Catherine Ghee is nineteen years old when she meets King Amethar of House Rocks.
Of course, he is not a king, then. She doesn’t even know that he is a prince. If she had known that, she never would have looked him directly in the eye and winked—laughing as his friend trips in the gritty sand, attempting to right himself and regain his composure. It’s painfully obvious that they’re not from the Dairy Isles. They are desperately trying to blend in in such a way that it has circled away from pompous and back around to charming. Catherine looks up, and Amethar looks over and catches her eye, and they share an amused smile. And he is handsome, and Catherine is nineteen… and so, she winks.
Amethar lies about both his name and his station for a full three weeks. He calls himself ‘Ame’ and tries to give off the impression that he is nothing more than a Candian foot soldier, stationed in the Isles because of the growing conflict with Fructera on orders of Duke Joren Jawbreaker. Catherine isn’t stupid—he holds himself with a regal cut that is impossible to ignore. He expects things to be granted to him; people to move out of his way, to give him the things that he asks for, deference. He’s not cruel about it, but there is an unmistakable privilege to him that has Catherine sure that he isn’t merely a foot soldier after less than an hour.
She never considers that he could be the Candian prince, though. The son of a noble is the furthest that Catherine—the daughter of milkers—can dare to imagine. When his friend, Manta Ray, misspeaks and calls him Amethar, the name rings familiar enough to give Catherine pause, but the names of royals from a neighboring country aren’t facts that a girl from the Dairy Isles is particularly concerned with, and she dismisses it offhand. Plenty of citizens name their children after royals in the hopes that the Bulb above will smile down upon them.
In retrospect, she should have been far more suspicious.
The problem, of course, is that she is nineteen years old. She is nineteen years old and has spent each and every one of those nineteen years on the smallest island in all of the Dairy Isles. She is nineteen years old and has done nothing but watch her parents struggle to make ends meet; nothing but learn to go to bed hungry, nothing but learn to curse the leaders of the lands, nothing but watch her parents’ bodies grow smaller and more brittle with age until they fade away into nothing at all. She is nineteen years old and has spent her childhood seeking out the tales of sailors and pirates; tales of great beasts up in mountains, glittering cities in the south, music, and art, and dance, far, far away from the small island where time seems to stop and wait around forever. Catherine is nineteen years old and she catches herself constantly watching the ships coming and going from the Yogurt Shoals and she wants. It’s maw-mouthed and made entirely of teeth, this want of hers; it bites into the core of her and doesn’t let go, leaving its mark. It’s there long before King Amethar of the House of Rocks ever enters her life, and remains long after he disappears from it entirely.
Catherine should be hauling heavy buckets of milk up to the nearest tavern right now, but instead, she pulls Amethar close to her, back pressed up against the old barn wall, rough wood catching on the thin shift of her dress and threatening to rip. Catherine pays it no mind. Instead, she pulls Amethar closer still, licks at the top row of his teeth and delights in the groan that it elicits.
(Her want grows and grows and grows).
“I have to go soon,” he whispers into her mouth. Most of their talking so far has been done like this, in between kisses, the two of them hidden up in a barn while Manta Ray keeps lookout and tries his level best to flirt with the daughter of the man who owns this farm.
(Catherine has known her since she was fourteen—he’ll be trying for a very long time).
“Me too,” she says and presses her hips up into his. “If I don’t get the milk to Gerald by five, he’ll dock my pay for the whole week.”
“No,” he grunts, but he is grinning back down at her, pressing himself into Catherine and meeting her with equal amounts of glee. “I mean back to Candia.”
Catherine stills. “Oh.”
Amethar pulls back, looking nearly as disappointed by his own words as she is. “I’ll be back, though,” he adds quickly. “We just have to go back for—” he swallows a word down and Catherine latches onto the jerky way that he can’t meet her eye “—a wedding.”
“Yours?” she asks, shoving him away roughly. He’s big—far bigger than Catherine—but he stumbles, shocked by the sudden force of it, and goes tumbling over a hay bale. When he comes up, sputtering and trying to crawl his way towards her, straw is stuck in his hair, his clothes, everywhere. It’s comical, and through her fury, Catherine still can’t help but laugh at the image.
“No,” he insists with such a sincerity that Catherine believes him. Perhaps that’s stupid of her, but she does it anyway. He sighs, still looking guilty. Catherine watches as he picks straw out of his hair and slumps down onto the dirt floor, unable to look up at her. “My sister’s,” he finally says.
“Why do you feel guilty about that?” Catherine demands.
And then, all at once, it clicks together. Amethar. Duke Joren Jawbreaker. He carries himself like a noble. His sister’s wedding. Candia is one of the Dairy Isles closest neighbors, and a royal wedding—one solidifying a minor alliance in a time of brewing conflict—is something that’s known well beyond the borders of one country.
“Oh,” she breathes “fuck.”
True to his word, Amethar does come back.
Catherine had written him off in her heart—or, she had tried very hard to. He was handsome and charming and stupid and easy and fun, and something new in a place where new things never stayed for long. It wasn’t ever supposed to be more than that. She isn’t going to allow it to be.
—she’s there when the ship comes in; bright purple and shinning and he’s standing eagerly on the bow and she can see his grin from the shore when he catches sight of her.
Oh, she breathes, fuck.
Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuckfuck.
Amethar is the prince of Candia, and she loves him.
The worst part, the absolutely awful, galling thing is that she doesn’t know how to go back in time and stop it from happening. He is a prince, her brain screams as his palms trail their way down her waist, tongue licking the roof of her mouth. He is a prince and you are an orphan milkmaid. Amethar hitches up her skirts and her brain screams don’t, don’t, he is a prince and you are not allowed to want this, but her body vibrates with want all the same; she never knew that she was even capable of wanting something so much.
He is a prince but he doesn’t make any moves to stop her when Catherine shoves him down into the straw and rips open his breeches. He is a prince but he looks up at her with something like wonder as she crawls on top of him. He is a prince but he holds her like she is the most precious thing that has ever been cradled between his frightening large palms. Palms made for the war that feels almost inevitable, now.
