate announcements to everyone else over the next several days. For now, though, the news—and the joy—was theirs alone, that their little family would be growing by another member.

It wasn’t until later that night, when Mally woke and found herself hungry, sneaking down to the kitchen for a small snack, when she heard, from the kierten, the sound of soft, muffled crying.

She was stunned and alarmed to see her mother curled up against the wall, her face pressed to her knees, and rushed over. “Mama?” she asked, quiet and concerned. She often called Leah by her name, but she had been trying the more affectionate word out from time to time; now, it seemed like it was merited. “Are you all right? Is something wrong? Is it the baby?”

Leah started upward, one arm automatically reaching for Mally as the other hand moved to wipe the tears off of her face. “No,” she said, her voice muffled, “no, darling, everything is fine. The baby is fine. I—I’m only—”

And she hesitated, looking down at Mally; Mally looked back, solemnly. She could tell, both from the expression on her mother’s face and the emotions she could sense held against her body, that something was wrong, and that Leah was unsure of whether she should share it. The two of them had always spoken more openly than Mally had imagined ever speaking to her mother; she’d never seen a child comforting a parent, listening to their problems and responding in kind. She had always thought it went only in one direction, and was surprised by how much she appreciated the reciprocity in her relationship with Leah. The thought that she could help her mother as her mother often helped her.

She didn’t know if it was because they had met each other several years later than most parents and children, or if it was because they had been through such an alarming and dangerous time together. But either way, she hoped her mother would be honest with her now. She hoped she would trust her.

And, much to Mally’s relief, she did, slumping back against the wall and closing her eyes. “I’m scared,” she said softly. “I remember how scared I was when I found out I was having you.” She kept her hand in Mally’s, squeezing gently, reminding her that she didn’t feel that way anymore—that she wasn’t going anywhere. Mally knew that, of course, but she appreciated the reminder. “And this is different. I know it is. My life is completely different, and Chandran is a completely different man. I’m a different woman. But I don’t want to make any of the same mistakes.”

“You won’t,” Mally said, soft and sure. “I know you won’t. You’re going to stay here, and you’re going to raise the baby, and we’re all going to help. And even if you do make mistakes—everything will turn out all right. It did the first time. We still have each other, now. And we always will.”

Leah’s eyes, when she opened them, were bright with unshed tears, but she was smiling as she looked at Mally, the love on her face so overwhelming Mally could never have mistaken it. “We will,” she said, and though there was a tremble in her voice, her grip as she gathered Mally to her in an embrace was strong and sure.

“You’re the best mother anyone could wish for,” Mally told her, and though the words were muffled into Leah’s shoulder, she was sure she heard and understood them. “To me—and you will be to the baby, too.”

Leah let out a muffled sound into Mally’s own hair, not quite a sob, and held her a little more tightly. “Thank you, darling,” she said softly, then—after a moment—gently detached Mally from her, stroking her hair back from her face, looking down at her with a more settled, if more quizzical, expression. “You’re… all right with this?” she said, tentatively. “With the baby. You’re happy about it?”

“Of course,” Mally said instantly, as sure of her answer as she was confused as to why the question was being asked at all. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

Leah laughed a little, the sound more surprised than anything else. “I spoke to several other mothers,” she said, “when I was first—thinking about becoming one again. And many of them said that sometimes… adding a second child into a home can be difficult. That the first child is used to having all of the attention and can sometimes be jealous that the baby will be taking more of it away from their parents. Your friend Celia isn’t particularly happy about her new brother, for instance.”

This was certainly true; Celia, who was hardly the best-behaved child for all she was a princess, hadn’t at all been happy about the new addition to her family last year, though she now loved her baby brother and was fiercely protective of him, as much as a five-year-old could be.

But Mally shook her head. “No,” she said firmly. “I don’t feel that way. I love babies. I know they’ll need more attention than I do. I’m going to help you give it. Maybe you’ll be jealous that I’ll be paying more attention to the baby than to you.”

Leah laughed again, clearly taking this for the piece of silliness it was, drawing Mally close to her for another hug. Mally tucked her head against Leah’s shoulder and added, “And besides, I know you’ll always love me best.”

She felt the exhale of a sigh against her hair, then a kiss being pressed to it. “I hope that won’t be true,” Leah murmured. “I hope I’ll love you and the baby—and any other children I might have after—just the same. I hope I’ll be just as good of a mother to all of you. But I’ll have always loved you longest.”

