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She sits down for tea with the former empress, in the green gardens of the capital where everything seems like a paper cutout dream. The lady Orlienne knows her, and chokes her teacup with heavy-grained sugar and milk until the tea inside is pale pink and grainy, like liquefied candy, the level that Natalia finds potable.

She sits politely and drinks the tea. It is the best leaf in all of Gargandia, prepared by the most skilled servants in the castle, and yet it still has an awful aftertaste.

She thinks it might be the way that Orlienne smiles. It is—as some might say—in the manner of the cat that got the canary.

“We have no need to worry about what is happening outside,” she says. Her lined face is serene. She carries herself as if she owns and rules all the wide universe. “I have all I need, and so must you.”

Orlienne seems, often, like a small pampered child—smug in the security of all her favorite toys. She is not sure the former empress thinks of anyone else as real; she is not sure she is much more than a pet in the dowager’s eyes.

It is, perhaps, not a thing that can be helped. She was prettily kept by Wolfgang III, weighted down by pregnancy after pregnancy and prevented from moving beyond her lofty perch. To Orlienne, the world around her must have seemed like a great mass of kites—and for a sly and willful woman, it would not be difficult at all to grow used to tugging their strings to create a desirable outcome.

Natalia knows that Orlienne will simply look at her blandly and blankly if she tries to criticize, tries to offer knowledge that this isn’t the right way to look at the world. She drinks the tea in silence.

 

 

She misses the days when Alyssa looked up to her, the days when Alyssa was obedient, but she looks back on those days and wonders if Alyssa was ever obedient at all. She is as willful as her mother, now, as severe and stubborn as Robertus, and she is wilier than either of them at it.

Empress Alessandra fights practice battles with knights for two hours every day, until her breath comes in harsh gasps and sweat pools along her biceps and between her breasts. She never loses a battle, and every night she takes down her hair and slips out of the palace in her red hood.

If Natalia tries to protest, she will simply go anyway, secure in the knowledge that Natalia will not rearrange the guard so that she is caught: Not merely because she is as solipsist and confident as her mother, but because the authority of the capital’s defenses lies solely with her. Alyssa led the revolution, and Natalia was simply there to support her. The people all know this: Their allegiance and trust lies with the proven, visible general.

 

 

Tonight Julio fucks her against the window of his mansion. Alyssa is beautiful bent forward with her hands splayed against the glass. Natalia watches from the shadow of the trees, both hands slid between her thighs. Alyssa never climaxes gracefully with a man inside her, but neither does she mewl and shake her head helplessly like she did when Natalia made love to her unripe body in their old birdcage. She looks wholly alive, and pleased, and fully dominant even with her naked breasts pressed into pale moons on the glass.

Natalia comes into her hands even as the faraway pair of them come into each other, and it feels so pleasant that she forgets to be angry at herself.

 

 

“I won’t,” says Alyssa, braiding her hair with practiced hands.

“It will destroy your standing with the people,” Natalia says. “You must.”

“I will be the judge of that,” Alyssa snaps. “This could very well be the step that gains my victory, that proves me correct and your father wrong for ever.”

Natalia considers her words. “But—you must not resort to such methods simply to coerce Julio into marriage with you. It is not the way to gain anyone’s allegiance, and it is certainly not the way to gain anyone’s heart.”

Alyssa narrows her eyes. “That is quite an accusation to make of me.”

Natalia lowers her gaze, and waits for the sounds of clothes rustling to look back up.

“The marriage isn’t about gaining anyone’s heart, or anyone’s allegiance. It’s about politics. It’s about giving birth to mixed-blood children who will be raised and adored publicly. It’s about giving people hope. We could go on having plenty of sex without being married. We could go on caring for each other without being married. I could become pregnant as many times as I wish without being married—any children I bear would only have to be cloistered away, just like I was.

“My body is mine. My choices are mine. If I make a child with Julio, my decision about what to do from then on will be mine and his.”

Natalia remembers Orlienne, selfish and smug, and holds her peace.

 

 

She imagines Alyssa with child, the sweet arc of a pregnant belly and a swollen heaviness to her breasts. It makes her wet.

 

 

“I am not a figurehead to be controlled,” Alyssa shouts to the room. “I am not a temple to be worshiped. I am not a doll to be fucked.”

 

 

They probably started having sex too young, Natalia thinks. For the years she had Alyssa all to herself, Alyssa would simply lie along the bed and offer herself, let Natalia do as she pleased, not raising a hand to reciprocate. She allowed herself to be tasted, taken, and would raise her voice in wholly unselfconscious pleasure.

Now her body has been held by too many hands, felt the touch of too many fingers and mouths, been penetrated by too many people in too many different ways.

Alyssa is not pliant and passive any longer. She has awakened too fully to her own desires. There are days that Natalia wishes they could go back, and days that she thinks Alyssa’s new aggression, her new insistence on mutual touch and roughness feels much more genuine and ought be cherished in its own right.

 

 

The same night they argued, Alyssa holds her down with freshly callused hands and fucks Natalia with three fingers until she whines like a little girl and she soaks the sheets pink as Orlienne’s tea, her come streaked with wisps of blood. Alyssa holds Natalia’s head between her legs, fingers fierce and tight in her hair. Natalia feels liberated.

 

 

“The choices I make are mine.” Alyssa’s eyes burn. “The mistakes I make are mine.”