Catherine sags down against him, after, boneless and deliriously happy as he laughs and tickles her nose. An errant strand of hair is stuck to her cheek, coated with sweat, and he pushes it back, chasing it with a kiss. He is a prince, her brain screams, but he might be mine, too.
It’s almost sickening, the way that her want grows and expands and turns into something else entirely as the weeks pass by. The first time that The Word enters her brain, Catherine scoffs at it and goes about her work for the day. She is nineteen years old, an orphan, a poor girl from the smallest island of the Dairy Isles and she has no room inside of her whatsoever for love. She has known Amethar for a total of three months, love has no place here. Want, sure. Longing, absolutely. Desire, deserved. But love? It has no place in her life at all, not if she wants out of the Dairy Islands. Certainly not if it’s attached to the handsome, charming, moronically lovable, prince of Candia.
It’s the most ridiculous thought that has ever had the gall to enter her skull.
—now that the word has slipped inside, she can’t seem to escape from it. She tries. She takes to avoiding Amethar when he comes by the shop. She doesn’t go meet him at the barn. She ducks into an alley when she sees Manta Ray coming around looking for her. But it’s all useless; there is no way to go back to before the word love slipped its way into this whole arrangement; it leaves a stain over everything that she does. Catherine is nineteen years old and the very idea of falling in love completely overwhelms her. She wakes up before the sun and milks the cows and scoffs all day long at the utterly ridiculous disagreement happening between her body and her brain. She lasts four days before Amethar’s privileged upbringing has him impatiently cornering her in the shop, asking her what he did wrong, and why won’t she talk to him anymore. The lie is sitting there waiting on her tongue: it was just a fling, I’ve moved on. Go on home to your castle. Instead, what comes out is: “I’m in love with you and it’s pissing me off!”
It’s comical, the way that Amethar’s eyes widen. What is not funny, not even a little bit, is the way that they instantly go warm and fond and relieved. What’s not funny is the way that he laughs, a boisterous explosion of joy that sucks up all the air in the room and then pushes it down inside of her lungs. What’s not funny is the way he claps his hands together, bending over before hollering happily into the—thankfully—empty backroom of the store and rushing to pick her up, spinning her around. What’s not funny at all is that he says: “I love you, too! Marry me!”
Catherine punches him.
It’s a very stupid reaction. You don’t just go around punching princes, especially not ones who are as big and as formidable as Amethar.
“Oh, fuck,” Catherine breathes. “I’m sorry.”
Instead of grabbing her and throwing her into a Candian dungeon for daring to transgress a royal, Amethar beams at her. “I’m serious,” he says. “I love you.”
“You’ve known me for three months,” she scolds. “There’s no way that you could possibly know me well enough to be in love.”
Amethar grins down at her, cocky and beaming and that maw-mouthed want flares up again, low in her belly. “I could say the same of you,” he teases. “You said it first, if you remember.”
It went over well enough the first time, so, Catherine punches him again.
“Lazuli married a minor noble,” he says.
“Candia is the most magical place in all the lands and you will love it,” he says.
“I’m the last in line. I’ll never have the throne and I don’t want it,” he says.
“I’ll give you a fleet of ships and sail with you over every inch of Calorum,” he says.
“My father won’t say no,” he says.
“Our children would be beautiful warriors,” he says.
“There’s a war coming,” he says.
“I love you,” he says.
“No,” she says, as she pushes him down into the straw and climbs on top.
“No,” she says, as she kisses her way down his abs.
“No,” she says, as he carries five extra buckets of milk with her towards the shop.
“No,” she says, pushing him down to his knees where she wants him.
“No,” she says, accepting his bouquet of flowers.
“No,” she says, ignoring him as he prattles on about how much his sisters are going to love her.
“No,” she says, longingly looking out to the Dairy Sea as the sun sets, his hands clasped with hers.
“Yes, alright,” she breathes. “I love you, too.”
The war is coming. Everyone can feel it. The Dairy Islands is the smallest nation in all of Calorum, and it’s unsurprising that the (usually, reliable) ports that border along Fructera start feeling more and more dangerous than they ever have in years past.
It felt inevitable, during the last two years or so, but truly, Catherine didn’t think it would happen in the way that it does.
Never in a million years.
Amethar swears up and down that his father won’t mind. That his mother might, but that she’ll get over it. That it’s his sisters, truly, who are the ones with all the power. Whose opinions matter the most to him. His sisters, who love him. His sisters, who will be so happy that he is so happy.
But, just in case, better to ask for forgiveness, in these things. There is a war going on—officially, now—after all.
They find a Bulbian Priest that Catherine assumes is either paid to, or sworn to secrecy. Manta Ray—ever the lookout—is their witness, and Catherine stands there in the shining light of the Bulb, her sea at her back, Amethar’s hands clasped with her own, and marries the love of her life as the world descends into war. Catherine can’t stop smiling despite the weight of everything that’s hanging over them. The priest declares them husband and wife—prince and princess of Candia—and Amethar beams. He’s still grinning as he leans down to kiss her, and she hasn’t been able to stop, so it’s less of a proper kiss as it is the two of them sort of pressing their smiles together while Manta Ray whoops and spins a startled Bulbian Priest around in his arms.
They spend their wedding night the same way that they’ve spent every night together prior—hidden up in a neighbor’s barn, giggling together in the straw while horses snort below and Manta Ray tries to flirt his way into a woman’s good graces. Part of her is glad that they’re not doing this in some expensive inn under assumed names. It’s familiar, what they’re doing. They’ve done it a hundred times before, it feels like. She knows what to expect from it. She knows the noises that Amethar will make when she kisses the right spot behind his ear, the way that the straw will feel when it digs into her thigh, the itch remaining until well into tomorrow afternoon. But now, they aren’t two young lovers, hiding away in a barn and stealing illicit kisses and quick lovemaking before they’re found out—they’re husband and wife.
Prince and Princess of Candia.
Catherine is suddenly concerned with things that she never even bothered to think about before: the position of her hands when Amethar pulls her down to him, the overwhelming urge to touch him. Anywhere. Everywhere. They have the rest of their lives to do this, but it suddenly feels urgent for reasons that Catherine cannot explain. The air feels thick with it—magical, almost—the way they talk about in the stories. It’s not a particularly comforting thought. Though the Bulbian faith was never as strong in the Dairy Isles before the war, in her childhood Catherine was still taught that magic is something to be feared, a tool of The Hungry One, coming to steal your soul if you’re not careful. The air around them crackles with energy and Catherine shivers. She is so aware of every possible point of contact between herself and Amethar that it nearly drowns out any other thought.