“Well, that’s almost as good,” Mally said firmly, and Leah laughed again, and Mally was asleep before Leah had even carried her all the way back up to her room.

And six months later, they welcomed baby Kiran into the world, and Mally was sure that Leah and Chandran had always loved both of them (and Marzanna, when she came along two years later), just the same—just as much as she loved her little siblings. That was, after all, what it meant to be a family.

 

Mally’s families—both of them—were large and sprawling, and sometimes seemed to encompass everyone she knew. But after her immediate family members, her favorite adult by far was unrelated to her at all: Zoe Lalindar, mother of her dearest friend, the king’s consort, and the coru prime.

Mally interacted with all of the primes on a regular basis, naturally; she spent most of her time in Chialto, and if she wasn’t at court, she was visiting one of the families, or they were visiting her family, so she knew all of them well. She adored her grandfather and great-uncle, of course, and though she was desperately intimidated by Mirti Serlast, she found the older woman’s straightforward bluntness, in a world of politics requiring elliptical speaking and double meanings she was forced to try navigating at too young of an age, deeply appealing. And it was impossible to truly dislike Kayle Dochenza—to be bewildered by him, certainly, to find him strange and a little alarming (all of which she was, and did), but not, she thought, to dislike him.

Zoe, though, had been in Mally’s life from the beginning, and she was young enough to serve as a role model rather than an older near-familial figure in Mally’s life. She had always been a little in awe of Zoe, because she was so unconventional, yet so capable—no one could deny she was an excellent prime, for all that she had been raised in a manner completely counterintuitive to the role, and when it came time for her husband to be crowned, she stepped into the role of consort (for she couldn’t be named queen, not in her role as prime) so well, even Mally, barely old enough to fully comprehend what ruling a country could mean, couldn’t fail to be impressed.

Through the years, she met a slow flood of foreign dignitaries—from Soeche-Tas, Malinqua, Berringey, Dhonsho, and even Chandran’s family in Cozique (those relations came slowly, and it took time for them to be established, and even then Mally was sure she’d never consider them truly family, not the way she did her blood relations—not the way she did Chandran). And with each new representative or member of the royal family she added to her acquaintance, she also added the certainty that Welce’s royalty was by far the best among them. Certainly the former queens weren’t her favorite people—no one liked Alys, of course, and Elidon’s implacability and Seterre’s frivolousness both grated on her, and though she would always be fond of her false mother Romelle, she was more than realistic about her flaws—but Darien was the fairest and the smartest person she’d ever met, and Zoe the woman she most wanted to be like. She had gotten lucky to be able to not only live under their rule, but to spend time with them, to let them help mold her into the person she would become—a person who would help and serve them, once she was old enough to do so. She looked forward to it more every day.

And, of course, they had produced her best friend. Such an important, personal role in Mally’s life could never be overlooked.

Of course Mally had not known Celia her entire life—there was a difference of nearly four years between them—but it often felt that way. She had certainly known Celia nearly the entirety of her life: remembered holding her as a baby, feeding her, calming her when she cried, helping to teach her to speak and walk. As Celia grew older, they had become more and more on equal footing, less a protector and her charge and more true friends—running around at whichever house they found themselves, playing with rocks or blocks or dolls, climbing trees, splashing around in rivers, learning court lessons, drawing blessings (always at least one coru for Celia and at least one torz for Mally, much to their families’ delight).

By the time Celia was old enough to be present in regular court life in Chialto, she and Mally were spending most of their time with one another; as the eldest princess and the heir to the torz prime, both of them needed plenty of preparation for their important roles in Welchin society. It helped that their families were connected to almost everyone important, and that their mothers were friends; it simply made sense to teach them new languages and foreign customs and courtly manners together, though Mally’s studies were, by necessity, a little more advanced. (She never minded sharing with Celia, though, even if those lessons were more remedial for her. The two of them had different strengths—Celia was better at languages, while Mally was better at remembering details. Celia was a quicker natural learner, while Mally was a harder worker. They were water and earth, and they complemented one another perfectly; Mally kept Celia grounded, while Celia reminded Mally to have fun.)

