Despite being a princess, one of the ways I was like many other little girls in the kingdom was that my mother and my grandmother used to bleach my hair once a week. They were too skilful to do it blonde; it made the new growth at the scalp too obvious, and it was too obvious anyway from the tone of my skin that it was not my true colour, no matter how often they bathed me in milk or refused to let me see the sun without a veil. Instead they left the bleach in long enough to lighten it to brown and put in honey blonde highlights and streaks along the curl-paper ringlets to make the overall effect lighter still. When I was dressed for any public occasions, they skilfully powdered my face paler and dressed me in blue and green so that my eyes would reflect the colours.

The Church had blamed my great-grandmother’s power on her blood – she had travelled across the inland sea from Aragognhy in the East to marry my great-grandfather. She was far from the only one, of course – before the war and the Interdiction, there had been generations of travel and trade between us. The Rooting Out is vivid in my mother’s memory, though the worst was over before she was born, but the scars ran deep enough in her far country manor that she speaks of it as if she was there.

For most of the girls whose mothers did this now, it was a matter of beauty and fashion and marriage prospects. Not a matter of life and death, as it still was for my brother and I.

My grandmother was the most talented, though she peered painfully as she worked even with her face an inch from my head. They would not have let my grandfather live if his cousin Anri had not been killed in a rockfall the previous autumn. As it was, he was the only halfway legitimate heir – and even the Synod did not have the gall to kill the only scion of the Blood remaining.

They kept him close, though, in a cell the three paces across, Testing and Testing him over and over until he was a broken wreck of a young man who would denounce his mother every Sabbar and Festing. And they married him to the purest vessel they could find – a virgin noble maiden given to the Daughters of Darkness at the age of three, just about to take her final vows at the age of twenty-six. I’ve seen an imago of their wedding – my grandfather so thin and frail he could barely stand in his cloth of gold robe, his dark eyes staring out of his tic-twisted face, and my grandmother near-albino in white silk no paler than her face, the pearl-embroidered veil over her hair not quite hiding the strip of dark cloth tied over her eyes to prevent her screaming in pain at the light.

She was a bad choice, despite that. They had broken my grandfather, and he remained broken; fading away after barely seven years of the weight of the Synod’s Will upon him, but after doing the vital duty of siring my father. They had put little weight on my grandmother, assuming that the Daughters and the dark she was raised in had broken any will in her long since. She does a very fine impression of that, I must admit; I don’t believe I’ve ever heard her speak above a whisper, and her head is always demurely bent low under her grey widow-veil. They never considered, somehow, that perhaps a soul that could survive the Daughters and the darkness might have acquired two things; a will of stone and iron, and the patience of quiet, dripping water. I have no doubt that, without her, my family would not have survived to my and my brother’s conception, let alone attained the limited freedom we have today.

Once, when I was a tiny child, not much more than an infant, I went wandering in the Palace. My brother was badly sick with a fever, I believe; at any rate, no one was looking after me or for me. I wandered into the Throne Room; I had not been there since my public presentation after my baptismal. I wandered the room and eventually fell asleep behind one of the Noble’s Boxes.

I awoke to the familiar sound of my grandmother’s whisper-soft voice. Peering out from my hidey-hole, I saw my grandmother, kneeling in her accustomed place on the cushion at the right-hand side of the Throne. Instead of being bent low though, she was kneeling tall, looking upwards.

I was too far away to catch more than snatches of what she said. And perhaps I am wrong. My grandmother is still and always has been a devout woman, after all. Perhaps she was simply praying there for strength to carry the burdens life has given us.

I do not believe so, however. I think that, some day, the Synod will regret the symbol they chose. I think they will regret having her son and her blood enthroned beneath my great-grandmother’s skeleton, bound with iron chains and thorns and her wings nailed to the arms of the iron crucifer. I can see my grandmother’s face turned upwards to the skull’s empty eyes, her mouth shaping words, and I feel a bone-deep ache and movement in my shoulderblades, as though something is fluttering and growing under the skin.

 

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