By the morning, she’s forgotten all about the abnormal feeling. They had planned to have a week together before going back to face the music in Candia. A week of uncomplicated bliss before she has to learn how to be a princess. A wife. A sister-in-law. A daughter-in-law. Part of a noble family and a leader of the people—not even her own.
She’s never granted the chance.
What happens is this:
Fructera invades Candia and Manta Ray comes barreling into the barn, looking as pale as the Yogurt Shoals itself. He grabs Amethar, and Amethar makes to grab for Catherine, but the three of them pause and look at each other, and know that the seas won’t be safe. They know that if their ships are invaded and it’s found out that the young milkmaid on board is, in fact, the prince of Candia’s new wife—
Amethar kisses her, roughly; it’s messy and urgent, panicked and apologetic all at once. “I’ll send for you when it’s safe,” he promises. “I’ll be back.”
“I’ll be waiting,” she says, trying for an unaffected shrug. “If I’m not too bored.”
What liars they both turn out to be.
What happens is this:
Amethar leaves and Fructera, Ceresia, and The Meatlands all quickly invade the Isles. The smallest nation, a close boarder to them all, and an easy start to what will surely be a long and difficult war—far easier than the takeover of Candia will prove to be. Amethar disappears and Catherine is suddenly all loose parts of herself; all of the pieces that make her up feel stitched together by the thinnest of threads, ready to rip apart at the slightest tug. Her home is invaded from all sides and she is left alone by the one person she thought might not ever leave, and she spends weeks sitting at windows, staring out at the sea. Waiting.
Catherine goes from being a young milkmaid from a small island off the coast of Ceresia, to a secret princess and wife, to a poor milkmaid from an occupied nation—with an unexplainable baby on the way.
That last one is the biggest surprise of her life, though, looking back at the last three months, she supposes that it shouldn’t be.
What happens is this:
News of Queen Pamelia of the House of Rocks’ death spreads throughout the lands of Calorum. Count Jacques Tomaté—someone it was known that the queen had a positive working relationship with—attempts to straddle his positions as both Fructeran noble and the Vegetanian heir, and spreads his influence too thin. Catherine knows distant facts about Amethar’s family, about the goings-on in countries beyond her, but not of her own husband. Her belly grows as Fructera’s leadership begins to crumble—almost as quickly as it grew—and Amethar doesn’t ever return or send word.
Amethar doesn’t return and Catherine can’t tell the new order of Ceresian nuns that she is actually a woman, wed. That the way her belly is filling out isn’t blasphemous at all, but instead blessed by the Bulb above. That how dare they look at her and tsk at her in the street, she is a princess of Candia and her child could have the throne, someday.
She can’t say any of that at all.
What happens is this:
The Archmage Lazuli Rocks walks through the fields of Fructera alone, uses magic to call down a deluge of arcane arrows, and single-handedly takes out battalions of enemy forces, saving the lives of everyone within Candia’s armies and sacrificing herself in order to secure Gustavo Uvano as the new Fructeran ruler.
The nuns all call her a blasphemous witch as Catherine lies there with her legs propped up, being poked and prodded at by the midwives as she tries not to get emotional about a woman that she’s never even met.
“It’s going to be a girl,” the oldest midwife—an islander—whispers to her. “I’ve never been wrong once yet in over sixty years.” Catherine frowns at her, but she only gets a wink in response. “Even when the babe was born, and people said, ‘you’ve got it wrong this time’ later on, once the babe grew up, it always turned out to be that I was right all along.”
Catherine breathes out slowly as the midwife passes her a bit of a sweet and pats at her thigh.
“A girl?” she asks, placing a hand gently over the growing mound.
The old midwife nods.
What happens is this:
The war rages on, and Amethar never comes back. Catherine screams out in a cold dark room, surrounded by Bulbian midwives as she gives birth to a little girl with the echoing sounds of soldiers and ships fighting off in the distance.
A little girl, mint green and beautiful.
Catherine Ghee is twenty years old; a poor milkmaid with nothing to her name but a single rented room above a shop; an orphan; a girl from the smallest island in her nation who has never left its borders; a secret wife; a secret princess; (perhaps, abandoned?) and now, a mother.
The baby cries out and then coos the moment that she is placed into Catherine’s tired, waiting arms. Her warm little face presses against Catherine’s cheek and she swears, the baby smiles.
“Gas,” the meanest nun says coldly, once Catherine points it out. “Happens to all of them.”
“No,” Catherine argues, brushing a finger gently across the white of her Neapolitan colored hair. “It’s her first smile.” Catherine looks across the room for the old islander midwife to find her grinning back at Catherine, giving her a thumbs up. “One of many,” she promises.
“Sweet little thing,” the old midwife agrees.
“The sweetest ever,” Catherine says, and kisses the top of her daughter’s forehead.
She calls her Saccharina, almost in part to spite the nun who refused to admit that she smiled.
Gerald isn’t happy, hasn’t been for weeks, since Catherine’s been too swollen and tired to carry the milk buckets back and forth every day. He lets her work the register in the shop, but it’s a pay cut, and he expects her back the day after she’s given birth. Catherine stands there, sore in places she didn’t even know existed on her own body, cradling a little bundle in her arms and looks at him in exasperation.
“Tomorrow morning,” he repeats, annoyed. Saccharina lets out a little cry, probably in protest, probably she’s already cottoned on to how ridiculous this whole world and its rules are. Gerald frowns at her. “She can’t be in the shop, crying will drive away customers.”
“What am I supposed to do with her?” Catherine scoffs. “You can’t just leave a newborn alone.”
“Should have thought of that before you let some sailor into your kickers, now, shouldn’t you,” he says, patronizing and judgmental and with so much disdain, Catherine wants to set down Saccharina and claw his eyes out.