She could tell it pleased both of their mothers, that they had always gotten along so well (both of them wanted their children to have friends, the close relationships that both of them had lacked, for so much of their own lives), but even if it hadn’t, Celia would still have been Mally’s best friend.

Celia had been there for all of the biggest moments of Mally’s life (even the earliest times of upheaval, the ones she had been too young to remember): her first visits to court, the birth of her siblings, her first meeting with her father’s family. And she had been there for Celia, in turn: through the birth of her siblings, her first visits to court (Mally guiding her every step of the way, sharing impressions and bits of gossip afterward, planning—even at a young age—what they would do differently next time), her family’s weddings, her first words in foreign languages.

And, of course, moments that Celia didn’t even know Mally had observed—but that made them no less momentous.

 

Nearly ten years after Mally began her training as heir to the torz prime, the other primes had all identified their heirs as well—except for one.

Nelson Ardelay, of course, had known longer than anyone that Mally’s uncle Kurtis would be his heir, and in true elay fashion, Kayle Dochenza had announced one day, careless and offhand, that of course it would be his niece Laresa, did anyone really think otherwise? (Of everyone who had been at the dinner table that night, only the king had put into slow, exasperated words, that of course none of them had thought anything at all about it, having absolutely no knowledge of how the Dochenzas chose a prime or the ability to read Kayle’s mind.) It had taken Mirti Serlast the longest, but the year before, she had named one of the younger Serlast grandchildren, only several years older than Mally had been when she was recognized as the heir.

And so the world was almost in full balance—except no one yet knew who the next coru prime would be.

“It’s not something I should be worried about,” Mally overheard Zoe telling her cousin one day, several months after Mirti had designated her heir; though she couldn’t see inside the room of the conversation, she could picture it, a dark and blonde head each bent over the child on their hip (Zoe with Celia’s baby brother Dristan, Keeli with her baby daughter Raisa), a common sight around the houses she and the other children of the Five Families ran in and out of with regularity.

“Sometimes the heir isn’t revealed until after the current prime dies,” she continued, interrupting with a soft cooing sound directed towards her son. “As you know. And I’m certainly not in a hurry to go anywhere, nor do I expect the revelation to be as dramatic as my own was.”

“We can all only hope otherwise,” Keeli said wryly, and both women laughed. Mally had to stifle a smile of her own; she’d been told, of course, the tale of Zoe Lalindar coming into her own, a story only eclipsed by the other royal drama occurring at nearly the same time. It had been an eventful few years in Welce, fortunately not looking to be repeated any time soon.

“But everyone else has done it,” Zoe added, her voice a little more rueful. “Which is usually an argument for me to do the exact opposite—but when the future of Welce is at stake, I’m less inclined to be quite so cavalier. And I can’t stand hearing from anyone else how it must be my fault, because my own family is out of balance—”

“The next person who says anything of the kind in my hearing will receive no restraint my response,” Keeli replied, tone fiercer than Mally was used to hearing from Zoe’s usually cheerful and calm cousin, who had been almost like a second mother to Celia. “How were you meant to know your third child would actually be your third and fourth? Are you meant to bear another simply to even things out? As if being consort and prime and a mother didn’t take up enough of your time, you ought to have another child to mind, just to appease those narrow-minded, traditional—how absurd of them to expect that from you!”

“In all fairness,” Zoe demurred, though her tone spoke of anything but, “no one actually expected me to take as strong of a hand in raising my children as I have. But I don’t intend to do otherwise, regardless of what they think. And I’m certainly not having a fifth child just to appease them, either. Three was meant to be the perfect number—one for the crown, one for the coru prime, one for the hunti prime—” And both women laughed, though Mally wasn’t entirely certain it was meant to be a joke; she wouldn’t have been surprised, after all, if every single one of Zoe Lalindar and Darien Serlast’s children was destined for great things.

“And you would think I would know, wouldn’t you?” Zoe added, sounding more wistful now. “That I would be able to touch whoever was meant to be my heir and—and feel it, in their blood? Feel it calling to me? It doesn’t seem fair that I’m the only one who can’t manage it quite yet. What does it say about me?”

“It says you’ve got plenty of time,” Keeli said, firm and reassuring. “It says you’re doing everything you can now, and that your heir will announce themselves whenever the time is right. Maybe they aren’t born yet—maybe they aren’t ready yet. Maybe you’ll be the only coru prime as long as you live, so it won’t be your problem anyway.”

