Hello, Sister by Sakimichan(Deviant Art)
I frowned over the maps, with my head bowed under the weight of a kingdom. The Mirsken Hain were still pressing my southern borders, hard enough to cost me soldiers and morale, but not hard enough to convince The Nine to take up arms. They worried too much about setting a precedent of bending to the whims of humans. The First thought we could maintain an iron border forever.
In the meantime, my people were paying the price of complacency. None of the other eight kingdoms were bound to send soldiers to my border if we were not at war, and the crisis was not yet dire enough for me to plead for aid. But eventually, action would be required.
The Hain had allies protecting almost every border but the one shared with my kingdom, and could devote the full force of their military to a campaign. I knew that they wanted the southern mountainsides and the diamonds that were being mined there. They would take almost two hundred square miles of territory to hold the mountains and two hundred more to secure them. But to reveal their plans I would have to explain how I learned them, and that would put my sister at risk.
I closed my eyes and bit my lip as tears threatened. Thoughts of my twin sister always threatened my composure. She was out there alone. She would be thinking I looked down on her, while she faced whatever dangers she faced. I picked the stone paperweights up from each corner of the map, rolling it up tightly, struggling for calm as I slid the map into its niche. There would be servants about, and men and women of the court. Strength, Ilyssa. Strength. Then I stepped out into the hallway to return to my apartments.
As I walked, I made my mind a mirror, my face reflecting the smiles and greetings of those I passed. Inwardly, my mind was in turmoil. I hated what my sister did, and sometimes I hated her. But she was my sister, and she was never truly out of danger. Slowly, I became aware that I had not seen anybody for a while. These halls should not be empty.
I had only begun to worry about assassins when I heard her voice, and my body stiffened in startled recognition. “Hello, sister.”
A hand stroked through my hair, and I started walking again to evade her touch. My nerves were a jangled mess. Every time, every time she caught me unaware. Every time I vowed that I would be more alert, but every time she got to me unnoticed. It made me angry, made me ashamed. What if it had been someone else, truly here to kill me? I bore the weight of a kingdom. I was supposed to be stronger, more aware.
I turned to my door, fumbling with the key, trembling with conflicting emotions. “Just find me in my rooms like a normal person. By the grace, sneaking up on me is like a compulsion with you. To think I was worried about you! And how did you empty this hall, anyway? No, I don’t care, just tell me you didn’t kill anybody in the castle.”
She was cold and smooth as ice, as always. I could never shake her as she could shake me. Was I weaker than her, or did she hide her turmoil better? Either way, it was a skill I would do well to develop. “You don’t want this in your room. It’ll stink the place up.”
That is when I caught the scent–copper, and the muted stench of decay. I turned and examined her for the first time. Her eyes shone with concentrated magic, stolen from the souls of the dead. The hem of her cloak was hung with small rune crystals–those were new. Their placement did not look protective; more likely, they were to help her kill. In her right hand was a bag that was stained red and brown. “Oh by grace…Asyllia, what did you do? In our home? Among our people?”
She scoffed, and upended the bag, letting the severed head fall out. I felt nausea bloom as the smell got worse and struggled to force it back, coughing on the bile that rose. I had to look away, earning me a fierce scowl. “You never had any faith in me, sister, but this is my home too. These are also my people. I’m monstrous, but I’m not a monster . . . except to our enemies.”
She grabbed the grotesque package by the hair and lifted it into my face. I began to look away, but then recognition kindled in my mind. “Is that . . . that’s King Tyvalt! You killed the king of Mirsken Hain!?” I looked up and down the hallway, horrified that someone would see me standing here talking to an assassin about a king’s severed head.
My sister just laughed at my worries. I knew she was making a point about her confidence in clearing the halls, but I still worried someone would hear. She put the head back into the bag, then neatly into a box with latches and straps.
I fumed at how she ignored all my concerns as meaningless and infuriated that she was right. “Just what am I supposed to do with this . . . this!?”
She buckled the latches, the scent of death fading quickly, and stood up with the case in hand. “You can do what you like with this. Discard it, or give it to the Nine as evidence that we are the blade with the determination to protect them all; we hold the contested borders, we are already their shield. You know what I would do. You can’t remain the lowest of them; you’re the only one of them there for the right reasons.”
I looked at her as if seeing her for the first time. Her face was a mask, but she was my twin sister. Her face was also my face, and I could read her concern and worry as quickly as I could turn the page of a book. “Asillya? Are you trying to take care of me?”
She stared at me, face impassive. The pause was uncharacteristic of her – she always seemed to know the right thing to say or do. “Ilyssa, you’re the eldest. You have the most to bear. All civilized folk live in a cage, but yours is the cruelest. Of course, I take care of you.”
Sorrow and heat filled me, in equal measure. I felt sadness twist my features, and I slapped her. Though my sister was the killer, it was expected that I would see an assassin or two in my career, and my slap was no girly thing. I curled my fingers back and struck with the corner of my palm. The blow was supported by the bones of my arm, the rotation of my hips, all the way to my feet, anchoring the impact.
I did not catch her off guard; she just accepted the blow from her sister. As she staggered, I swept forward and clutched her into a hug. “Asillya! You blackened yourself for this!? Did you even think about what I wanted? I wanted you to live well! Marry who you liked! Study your archery, pursue the hunt, I wanted you to enjoy all the unladylike things that I couldn’t!” I pounded my small fists on her chest, torn between hitting her and hugging her. It took me a moment to realize that the dampness of her cloak was from my tears.
Her arms came around me and pulled me to her, and I could not help but hug her back tightly. “I wouldn’t abandon you so selfishly. You’re a good leader; you didn’t need help with that. I took on the things a leader could never do. We’re two sides of a coin, sister. Opposites, inseparable.”
Finally, I stepped back, patting at the moisture on my cheeks with a handkerchief. “I’m sorry I lost faith in you. I still hate what choose to do, though. You were supposed to really live, in place of the girl who couldn’t.”
She smiled, back to her confident self once more, and held the case out to me. “I’ll leave the ‘real’ living to little Tessamy, and help my sister bear her burdens in my own way.”
I sighed, looking at the case. It was a clean and polished white cube with rounded corners, the straps arranged so it could be comfortably carried over a shoulder. A layer of wax along the seam sealed it neatly, and the scent had completely dissipated now. From the outside, it might hold bottles of wine or a piece of sculpture.
I regarded it and wondered what it would do to my reputation to wave a severed head around. Alliances would get tricky. I would lose my ‘ladylike appeal’, and political considerations might be the only thing I married for. It would be painful to never have that affection, but those of my standing were slaves to our crown. I had stopped expecting the right to choose a mate for love when I was five.
I next considered how it could improve my standing among the Nine. My sister was right. There were forty-five votes held by the Nine, and I held only one. I persuaded and argued, but except in the very closest calls, I did not have the power to decide anything. I looked at the box in my hand, then I looked up into my sister’s eyes.