The problem is, of course, is that there’s a war on. Jobs were hard to come by on this island before the war started, they’ve all but dried up and disappeared now—unless you want to take up arms and fight or join up with a pirate crew. Both options lead to an assured death, at this point. The Dairy Islands have been invaded by every other major country in Calorum; each of the islands occupied by a different nation, and the fighting has decimated just about everything that there is to destroy. Catherine can tell Gerald to fuck off and claw his eyes out and then she’ll be jobless and homeless and still need to find a way to feed Saccharina.
She considers it, for just a moment. The satisfaction of telling Gerald off after six years of shitty treatment and shittier pay, cradling Saccharina into a sling and jumping onto a pirate ship—sailing the seas on her own leisure.
But that’s a dream for a girl. Not a mother.
(Besides, if Amethar is coming back for her, she can’t just go somewhere else. There’s no one that she could leave word for him with, no one she can trust).
Catherine bites at the inside of her cheek till it bleeds and bows her head to Gerald. She puts on the most charming and sweet and deferential look she can muster up, and says of course, Gerald. I’m happy to start up as soon as you need, Gerald, I’ll make sure to keep the baby quiet, Gerald. Customers love babies, Gerald. I’m sure she’ll bring them in and make them happy to be here. He waves her off and Catherine climbs up the stairs to her little room, exhausted by everything. She lowers herself slowly onto the rickety cot and curls Saccharina to her chest. “We’re going to have to be smart and careful, you and I,” she whispers.
Saccharina is the sweetest baby that Catherine has ever seen. Granted, she hasn’t seen many and she’s biased, but the customers in the shop tend to agree. Old islander ladies gather in and coo at her, passing her back and forth and prattling on saying oh go on now dearie, you’re workin’ we’ve got her until it becomes routine. They always buy at least a bit of lunch, so Gerald can’t really complain, though it’s obvious that he wants to.
The Ceresian nuns come back around to check up on them weekly for the first two months. As much as Catherine hates their judgment and feels dubious at best about how pushy they are with their faith, the help is appreciated. Twice, Catherine panics, thinking Saccharina is sick and about to die only to run to the nuns and have them tell her that it’s just some common rash, or it’s just a bit of hiccups lass, what are you on about?
The islander midwives and nuns slowly start to adopt the judgmental Ceresian language when dealing with her. The Bublian faith seems to be expanding further with each new month that the war drags on and Catherine’s surprised at it. She never even thought that it was particularly widespread in Ceresia, before now.
The war seems to be changing just about everything, these days.
Catherine tries not to focus on the fact that Amethar still hasn’t sent for her, that she can barely pay for food and that there isn’t even much food to go around because of the war, anyway. She works herself till she’s ready to drop and then cradles Saccharina and sleeps. Day after day after day, until Saccharina is big enough to be strapped to her chest on a sling and Catherine has recovered enough to be a milkmaid again. She needs to save for the two of them now, though. So, her meager pay isn’t going to keep cutting it any longer. To make up for it, Catherine pulls double duty, waking at the crack of dawn to deliver the milk to the various shops around the village—a sleeping Saccharina wrapped tightly around her chest—and then working in Gerald’s shop until closing.
It’s still not enough.
Catherine starts mending clothes for soldiers, sailors, merchant’s wives, anyone who will pay her. She brings it all up to her tiny room and sews by candlelight until her fingers are cramped and bleeding.
Then, a few hours later, she gets up and does it all over again.
And again, and again, and again.
The day that Saccharina turns one, Catherine delays delivering the milk. It’s a risk, but it feels like a worthwhile one as she sits there up on the shore of the beach, watching the sunrise as Saccharina cheers and claps in her lap.
“Someday,” she whispers, “you and I are going to sail the seas together.”
Saccharina giggles and tugs at her hair and Catherine breathes her in for a moment longer. Then she sighs and tucks Saccharina back into her sling—it’s getting harder to keep her there—and hauls the milk buckets back onto her shoulders.
“Back to work,” she declares, but she sing-songs it for Saccharina. The two of them hum together as they walk and the sun fills the sky with brilliant colors.
It becomes a birthday tradition—watching the sunrise together.
(Catherine only gets to do it with her five times).
Technically, Candia still hasn’t entered the war. Not in an official capacity. Lazuli Rocks sacrificed herself and her father is still worried about the implications of what it could mean for his family—locked up tight and safe inside that castle. Catherine hates him as she sits there, back hunched and aching as she stitches the clothes of the soldiers who will die in his name, instead.
Granted, all that Catherine knows of King Jadain Rocks is what Amethar told her. He clearly didn’t think much of his father, thought him a coward and an inept leader and was eager for his sister, Rococca, to succeed him. Catherine knows that instead, he worshiped his uncle, Duke Jawbreaker.
Catherine doesn’t know anything about him, either. Not until he breaks away from the Candian throne, goes against his brother’s wishes in an act of open rebellion, and sends his troops to aid the Dairy Isles, turning the tide of the war.
(There is a small, selfish part of her that still holds out more hope for Amethar coming for her, then for the Candian troops coming to aid her people).
Lacramor is freed with the help of the Candian armies and the repercussions are felt throughout all the islands. Catherine pulls Saccharina up into her arms and runs out to the streets with the rest of the village, fireworks shooting up into the sky and people cheering and screaming as the Ceresian ships retreat from the ports. It’s a small victory, and not nearly the signal to end the war, but it’s a reprieve that’s more than welcome and Catherine allows herself to feel it.
She dances in the street with her daughter laughing in her arms—and the air around them seems to answer back.
Catherine stills and looks down at Saccharina, who is beaming and laughing and trying to say, “Spin, Mama, spin,” as the air swirls almost as if… coming from inside of her. A slow chill creeps over Catherine and Saccharina reacts to the shift in her mood instantly; her mouth makes a wobbling, liquid shape and Catherine quickly gives her a reassuring smile. There’s too much empathy in her small body, she notices everything. “Mama?”
“Ready to spin?” she asks and Saccharina lets out a bursting giggle. Catherine laughs along with her, but there’s a stretched sound to it, like it’s straining against the solid weight of something, dragging downwards.
The soldiers come during the middle of Highbright.