The last was said playfully, and Mally left the two cousins to their teasing and laughter, then, though the worry in Zoe’s tone ate at her mind—made her wonder if keeping her secret was the right thing to do.

Because she knew who Zoe’s heir was.

Because she had known for over a year now, ever since the day she had found herself on the banks of the Marisi, wandering through the parts of it further away from the city, further from the flats where people lived, so far out she truly felt as if she was enjoying a rare moment of solitude, rather than knowing there were guards, just out of sight, ready and waiting to protect her should she scream or cry out or suddenly vanish from their periphery.

She had found herself walking along the banks, enjoying the illusion of privacy, when she had heard a splashing in the river and saw Celia there—seemingly truly alone, even rarer for her than it was for Mally—and she had thought about calling out to her friend, but some streak of prudence or prescience had stopped her, and instead she’d fallen back to watch.

To watch as Celia ducked her head under the water again and again, and to watch as she submerged herself entirely—for minute after minute, for so long Mally’s own lungs began to burn, for so long that fear was beginning to creep into her veins—and to watch as she finally, finally emerged, her head thrown back, laughter pealing out of her, pure and uncomplicated and happy.

To know exactly what it meant—if not why it had been kept a secret. For surely no one else knew, if she was indulging in such a thing in such isolation, if the announcement hadn’t been made.

But it wasn’t Mally’s secret to reveal. So she didn’t tell anyone that she knew—not even Celia herself. And whenever the missing heir to the coru prime was discussed, she kept her face carefully blank and her gaze from meeting her best friend’s, and she stayed silent.

 

It was a monumental secret to keep, but it wasn’t a difficult one. Mally had, after all, learned to keep far more vital and dangerous secrets when she was barely old enough to understand what such things would mean; this one was, as such things went, simple. And after all, it wasn’t as if she believed Celia meant to keep it secret forever. She couldn’t fathom why her friend would want such a thing kept private, but she trusted her, and she trusted that whatever reasons she had, they were good ones.

The worst part of it all, if she was being honest with herself, was that she couldn’t openly share the joys of being an heir to a prime with her closest friend. They shared nearly everything else, and this was such a big part of Mally’s life—possibly the most important of all. The time she spent learning how to be a prime, training under Taro, was the time she felt most like herself.

Throughout her life, Mally’s great-uncle had never really looked as if he had gotten much older; he simply looked marked by years, just a little more worn away by each one, though still no less solid and strong. Like the way time and other natural forces buffeted at a rock, leaving it showing the wear but still standing, solid, unmoving.

She’d mentioned this to him once, during their training sessions—visits to his estate that were as much about family, as much about embracing the connection to people that being torz entailed as about learning how to use her abilities—and he’d laughed so hard he nearly toppled over. “That’s how you think of me?” he’d said in his big, booming voice, as unyielding and eternal as she had always seen him. “A rock? Hardly flattering from my own heir.”

But for all that she had always imagined him a constant, unable to envision her world without him in it, Mally had always known that she would have to, one day. That was the purpose of their training, after all—for her to learn how to replace him. For her to know how best to function in a world that no longer contained him, impossible as such a thing seemed.

Once, overwhelmed, she had clung to him, unable to bear the thought of one day no longer being able to do so. “What will I do when you leave us?” she had whispered, anguished. “I’m not sure how to live a life without you in it.”

He had hugged her in turn, his large, strong body solid around hers; she wasn’t a particularly small woman, but when Taro hugged her, she felt like a tiny flower leaning into an enormous old tree, tucked neatly against its trunk, surrounded by age and wisdom and belonging. “You’re torz,” he said, in a gentle, low rumble. “And you’ll be the torz prime, which means you know better than anyone that we never lose the people we love. We carry them with us, always. No matter where we or they go. Your mother had to learn that lesson the hard way, but you’ve always known it. You’ll know it long after I’m gone. You’ll know that no matter how long that time lasts, I’ll always be with you.

“And I’ve still got plenty of years left in me,” he added, tone lighter as he pulled back to tousle her hair. “So no sense in mourning a time that hasn’t yet come. Now—show me what you’ve learned today.”

 

Being torz did mean reveling in human connection above all else—in every form. So though Mally’s life was busy, she managed to find plenty of time to enjoy herself, in a wide variety of ways.

