Branwen's eyes snagged on the queen's and she ducked her head. Technically, as a lady's maid, she was charged with keeping the princess safe — even from herself. Her aunt had never made her feel like a servant, however. She'd always treated her more like another daughter. Queen Eseult dropped a comforting hand on Branwen's shoulder.
She had an uncanny knack for reading other people's emotions. Whispers abounded that the Old Ones had gifted her with the ability to see into the Otherworld, but Branwen was undecided regarding things she couldn't hold in her hand and examine. If the Old Ones truly existed and were protecting the kingdom of Iveriu, then why did they permit the Kernyveu to continue their slaughter?
Essy remained happily ignorant of the silent exchange between Branwen and her mother. Essy twitched her nose and stuck her tongue out at her cousin, no longer pretending to hide her intoxicated state. Everyone in Iveriu still knows her name. And to be fought over by two supernatural men Branwen and the queen couldn't stop themselves from laughing. Essy's charm was nothing if not infectious, and she always drew Branwen back from the dark places in her head.
It never ended well. In one version she was cursed by her lover's jealous wife to be an insect. In another she was spirited away to the Otherworld forever. Maybe Branwen just wasn't a romantic.
Her aunt caught her eye, almost as if she knew precisely what Branwen was thinking. The corner of the queen's mouth arced upward and she winked. Branwen would always be indebted to her aunt not only for raising her but also for taking her on as an apprentice healer. Queen Eseult was renowned throughout the kingdom for her skills with herbs.
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Branwen may not have believed in the Old Ones, but medicine was something she understood. She often worked by candlelight long after Essy had fallen asleep, grinding and mixing new remedies to test or practicing her stitches on cushions. Branwen wanted to be able to save somebody else's parents, somebody else's children. If her parents had reached a healer in time, could they have been saved?
The queen made sure Branwen never learned the precise details of their deaths, but the question haunted her. Something had broken inside Branwen the day her parents died and never fully mended; something had ignited, too — a fiery hatred that she knew would consume her if she didn't keep it carefully controlled.
With a sly sideways glance at her daughter, Queen Eseult said to Branwen, "Once the princess has recovered her Branwen nodded. Mermaid's hair was luminous turquoise seaweed that made the surface of the water glow like a lantern on moonless nights. Fresh air and a walk would do her good. The weather has been so temperamental lately.
Gross, Mother. The queen sighed. Branwen held her breath. Any other queen would have struck her daughter for being so insolent and behaving with such impropriety. A lady's maid could also expect to be punished if her charge made such a remark. Queen Eseult simply recorked the elderberry wine. Then she stooped down, kissing the princess on the forehead.
Essy made a noise of complaint. Branwen's aunt turned toward her and kissed her temple, too. As warmth from the kiss radiated outward, she was choked by shame for failing in her duties. Branwen shrugged, letting her cousin tug her from the chair. Request or command, she would do anything to repay the queen's love. Essy stumbled along beside her as they wended their way from the castle to the beach below.
When they were children, Branwen had resented her younger cousin's following her everywhere, constantly pestering her, but the gap in their ages eventually meant less and less, and Branwen could no longer imagine her own portrait without Essy painted by her side. Keane kept a respectful but watchful distance from the princess and her lady's maid.
Branwen was glad she didn't have a bodyguard of her own. It would get tiresome. She usually spent her spare time on the rocks below the ramparts. They seemed fierce and protective to her, like Queen Eseult; in the fading sunlight, the stone of the four rounded towers shone like emeralds.
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Branwen always knew she was safe within the castle walls. Its bastions jutting out toward the sea were lined with archers to fend off any invaders, like the Kernyvak pirates who killed her parents. And yet she couldn't resist the urge to be free of them. Most people would avoid the spot where they'd learned their parents had been murdered. But, for Branwen, this was also the last place she had known they were alive. That they would be coming back for her soon. Her pulse spiked as the breakers crashed in her ears. Essy had the same eyes as Branwen's mother, Lady Alana — green like Rigani stones.
It made her love her cousin that much more. She, on the other hand, had inherited coppery brown eyes from her father, Lord Caedmon. The princess twisted a straw-colored lock around her finger and pulled, scowling at her cousin.
Do you think Lord Diarmuid could? Real sadness underscored her words and Branwen's heart ached. Her cousin spent too much time losing herself in old, romantic ballads. It wouldn't help prepare her for a political marriage. I want a lover. I want a man who loves me — not my kingdom or my titles. I don't care who knows. I don't care if everyone knows! Sidelong, Branwen glimpsed Keane furrowing his brow.
Essy was the kingdom. One day she'd be queen and her first duty would be to the Land. To Iveriu. When the time came, Essy would do the right thing for her people. Branwen only wished it wouldn't make her so miserable. Branwen's gaze skated over the waves, darkening as the sun set, and thought of her parents. There was an Otherworld that supposedly lay beyond the waves. Were they there? Were they happy? The only thing Branwen knew for certain lay beyond the waves was the island of Albion and their enemy, the kingdom of Kernyv, on its western peninsula.
Essy followed her gaze to the beach.
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There was a pinch in Branwen's chest. She shouldn't have doubted her cousin. Essy knew her better than anyone. Branwen sighed.
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Nothing would ever bring Branwen's parents back, and nothing would ever change the fact that Essy was born to royalty. Her blood dictated her future.
Branwen squeezed her cousin's elbow. She'd try to be more understanding. You don't always have to be so stoic.