As much as the Isles celebrated Candia’s help, not much changes after the fact in the day to day itself. Sure, they’re far less likely to have to defer to a Ceresian soldier, or pay tithes to a Fructeran noble, or be beaten by a Meatlander, but their ports are still blocked. Food is still scarce. Money is even harder to be found, and Catherine still spends each day, waking at dawn and working till far into the next morning before getting up and doing it all over again.
She’s stopped waiting around for Amethar. The hurt of that has calcified out of necessity. Saccharina needs to be fed and Catherine has work to do and she doesn’t have time to think about how angry and sad she is about him breaking his promise.
There’s a war on, and promises are broken every day.
Saccharina is nearly two. Catherine’s savings are abysmal, but they exist. The days are growing hotter and hotter and delivering the milk is getting harder and harder on her back. She is twenty-two, she shouldn’t feel like she is living in an old woman’s body, but she does.
What she doesn’t expect, what she never could have even imagined, is for him to send soldiers to hurt her. Amethar was many things, but cruel was never one of them and when the soldiers grab at her arm and tug—the weight of what’s happening solidifies into a blind panic and rage. Distantly, she wonders if this is how Amethar feels when it happens to him; he tried to explain it to her once, and it feels almost like what he described.
Waking up that morning feels almost like waking up the morning after her mother died. It feels like the morning after her father moved them out of the house that she grew up in. The morning after he died. The morning after the war started. The morning after she told Amethar that she was dumping him the first time: she knows that the world has changed, even before she remembers exactly how. The air almost has a different flavor to it, the way it sometimes does around Saccharina, sharp and strange and tacky, almost; tangible in a way that air shouldn’t have a right to be, with a chilly bite at the edges. Even before she can remember, or figure out why, Catherine knows to watch her footing with today.
It starts like any other, is the thing. Other than that tacky breeze, the one she’s trying to acquaint herself with, because it seems to be coming around more often, rather than going away altogether as Saccharina grows. Catherine rises before the sun, gently lifts the still sleeping Saccharina into the sling she’s nearly far too big for, and walks out to the milky shore.
She never makes it.
She’s dragging the empty buckets a little, because there’s been a cough that’s getting persistent inside her chest that’s been bothering her, and she doesn’t quite have the energy to worry about it while they’re not even holding anything precious. The tacky air goes hot and Saccharina bolts upright and lets out a cry and every hair on Catherine’s skin goes up. The gravel behind her cracks and then a hand is latched around her arm and gripping far too hard.
“The prince of Candia sent us,” a deep voice hisses. The hand yanks, rough, and Catherine winces. “We’re taking you captive on orders to Castle Candy.”
(The thing is, she imagined this would happen, when Amethar left. Someone would come and send for her—but not like this. Amethar, with a fleet of purple ships in his wake. Manta Ray, grinning cockily at her as he offers his arm. A kind soldier, whispering “Your husband sent us to get you.” Anything but this).
Their swords are drawn, their hands are rough, and their faces are hard. This isn’t the way someone comes to send for a person they love—it’s not. Foreign soldiers have been occupying her island for the last two years, she knows what a threat looks like when it’s put up right in front of her. Catherine doesn’t give herself time to think about it any further, she takes the end of the milk bucket and whacks it into the soldier’s gut. One side, then the other, and then she throws the entire cursed contraption at them and runs.
In her sling, Saccharina is crying and Catherine holds her as she sprints, every bit of adrenaline she can muster up pooling into her veins and carrying her body as far as it will take her. She doesn’t have time to think about it, she just runs for the shore. It’s early enough, fishermen will still be going out—she might make it.
The air around her grows tacky and thick, Catherine almost thinks that she can taste sugar, for a flash of a second, and then the wind swirls in a heavy gust behind them. Catherine hears the soldiers call out in frustration and the sound of one of them falling.
She doesn’t stop to look.
Catherine sprints to the fisherman’s docks and tries to gulp in air until her lungs aren’t making that horrible raggedy sound anymore. She blinks fast to clear the stinging in her eyes and tries her best to look like a normal person making a social call and not someone on the verge of a breakdown. “Good morning,” she calls out to a man that she recognizes—he worked with her father, she’s sure.
His face is kind, if concerned, and Catherine does not turn around to check how close the soldiers are.
“Are you going to the next island over?” she asks, desperate. At least, she has the sense to keep her savings on her person—nothing left in that small room matters, not really.
The man clearly sees the panic on her face. Instead of telling her to fuck off and leave him out of it, he holds out a hand. “Climb in, lass,” he says, and pushes them off the dock faster than Catherine knows is normal. When she dares to look back up, the soldiers are on the shore. Catherine holds her breath and prays to the Bulb above, to the Great Beasts of the Meatlands, to the old gods of the Sweeting Path—to anyone that will listen.
The sea itself rises up and meets her prayer. The second the fisherman’s boat is far enough out, an unnatural wave comes up, crashing onto the shore and knocking the soldiers back from the boat they had been about to commandeer.
“Holy Bulb above,” the man exclaims. “Never quite seen her do that before!” he laughs, looking out into the milky waters. “Brilliant though, huh? So long as she’s on our side.”
Catherine looks down at Saccharina—the air tastes like sugar. “I think she is,” Catherine says, and rubs Saccharina’s back, closing her eyes.
“What’s your name, lass?” the woman asks when Catherine shows up asking for a job, insisting that she can sew, cook, do hard labor, whatever she needs doing.
“Good name,” the woman nods, looking down at Saccharina in her arms. “Catherine, what? Will your husband be needing a job too, then? I’ve got no use for it.”
“I’m widowed,” she finds herself saying. “He died during the occupation. Last year.”
“Tis’ a shame,” the woman says, suddenly looking a lot more sympathetic than suspicious. “Catherine, what? I’ll need it, for the records, like.”
“Paneer,” she says, thinking of a boy she went to school with.
The woman scribbles it down. “I’ve only got the one small room, like.”
“That’s fine,” she rubs at Saccharina’s back. “We’re used to it.”
It’s not your fault, she thinks to herself fiercely, late at night after she’s finally gotten Saccharina to fall asleep. Catherine curls up, pulling her knees up to her chest like she did when she was young—Bulb above, she’s only twenty-two.