Long past the time she was old enough to notice that she looked at both boys and girls the same way, she found opportunities to kiss plenty of either—and, with several, to do more than kiss. She was discreet, and so were they, and she never kissed anyone she didn’t also genuinely like, but much to her dismay, she found no real connection in any of those kisses. She enjoyed them, of course—enough to want more, and enough to indulge that desire—but she found herself, as the years passed, kissing people less for the joy of it and more in search of whatever it was that she saw between her great-uncle and great-aunt, her mother and her second father, the king and his consort. Or at least some small spark of it, something she could nurture into a flame. Something lasting; something real.

She never found it, and she didn’t understand why, until the night she and Celia snuck away from a party with a bottle of wine, finding themselves in a room where the sounds from the others in the house were only muted background noise, and the room’s dim gaslight caught on the burnished gold of Celia’s hair, outlining the sharp, pale planes of her face, and Mally thought she’d never seen anything so lovely.

And then Celia leaned in, determination and hope written on her face, and Mally’s lips caught hers, and she found herself thinking only oh.

 

Their families parted ways the next day—Celia’s to her Lalindar cousins, Mally’s to Taro’s estate—so they didn’t talk about it for the next several weeks.

Mally was, unusually, glad for the parting; it gave her a chance to try to sort out her racing thoughts. What was she going to say, the next time she saw Celia? What could one say to one’s lifelong friend, when one had looked at her and realized just how precious she was—how important—how beautiful? When they had kissed, and it had meant more to her than any far more intense exchange with any number of people? When it might have been the most meaningful moment of nearly two decades of life?

When Mally and her family came home to Chialto and a small gathering shortly afterward brought them to the house of Sarone Lalindar, Mally knew Celia would be there—and knew exactly where to find her.

And indeed she was: lit by the dim illumination of the pool in Sarone’s home, lying half prone at the very edge of it, fingers trailing through the water as if unable to resist. So thoroughly coru, even a rare moment of stillness.

So beautiful, so beloved, it hurt Mally’s heart just to look at her.

Celia hadn’t moved when Mally came in, but she did raise her head to meet her gaze as she sat down next to her, expression rueful. “So predictable,” she murmured. “I knew you’d find me here.”

Mally tipped her head, an acknowledgment of the words even as she responded, “Maybe not so predictable anymore.”

Celia shrugged, looking back at the patterns her fingertips were tracing along the surface of the water; Mally recognized it as her retreat from strong emotion, her deceptively breezy tone an affectation to power through words that meant a great deal to her. “Well, I’ve wanted to do that for years. So maybe I’m the predictable one.”

The words should have probably surprised Mally more than they did; she would have expected, before hearing them, that they would. But now, hearing them, they just felt like an inevitability. Who knew one another better than the two of them? Who could they be better suited for? Who else could they ever truly love?

Just thinking the word brought her up short. Was that it what it was—what she felt for Celia? Of course it was love, but was it that kind of love—the love that filled the happy relationships with which she had always been so familiar?

Mally had never really felt the need to put precise terms on her relationships with others, to know exactly what they were to her and she to them. It had always been enough for her, having the people she cared about in her life; she didn’t feel the need to keep them in neat boxes, to organize and label what they meant to her. It was why, after fourteen years of knowing Chandran as a surrogate father, she had always simply called him by name, why she still referred to Leah by name half the time as well.

None of the fleeting romantic entanglements she’d had before had progressed to a point where a decision would have to be made about what they would call each other and what it would mean. Surely it ought to be different for Celia, though—surely given their importance to one another, their involvement in one another’s lives, they ought to discuss this in some more formal way.

“Say something,” Celia pleaded, and Mally realized she’d been sitting silent, lost in thought, for far too long—Celia’s face was tilted up to hers again, her expression a heartbreaking mix of uncertainty, fear, and longing.

And Mally realized that, at least for now, things might not have to be different after all.

“You’re my best friend,” she told Celia, sincerely. “You’re one of the most important people in my life. I’d never thought about kissing you before it happened—but I liked it. I liked it more than I’ve ever liked kissing anyone else. If you wanted to do it again—if you wanted to do it many more times—I’d like that, too.”

