A tremor of anticipation wakes me before dawn. The eastern mountains have only just begun to glow, bringing with it the Safire arrival, and I sit in my bay window, silent, sketching the familiar view with lazy strokes of charcoal against blank paper. I feel mostly calm. Ready. But my stomach still feels like a knot, and I sing to myself in Resyan, distracting my nerves best I can.
“I am a mountain,” I whisper, “a song you remember.”
Invariably, my sketch changes to Liberty. The leafy branches become his mane and his eyes have hawks in them, wings spread. The poor stallion is still trapped in his stall, injured leg wrapped and splinted, and subtle despair tinges the groom’s reports. They’re leaving the decision up to Reni, the very worst idea. Reni won’t even speak of it. He pretends it never happened, refusing to visit the stables, and now the General is coming and everyone will forget suffering Liberty altogether.
I shade hard enough my pencil splinters.
Yesterday evening, Heathwyn lectured me on the protocol of this visit, rattling off the things to remember while a maid carefully manicured my nails, another one softening my hands with lavender-scented oil.
“All discussion with our visitors will be conducted in Landori, and you’re always to be pleasant and welcoming, no matter the attitude your brother adopts. And you be sure to offer the General the greatest respect. No commentary on Karkev or Thurn or anything contentious. Divert the conversation with a smile if you must, because your smile will be your greatest credit to this visit.”
I made sure to smile extra wide at that, and she clucked her tongue.
“Please, Aurelia, remember you will be watched every moment and your words and actions will reflect entirely on your mother. Reflect well, is that understood?”
She doesn’t know how well I understand that, how the weight of this visit feels like an entire secret world on my shoulders, one that no one else sees, and I promise to smile, smile, smile. Now, the morning sun shines fully and I strain my ears to listen for the sound of aeroplanes in the sky.
A slight impatience pricks inside.
Heathwyn arrives with warm bread and marmalade in hand, a nervous set to her lips, and I pick at the breakfast while she and another maidservant fuss with me—braiding my hair and pinning flowers, dabbing red on my lips and buttoning me into a sea-blue gown with ivory pearls—but in the end, it turns out well.
“The Safire won’t know where to look first,” Heathwyn says, studying me in the mirror, pleased. “You or your mother.”
“I’m sure it will be Violet’s breasts,” I reply with a grin.
Heathwyn clucks her tongue yet again, but Heathwyn hasn’t seen Violet’s chosen gown for today. I have, and so has Reni, and it certainly leaves only the most critical things to the imagination.
“Aurelia, such comments won’t—”
Her rebuttal is cut off by a growl that rattles the very window panes. It’s a fierce sound, echoing harshly off the mountains, passing close overhead. I rush for the window and press my face to the glass, trying to peer up, and Heathwyn tells me to stop because I’ll rub the pink off my cheeks. But there they are! Two Safire fighter planes circling low, flashing brilliant silver in the morning sun. They’re all sharp angles and grey metal compared to the smooth curves of our green Etanian planes, their ferocious noise carrying, surrounding us, seeming to grow with each moment like there are at least ten more hidden out of sight. One loops higher, playful in the morning sky. Black swords wink from the underside of the wings as he spins. Easy and graceful, like a falcon, before diving low again and rejoining his friend. Together, they arc towards the western airfield.
“Stars,” Reni says, appearing suddenly behind me. I step back, giving him space to look as well. “They’re moving at quite a speed, aren’t they?” He cranes his neck as they disappear from sight.
“Have you ever seen anything like it?” I ask.
“I have. It was at a circus, and everyone was dressed in ridiculous colours and acting like fools.”
I swipe at his arm. “I hope those aren’t your opening remarks to the General.” I notice, then, that nestled against his elegant green coat is a ceremonial pistol. “And I hope you’re planning to take that off.”
“It’s custom,” Reni replies. “Father wore his to every diplomatic function.”
“But we’re insisting the Safire remove theirs. It doesn’t look right if we refuse to do the same!”
Reni shrugs. “Dogs are muzzled, not royalty.”
On that vain note, he marches back for the hall, waving for me, and I say a quick, fervent prayer to my father that Reni doesn’t begin a whole war in one day.
Outside, the west entrance of the palace is bright with sun, its honey-coloured walls almost a glare. Etanian and Safire flags dance in the thick mountain wind, displayed in hopeful unity, and courtiers wait along the wide stone steps with chiffon skirts blowing, music sparkling amid the excitement. All eyes are on the long runway before us.
Reni and I stand on either side of Mother as she waits quietly, regally, at the top of the open-air steps in a maroon gown trimmed with gold, her chin raised and my father’s crown glimmering on her black hair. It’s a rare occasion for her to wear it. But today it gleams, luminous as her, a glorious reminder to the kingdom that there is nothing to fear and she rules in splendour. But there’s still a tiny tremor nearly hidden. She fingers the lace detailing of her skirt, and I wish I could squeeze her hand in reassurance.
On the tarmac, the two Safire fighters have landed, silver pipes along their nose trailing exhaust. The wind smells strongly of petrol and smoke. In the distant sky, a larger aeroplane appears, wide-winged and imposing. We watch it lower, hitting the runway with a high-pitched screech. It’s very large, propellers on either side, and the wings rattle as it brakes, swaying side to side slightly. There’s a fox-and-crossed-swords crest painted on the flank, and everyone lining the steps ceases their chatter, tilting their heads, whispering now as if their words might already be heard by the General himself.
One of the Safire pilots leaps down from his now idle fighter. His red hair is a blaze in the sun. The second pilot walks over, and they light up their cigarettes without even a glance at the royal court waiting nearby. Etanian ground crew attempt to speak to them, but they ignore it, striding for the large plane, trailing smoke like their fighters.
Mother flicks her hand. The royal guards on the tarmac come to attention.
Safire uniforms emerge from the General’s plane as the metallic creature hisses in the sun, steel and aluminum pieces settling. They march down the stairs, appearing confident, but none of them look quite like General Dakar—at least, not as far as I know. I’ve only ever seen a few distant photographs in the newspapers. It’s not until the two Safire pilots stamp out their cigarettes and straighten that I think we must be nearly to him. A man with dark skin appears at the top of the stairs. His uniform’s richly medaled, his head swiveling round to take in the runway and palace.
“Admiral Malek,” I hear one lord say knowingly to a nearby friend.
Then the Admiral is down the stairs and another tall, grey-clad shape looms in the door of the plane.
The General, at last.
He pauses there for a long, weighted moment, surveying the world before him. His gaze moves from the line of royal guards to the stone steps and then on up to Mother beneath the arched facade. He smiles.
Descending the stairs, he greets Lord Marcin and Lord Jerig with handshakes. They both put on a good show, thank the stars, then Admiral Malek and the General walk across the tarmac together, the General offering those he passes a formal, yet affable, nod.
When they stride up the palace steps, he’s still wearing his polite smile, and Mother returns it. It’s her polished one that radiates certainty. The General drops into a short bow before us. The rest of his Safire party, following behind, does the same.
“Your Majesty,” he says. “At last we’ve arrived. We’re honoured to be your guests.”
Mother dips her chin in respect. “You’re most welcome in Etania, General. The honour is ours.”