She pictures Amethar’s smiling face on the day of their wedding, so hard that tears prickle her eyes. She can’t figure out how to make the image of him turn cruel, but the fact that it’s been two years with no word, that he sent soldiers to capture her—to keep her quiet, she assumes—to protect whatever political nonsense that comes along with inheriting a throne. The throne that he always insisted he never cared about. Perhaps her first instincts were right after all. He is a prince and you are an orphan milkmaid, you’re not allowed to want this.
It’s been years since that maw-mouthed want flared up inside of her, and it’s all but dulled itself, now. Catherine sighs and listens to the sounds of the wind—the winds that seem to follow her daughter around. It’s not your fault that he did this, she thinks, that he’s like this; this is what power does to people. Nothing that you did made him do this to you.
But as she unfurls herself and lies down next to her daughter, a protective arm pulling her close, there’s still that part of her that hums, very quiet and very small and very persistent that says—but there must have been something that you did to deserve it.
They don’t stay on one island for very long, after that.
She uses as many names as she can get away with. Trying on a new one for each village, each new city, a few per island just to be safe. She’s called Muenster in one. Colby in another. Oka. Mish. Syr. Khoa. De Leche. Thankfully, Saccharina is still too young to even grasp the concept of surnames, let alone pronounce one to a passing villager or soldier asking questions.
The soldiers follow them.
Catherine grows paranoid. She knows that’s what it is happening, but at the very least, she is not going to just let Amethar come and take Saccharina away.
The war rages on, the islands grow poorer by the day, and Catherine picks names out of a hat and tries them on—avoiding the very person that she desperately wanted to find, only a few years ago.
The one shining light in all of it is Saccharina. The way that the air clings to her frightens Catherine, but she waves it off. Catherine gets a job helping in a shop again for a while around Saccharina’s third birthday, and it’s the happiest they’ve been in ages. The work is long and doesn’t pay well, but nothing does in war, and it’s far easier on her body than being a milkmaid ever was. The woman who owns the shop is charmed by Saccharina from the moment that she meets her—most people are, Catherine notes proudly.
The woman, Gilda, goes to a Bulbian church once a week. Always has, she says, since long before the war—just how her parents raised her up. This island was occupied by Vegetania, Catherine knows, and they tended to spread the word of the Bulb stronger than anyone else. It’s easier to blend in, for Catherine to scoop up Saccharina and walk to the church with Gilda every week than it is to fend off questions about why she wouldn’t.
It becomes a habit, a comfort, almost, even after Catherine sees more Candian soldiers and whisks Saccharina away to another island.
The year that the war finally ends is the worst year of Catherine’s life.
She is twenty-four years old and her bones feel like they belong to a woman of sixty. She can’t sleep for more than a few hours at a time, bits of her body go numb for no reason that she can think of, and that cough that appeared two years ago, comes back with a vengeance.
It scares her.
It’s not a new feeling. The world has been through five long years of war. Five years ago, Catherine was scared that Amethar was never going to come back, that he would die. Four years ago, Catherine was scared that someone would find out about Saccharina being in line for the throne and take her away. Two years ago, Catherine was scared of the way that the air clings itself to Saccharina; the way that it tastes sugary whenever she’s around, of the way the seas seem to… do her bidding. She’s afraid that it must be the Hungry One, coming to steal her daughter’s soul.
(It feels like an absurd thought, the first time that she has it. It feels like some superstitious nonsense that the Ceresain nuns would come up with to make her feel bad about herself. To repent. But, later, after going to church starts to become a habit, after it starts to bring her a hint of comfort… Catherine’s not proud of the way the thought solidifies itself).
Feeling scared isn’t anything new, not in the slightest. Feeling afraid of her daughter instead of for her, is.
Saccharina is four years old and she doesn’t want to get out of the water and follow her mother to work, she wants to be allowed to play. Catherine wants that for her, too, but they don’t have the luxury of it. She snaps, harsher than usual, and tells Saccharina to pack up her things and listen.
Saccharina brings a wave crashing out of the sea and drenches her mother with it.
The two of them stand there on the shore, gaping at one another, the shock of what just happened settling into their bodies.
“I’m sorry, Mama,” Saccharina says, immediately. “I’ll fix it.” Before Catherine can speak, Saccharina holds up her hands, scrunches up her face, and air swirls around Catherine, drying her off and leaving her breathless. When it falls away, Saccharina is beaming up at her. “LOOK!” she cheers. “I did it!”
Catherine stills, remembering the way that the elements almost used to follow Amethar around. The way that he spoke about Candia being full of magic—she thought he might have meant the sights, not actual magic. She breathes in, wet and heavy from the tears she doesn’t want to fall. Saccharina, ever attuned to her moods, bites at her lip, growing worried the longer Catherine doesn’t say anything. She wants to, but it feels like the moments right after a thunderstorm, when everything is both still and wild, she’s almost afraid to test it.
“Have you done that before?” she finally asks, keeping her voice light.
“Yep!” Saccharina beams. “Not… not on purpose like that, though. The blue lady taught me.”
“What blue lady?” Catherine breathes. She’s been so, so careful. Fuck, fuck fuck fuckfuck.
“She says she’s my aunt! But, I’ve never met her. Have you?”
Amethar told her once that his sister, Sapphria, could sneak into any place she wanted in a matter of minutes. She’s been doing it since birth and no one ever gets mad, because she can charm her way inside of anyone’s heart, too.
They found us.
Catherine walks over to Saccharina and pulls her close to her chest. “You can’t tell anyone that you can do that,” she says. Catherine pulls her back and cups Saccharina’s face. “Promise me,” she says, like it’s the most important thing that she is ever going to say to her daughter. “If the blue lady comes back, you come and you get me. You don’t ever go anywhere with her by yourself, no matter what she tells you, alright?”
Saccharina frowns but nods in agreement, albeit miserably.
Catherine pulls her close and holds her tight and tries very hard not to be afraid of yet another thing.
Amethar’s sisters all die.
Catherine misses that vital bit of information when it happens. Sapphria Rocks cannot have been showing up to chat with her niece about magic because she was dead.
They all were.