Celia’s expression brightened, lit from within in a way that made it impossible to forget she had a sweela grandfather and a sweela blessing of her own. “Yes,” she said instantly, then sobered for a moment, sitting up, her tone uncharacteristically somber. “But I wouldn’t—I don’t want to tell anyone. I want to keep it a secret. Once we tell people—once we tell our parents—it’ll all become complicated. I don’t want it to be anything but ours. Not yet.”

Though Mally usually didn’t like lying, and there wasn’t much of her life she kept secret from the rest of her family, she could see the wisdom in this. The romantic entanglements of the Five Families were always of great interest to absolutely everyone—even more so when one was to be a prime, and most of all when one was a princess. The moment anyone else knew there was the potential for a future between Mally and Celia—something even Mally herself wasn’t certain about yet—it would become of interest to every single important figure in Welce. To the entire kingdom.

And before they knew themselves where such a thing would go, it would be unbearable to feel as if their choices about it were being taken away.

So Mally took Celia’s hand—loving the way it brightened her expression even further, the smile that spread across her face—and she nodded. “Yes,” she agreed. “For now—it’ll just be ours.”

 

And when she said it, she truly meant it, but she should have known right away that there would come a time when she could no longer bear the deception—on any front.

She hadn’t truly thought about how long she and Celia could keep things up if they added a romantic element to their friendship; part of her, she supposed, had assumed that someone would find out sooner or later, or that they would eventually go back to simply being friends and nothing more, or that one of them might find someone they liked better, despite her certainty that such a thing wouldn’t be possible.

But the months went by, and no one said anything to them about it—directly or obliquely—and if anything, with each passing month, Mally found herself feeling less and less certain she could ever share a life with anyone else. No one knew her as well as Celia; no one could provoke her to laughter or contemplation or anger as easily. No one’s presence felt as comfortable, and by the time it had been two years since their first kiss, Mally couldn’t imagine that engaging in any act of love with anyone else would evoke one fraction of the heat in her belly and warmth in her heart that a single glance from Celia did.

She thought, after some time, that some members of their family might suspect; after all, they rarely had the chance to be truly alone, and much of their more intimate time together was grasped in stolen moments, hurried kisses behind closed doors at parties or hasty whispers in one another’s ears. She thought that Leah might know her oldest daughter was in love; she thought Taro or Zoe might be able to feel it, touching either of them (the change in her certainly felt deep enough to be marked in her flesh and blood, and she knew Celia felt the same way). She thought there were likely very few things the king didn’t know, though surely if he thought anything serious would come from it, for the sake of the kingdom, he would have said something—so maybe he didn’t, after all.

Either way, no one said anything to them, and no one found it strange, how much time they spent together. At first it felt like freedom—there were so few things in Mally’s life that were simply, purely, uncomplicatedly her own, and she sympathized with Celia’s desire to keep this one of them—and then, in time, for someone so used to sharing everything with family, for someone for whom human connection was the most important thing in the world, it began to feel like a cage.

She watched her cousins slowly making happy marriages—she watched her parents, her family friends together, having children, functioning as a family unit, bearing the happiness and pride of everyone who loved them seeing them together, their love plain for the world to see—and she began to feel, more and more, how much such a thing was missing in her life. How much she wanted everyone in her life to know what she and Celia were to each other. Perhaps not marriage—her mother and second father weren’t married, after all, even after all this time— she knew that there was no one single, right way to show the world you loved one another and meant to be together forever. But she wanted it to be known, nonetheless, in whatever form their chose. Whatever complications were to arise from such a thing, surely the two of them would be able to overcome them.

And then there was the other secret in her life, the one no one else knew she was even keeping: that her best friend and lover was going to be the next coru prime, and the rest of the kingdom believed that no heir had been found yet.

It was beginning to cause more and more of a strain, as the other primes took on the training of their heirs and Zoe remained unable to join them. She was still young, of course, so such a thing didn’t feel vital just yet—but it made everyone feel more and more off balance, with each year that passed since Mirti named her heir, and the strain affected Zoe herself most of all. And she had been coru prime for twenty years, and a mother and a consort nearly as long; she didn’t need any additional sources of worry in her life.

Mally longed to say something. With each passing year, she felt less and less certain that keeping the secret was the wise thing to do—but it wasn’t her secret to share, so she continued to say nothing. Not to her family, not to Zoe or Darien, and not even to Celia. Not until the day she overheard Zoe telling Leah that every time she drew blessings for guidance as to what to do about finding her heir, one of them was always surprise. (And that was hardly shocking, she added wryly, after so much time—but what did that mean?)