Amethar is the last surviving Rocks family member, and he has to assume the throne. The customers chat and gossip in the shop and Catherine stands there and tries not to fall over. Her head is swimming, it feels too heavy to keep holding up on her own, she’d just like to rest it back against a wall for a minute. Catherine grits her teeth and balls her hands into fists and wills herself not to faint. I’m the last in line. I’ll never have the throne and I don’t want it.
Oh, her heart beats, just for a moment, oh love, I’m so sorry.
She doesn’t have time to dwell on it, and her sympathy quickly evaporates, because the war ends, and Amethar assumes the throne, and he is betrothed to his sister’s widow, and Candian soldiers come looking for her with far more aggression than they had before. Part of Catherine had wondered if she had been imagining it, after the first time, but when she walks home after closing up the shop for the night over a week later and hands grab for her again—she knows that she wasn’t.
She is so much weaker than a twenty-five-year-old woman should be, but there must be something looking out for her, because Catherine has a blinding moment of panic when she thinks about Saccharina, and shoves herself at the soldiers as hard as she can. Her fingers catch in hair, and she pulls, tugging the man’s face towards her and biting down as hard as she can on his nose. She bites so hard, that her teeth ache for three days. She bites so hard, that flesh and blood come spitting out as she runs. She bites so hard, that the solider screams and releases her.
Catherine barrels into the meager room that they call home and scoops up Saccharina in a flash—though, mere days away from her fifth birthday, she’s too big for it. More importantly, Catherine is too weak.
“Mama,” she asks, frightened as she clings to Catherine’s neck. “What’s wrong?”
“We have to go,” is all that Catherine says.
“Another island?” Saccharina asks, a pout threatening to burst forth. She had been making friends with the girl who lived downstairs. Catherine aches for the life that she is giving her daughter—she has gone and thoroughly fucked all of this up. The selfish, angry part of her thinks: Amethar fucked it up for her first. At least Catherine is here.
For now, her heart thrums.
She takes Saccharina to the shore for her birthday sunrise.
(The last one that she’ll ever spend with her).
Saccharina crawls up onto her lap and warms the breeze around them, because she is the sweetest child there ever was, and she knows that her mother gets cold easily a lot, these days. The cough rattles Catherine’s bones, but she ignores it in favor of holding onto her daughter. She hums softly in her ear as the color starts to peak in through the night sky; a color so hard you could bash your knuckles on it.
“Do you still see the blue lady in mirrors and things?” Catherine asks her.
“Yeah,” Saccharina whispers, looking warily up at her mother, trying to gauge what her mood is on this subject.
“Does she make you feel safe?” Catherine asks.
“Yeah,” Saccharina says, easily. “I like her a lot. She says that she’s my aunt Lazuli. She says that my name is Saccharina Rocks. She says that we’re royalty. That I’m magic,” Saccharina tilts her head and looks at her mother full on. “Is that true?”
Lazuli, Catherine thinks. The Archmage who called down magical arrows from the sky. The sister who helped Amethar with his rage. The one who married a minor noble. The one that Amethar said would like her the best, after Sapph, after all of them. They’re gonna love you, another sister will make them real happy.
Lazuli, who has been dead for five years. All of them are dead. Catherine’s parents. Most of the boys that she knew from school. A lot of the girls, too. Amethar’s entire family. Maybe Manta Ray, too, she’ll never know. So many people died in the last five years. Sometimes, Catherine feels like she is one of them, like a waking ghost who hasn’t cottoned on, yet. The world twists adults into shapes they never thought that they’d be. Catherine swallows and looks down at her daughter. Her daughter, who is full to bursting with magic, there’s no use pretending otherwise anymore. Outlawed magic. Magic that everyone—most everyone—says is evil. Catherine wonders what her own mother might think, if she were here now. Would she be frightened of Saccharina, or frightened for her?
Would she be both? Catherine thinks perhaps, for her, it’s both. She doesn’t ask the questions that are fighting to crawl their way out of her throat, instead, she smiles at her daughter as the colors of the day fill up the sky and holds her close.
“It’s true,” she says. “Your father is Amethar Rocks, the new King of Candia. When I knew him though, when we got married, he was just Amethar—a prince. One of his sisters was named Lazuli. She could do magic, like you—perhaps not exactly like you, I don’t know, I never met her.”
“She says that she can’t talk to you,” Saccharina agrees. “You don’t have magic that lets her like me.” Catherine watches as Saccharina considers this thought, and decides that she doesn’t like having something that her mother doesn’t get to have, too. Catherine can see the exact moment that she reaches that conclusion. Saccharina turns around and cups her mother’s face and scrunches her eyes shut, concentrating hard.
“What are you doing?” Catherine asks, hoping it comes out more amused than frightened.
“Giving you some of my magic, too.”
Amused wins out. Catherine pokes Saccharina in the stomach, getting her to open her eyes and giggle. “I don’t think it works like that.”
Saccharina pouts, leaning further into her mother’s arms. “It should.”
“You know how we go to church?” Catherine asks, once they’ve gathered up their things and started walking back to the village. Saccharina nods. “The Bulb, doesn’t… magic doesn’t belong in the Bulbian faith. Not unless it’s something that comes from the Bulb itself. Even then, I think they’re pretty wary.”
Catherine sighs. “You shouldn’t tell people about what you can do,” she says. “They might think that it’s bad. Or wrong to have. Or… it’s just easier if you don’t tell people.”
“Is it bad?” Saccharina asks, suddenly far more worried that Catherine has ever seen her. “Am I bad?”
“No,” Catherine says, immediately. She crouches and gets eye-level with Saccharina. “There isn’t anything about you that’s bad, my love,” she says, firmly. “Not a thing.” She smiles and refuses to feel guilty about the lie.
(She doesn’t know if it is a lie. Amethar’s family might not think so at all. If they went to the Meatlands, no one would even blink, Catherine doesn’t know what the Bulb wants. When she was young, she always thought that the nuns were full of shit.
Maybe they still are).
The cough grows, and the soldiers find them two more times.
They don’t get close enough to get their hands on Catherine or Saccharina this time, which is good, because there isn’t any way that she could muster up the strength to fend them off, now.
Her body aches all the time now. The soldiers won’t stop coming for them, and Catherine isn’t going to let them hurt her daughter. Amethar is to be wed to Caramelinda of House Meringue any day now, and Saccharina and Catherine’s very existences put her—and any potential children that they might have—in jeopardy of taking the throne properly.
(The goddamn Candian throne and all its troubles can go sink in the Dairy seas, for all that Catherine gives a shit).
The Abbey of the Shimmering Cream is run by Bulbian nuns, but it’s the same place where the old midwife who predicted that Saccharina would be a girl used to live—it can’t be all that bad, if people like her started it. The Ceresain nuns are long gone.
Back home again, however briefly.
The walk to the abbey hurts her in more ways than one. Catherine holds Saccharina’s hand like it’s the most precious thing she will ever cradle between her weak, little palms—it is. Her palms are not like Amethar’s, not well built for much at all, it seems—certainly for war.
Her feet ache—everything aches. She tells the nuns that she just needs some time to recover from an illness, and they take one look at her and know that she is certainly not lying about that.
The recovery part…
The mother superior has a hard face, but Catherine waves it off. Everyone has just come out of five years’ worth of war, there are hard faces aplenty to go around, these days. “There was a midwife here five years ago who helped me give birth,” Catherine says. “She could always predict what the child would grow up to be. She was never wrong. Is she still here?” her tone must be too hopeful, because the mother superior’s face pinches like she has gone and asked the most idiotic, childish thing that she can imagine.
“No,” she says and does not elaborate.
Catherine is two seconds away from finding the strength to lift Saccharina up into her arms and march right back out of the doors. Fuck everything about this terrible idea she had, and fuck that nun, for good measure. She can go on and go straight to the Hungry One for all that Catherine cares. Good riddance. But instead of doing that brilliant display that her nineteen-year-old self would be proud of, she faints.
The last thing that she hears is Saccharina screaming for her.
When she wakes up again, she is in the most comfortable bed that she’s slept in for years, which is sad. Because when she sits up and takes a good look at it, it’s nothing but an old lumpy thing that shouldn’t be comfortable at all.
A nurse walks into the room and Catherine nearly leaps out of the bed trying to get to her. “Where is my daughter?” she demands.
“Hold on there, lass,” the nurse says, pushing her back down into the bed. “You’ve had quite the spell.”
“Where is my daughter?” Catherine demands again, undeterred. Her heart is racing in a way that frightens her, a little, but that could just be adrenaline, surely.
“She’s off with the nuns, like ye asked,” the nurse tuts at her. “Honestly.”
“Only until I’m better,” Catherine says, firm.
The nurse gives her a dubious, placating sort of look. “Alright, lass.”
She gets better enough to go home a few days later, but the nurses try to talk her out of it. Catherine drags her wretched body out of the bed and down to the abbey, banging on the door until a nun comes looking after what’s making all that ruckus.
“What in the Bulb above are ye doing?”
“I demand that you bring me my daughter,” Catherine says, feeling like she is about to fall right over. One of Saccharina’s warm breezes could do it on its own, surely.
“Oh, lass,” the nun tuts. “Look at the state of ye. Do ye really think that you’re up to lookin’ after a little one?”
“You let me see my daughter right now,” Catherine demands. She’s heard tales about the nuns taking children away from women they deemed ‘unfit’ enough times before to suddenly be very, very worried. She never should have come here at all, it’s just that one midwife made her think that maybe—
“Alright lass, calm yourself,” the nun says. “You go on home and rest up and come back when you’re able, alright? She’ll be here.”
“I need to see her before I go.”
“Now we can’t be doing that,” the nun says. “It’ll confuse her, see. Make her nervous, to see her mam all sick like. She’s doing well. Fitting right on in with the other orphans. You run on home and get yourself all rested up and come on back when you’re in fighting form, alright? May the Bulb above watch over you,” she says, and then ushers Catherine away from the door before shutting it in her face.
She’s doing well. Fitting right on in with the other orphans. Catherine tries to scream, “She’s not an orphan, she’s mine,” at the closed door, but her throat won’t get the words out right. The nun’s words wash over her like water, a baptism that she did not ask for.
When Catherine wakes up the next morning, everything feels worse than it did the day before. She spent the whole night crying so hard that her head still aches. She sits down at the kitchen table, considering whether or not to have breakfast; she’s hungry, but under the circumstances, it seems vulgar to do anything about it.
She goes back to bed.
She cannot stop shaking and her entire body hurts. She misses her daughter like someone has come along and torn her out of her chest. Catherine rolls her head over and looks at her reflection in the shoddy little mirror by the sink—she looks downright terrifying. Maybe it is good that Saccharina doesn’t see her this way.
Saccharina said that Lazuli always spoke to her from mirrors—reflective surfaces, Catherine deduces. She closes her eyes and tries to keep her breath even, tries not to look at her own reflection, tries to imagine a scholarly woman with small glasses and kind eyes. “Please,” she croaks. “Tell her that I’m coming back. Tell your brother to fuck off—I’ve never had a sibling, but I imagine you won’t take much issue with it, from the stories he told me—and tell her that I’m coming back.”
Catherine opens her eyes and looks at the reflection in the mirror. For a second, a second, she swears that she sees a flash of blue.
“Tell her that I love her,” Catherine croaks into the room. She doesn’t know who she is asking this of, now. All she knows is that maw-mouthed want of her girlhood has gone and turned itself into this one single thought, pulsing out to whatever is out there in the universe, willing to listen and pass the message along. Tell her that I love her.
Catherine Ghee is nineteen years old when she meets King Amethar of House Rocks.
Of course, he is not a king, then. At the time, she doesn’t even know that he is a prince. If she had known that, then she never would have looked him directly in the eye and winked. If she had known that she was going to fall madly, ridiculously in love, that she was going to marry him in secret and have the most beautiful, magical child that there ever was, that she was going to have to claw her way through a war, only to die alone and scared, at twenty-five, in a small room that is not even her own—then she never would have looked him directly in the eye and winked. She would have turned around and walked the other way. Probably.
Catherine rolls her head away from her reflection in the mirror and closes her eyes. She does not ever open them up again.
Catherine looks up, and Amethar looks over and catches her eye; the two of them sharing an amused smile. And he is handsome, and Catherine is nineteen… and so, she winks.