Mally knew what it meant. And the very next day, when Celia disappeared on one of her rare, secret, solitary excursions, Mally followed her.

She followed, well out of sight, until she reached the banks of the Marisi, where she knew Celia would be. And she waited as Celia went under the water, and stayed there for minutes on end—and when she surfaced, Mally was sitting there, right on the bank, and her expression was unyielding.

Celia started in surprise, so violently she nearly fell back into the river, and water rose upward, threatening to splash Mally—but it avoided her entirely. Mally’s eyebrows rose in surprise; even taken off balance, that was an impressive show of control on Celia’s part.

“Mally,” she exclaimed after a moment, her voice wobbling, as she made her way to more shallow waters, closer to where Mally was sitting. “What are you—what did you—I can explain—”

“Celia,” Mally said impatiently, “I know. I’ve known for years. And I haven’t told anyone. Not since I found out. But I think it’s time you did it—or at the very least, that you told me why you haven’t.”

A few more sounds that weren’t quite words emerged from Celia’s mouth, and Mally could practically read the play of emotions across her face—shock, dismay, denial, and finally, a slow but inevitable acceptance. She emerged fully from the river, and dripping wet, she sat down next to Mally with a long, heartfelt sigh.

“You’ve known for years?” she asked, her voice small. Mally nodded; she wanted to reach for Celia’s hand, or touch her shoulder, or lean against her, but she knew well enough to let her do this entirely alone. The blessing Celia lived up to least, on a regular basis, was grace—but she had her moments, and Mally knew she ought to let this be one of them.

“I didn’t want it to be true,” she admitted, holding her knees in to her chest, her head bowed. “I tried so hard to avoid admitting it to myself. I try not to—to do anything about it. To not indulge it. But I can’t help it.”

She reached out, with just one hand, to trail her fingertips in the water; Mally watched the motion of her fingers, the reverent way they played across the surface of the river, the way the water almost seemed to wrap itself around them, welcoming her, embracing her.

“I love it,” she whispered, and her voice sounded pained. “I don’t want it. But it’s—it’s wonderful. How can something I wanted so little be something that feels so good?”

“But why?” Mally asked, astounded. She knew how good the ability felt, the power; she’d felt it every single day of the past sixteen years of her life. She could barely remember a time she hadn’t felt it. It was as much a part of her as her limbs and organs; to deny it would be denying the truest part of what made her who she was. She couldn’t imagine not wanting it. “Why deny it, when it would make everyone else so glad to know? When it brings you joy? Why?”

Celia seemed to deflate, bowing in on herself further, like the defiance that had been holding her up had finally run out. “At first it was because—it meant that that would be all I was,” she said, very quietly. “I was raised knowing I might be the next queen of Welce, and knowing I’d be the next coru prime would mean that I couldn’t be that. I couldn’t be both. And I didn't know which one I might want more, but I knew that before either, I just... wanted to be me. I didn’t want to know for sure, so early, who I was supposed to be. The way everyone would see me. I wanted—I wanted to choose. I didn’t want everyone else to think they knew exactly who I was, so early and for the rest of my life. I wanted to pretend, just a little longer, that that choice would be mine. That I could be whoever I wanted to be.”

Mally thought she could understand that. She had, after all, spent the majority of her life knowing she’d be heir to the torz prime—she had never really had a chance to wonder if she could be anyone or anything else. And though she thought she wouldn’t have chosen any other life, if given the option, she had to wonder whether she would have chafed at the discovery, years later, that those choices were limited. Especially having parents as influential and strong-willed as Celia’s; she and her siblings had hardly grown up with the most sedate temperaments, under the circumstances. Thinking about it that way, she thought she could understand Celia’s lack of desire to fall in line.

“So—at first it was because of me,” she added, lifting her hand from the water, clutching her knees to her chest again as she turned to look right at Mally, her expression open and raw. “And then it was because of you.”

Mally was, for a moment, certain she hadn’t heard correctly; when Celia’s expression didn’t change, she echoed, stunned, “Because of—me?”

Celia’s lower lip wobbled. “We already have a king married to a prime,” she said, her voice trembling. “And it’s caused so much talk. It’s cost my parents some support. So many people weren’t in favor of it. If I was to be named heir—I already knew they wouldn’t let me be with a prime. That they wouldn’t want it to happen again. But at least there would have been some precedence. At least it wouldn’t have been the very first time.

“But—two primes, together? That’s never happened. The families can’t overlap like that. If the marriage of a sovereign and a prime is two much, two primes is…unheard of. If I’m prime, too—we can never be together. Not openly. We could never—marry, or have children, or—”

“That’s,” Mally interrupted, barely conscious of her own words, so dazed she could hardly process them. She would never have imagined, not in a thousand years, that she would have had any influence on Celia’s decisions. Not to this degree. Not when it had been her choice to keep their relationship a secret, preventing, by necessity, serious discussion of any potential future. “That’s—so far away for us, though. I can’t believe you’ve—thought about such things. That you considered them so seriously.”

“I’ve been in love with you since I was old enough to know what that meant,” Celia said, raising her chin, a spark of her usual quiet ferocity returning. “Of course I’ve considered them. I’ve done nothing but consider them. I considered them every day I tried to figure out who I was supposed to be—who I could have been, if it weren’t for all of this. Who I would have chosen to be. And the one thing that I’ve always been certain of is that I—I can’t seem to figure out who I could be to let me be with you. None of my choices lead me to that future.”

She sounded fierce, but she also sounded heartbroken. Mally was stunned that they had never talked about this—and so filled with overwhelming tenderness, that such a thing would have brought Celia so much pain.

“I would love you no matter who you were,” she said, the words slow and deliberate. “There is no one you could become that would stop me from loving you. And no one you could become that would make me seek a life that didn’t have you at its center. I’m sorry if I’ve ever said anything that would make you doubt that.”

Celia’s cheeks flushed with happiness, but her expression was still cautious, still forlorn. “I am so happy to hear it,” she said, an unusual note of caution in her voice. “But it doesn’t change the reality of the world we live in. It doesn’t change—the problems we would have, the impossibility—”

“Your great-aunt Mirti once told me that laws were made to serve people,” Mally said, her voice firm. She always felt better knowing exactly what was wrong; finding solutions never seemed as hard as forcing the full shape of the problem into focus. As far as she was concerned, the rest was the easy part. “That whatever our laws are, they are ours. We are not beholden to them if they no longer serve our purposes. Whatever it is that people fear if two primes were to join families—surely we can find a way to work around such a thing. Surely whatever obstacles are in our way—our families will prove more than equal to them, if our happiness is at stake. Your mother would flood the homes and boil the blood of anyone who gainsaid our right to live and love as we chose. Your father would burn the kingdom to the ground before he let you live a life that denied any part of who you were.” And she couldn’t say it without her own voice shaking, but she had to say it, so she let it shake. “As would I.”

Celia’s expression was beginning to shift into cautious hope, hope she was clearly afraid to let herself feel too strongly. “Then—you want to be with me,” she said, very softly. “No matter what it means?”

“The only thing I want more than to be with you,” Mally said, trying to keep her tone level, even as her heart was dancing, “is for you to be who you are. Everything you are. No hiding—no pretense. And there is nothing I wouldn’t do to stand beside you, once you’re able to be that person. I love you. I want you to tell your parents—to tell everyone—that you’re going to be prime, and I will tell them with you that we’re going to be together. And then we can help them figure out what that means, now and in the future. And whatever it is they come up with, I promise you that I won’t let you go.”

And a smile finally broke through Celia’s face—shaky but true. “Will you promise it at the booth?” she murmured, squeezing Mally’s hand. “Can we go right now?”

Mally couldn’t help a laugh; here, at the meeting of water and earth, the two halves of her heart, she could finally feel it, thrumming through her. Balance. After all this time, everything was going to be all right. “Right now?” she asked, smiling helplessly. “You don’t want a change of clothing first.”

“No,” Celia said decisively, getting to her feet, dragging Mally up with her. “I want to go now. And—I want to ask you one more thing.”

“Anything,” Mally said softly, and meant it.

And another smile, one with just a hint of mischief, crossed Celia’s features. “Can we tell your parents, before we tell mine? That’s going to be far less terrifying.”

“At least until your father learns that someone else had such a vital piece of information before he did,” Mally replied, wryly, and the two of them left the riverbank hand in hand, the sound of their laughter still ringing in the air.