The advantage to recruiting Wes was that he could keep working on a solution when Senara had other duties to attend. Even better, as head Archivist, he was privy to the notes from the negotiations and was able to get a solid grasp on what it was Massen and Gram truly wanted from one another. As far as they could tell, the marriage was in play because Massen had his eye on securing long-term, exclusive trade rights to Astra’s newest luxury export–a type of wool made from a breed of goat found only on the Astrian plateau. It produced lightweight but highly durable fabric that held a beautiful sheen and was sure to be in high demand once it began to spread beyond Astrian borders. Senara had also gleaned from overhearing one of her father’s conversations that it had impressive alchemical applications as well. No wonder he wanted to “help” Gram distribute it to the world.
Senara wasn’t about to let herself be sold off into a miserable existence for fancy goat hair, no matter how pretty the cloaks and cowls the Astrians had brought as gifts. Every chance she got over the next week, Senara conferred with Wes on the best Peakian product to offer in permanent exchange for trade rights to the wool. The bulk of what Massen was willing to offer, aside from Senara, seemed to be more in the way of temporary aid for Astra’s current food shortages. “But there has to be something,” she told Wes, flipping through old trade agreements for the hundredth time. “Maybe I can ask Hakon.” She wrinkled her nose at the thought. The questioning would have to be discreet.
“I’m afraid that might be our best option,” Wes agreed with equal distaste. “We’re running out of time.”
It was less than two weeks until the full moon, so Senara had her maids choose a gown she knew Hakon fancied her in for dinner that evening, and let her hair be done up in an extravagant style. After eating, she asked if he might walk the battlements with her. Never was she more grateful for the shadowy presence of her guard, as they strolled the high walkway. She suppressed a stray wish that it was Eryl on duty and not his young replacement, but there was nothing to be done for that. Along with Hakon’s personal guard and his Peakian honor guard, they had quite an assembly of witnesses for their stroll. She could at least be sure that Hakon wouldn’t try anything physical with her out here. “I do love the view of the valley at night. Seeing the city all spread out below reminds me how much I love it here. I will miss it when we leave.” Sensing Hakon start to bristle, she hastened to ask, “Is there anything about Sunpeak you’ll miss, your Highness?”
The question caught him by surprise, but he recovered with a smooth smile, sliding an arm around her waist. “As far as I’m concerned, I’ll be bringing the best part of Sunpeak back to Astra with me.” Again, she caught that glint of possessiveness in his eyes and had to control a shudder.
“You flatter me, your Highness. But surely you must find something here you don’t have in Astra?”
Hakon laughed, then pursed his lips and tilted his head, however, giving the matter some thought.
Please, Senara pleaded, tell me what I need to know.
“I confess I am impressed by your country’s mastery of alchemy,” he said after a long while. “I was shown a most delightful lamp that required no flame to burn! Something like that would be very useful in Astra during the short winter days. Not in the palace, of course,” he reassured her. “We have the resources to burn candles or lanterns through the night if we desire. But so many others don’t, I’m afraid. We could be a much more productive nation without that limitation. From what I’ve learned of it since I’ve been here, I also wonder if we might have been able to use it to ward off the blight that depleted our crops.”
“I understand,” Senara nodded, only just able to conceal her eagerness. “Have none of your people come to the Academy here to study the subject for Astra’s benefit?”
“Alchemy is not well known in Astra, as we’ve always made do without. But a few of our scholars have come south to learn what they might,” he answered. “Though those who returned rather than finding work elsewhere claim that Astra is very poor in the materials required for the practice.”
“That’s unfortunate, indeed,” Senara agreed, all but giddy at the information. Sunpeak had teachers and resources for alchemy. They were not alone in this, although their Academy was considered the best place to learn the practice. But they were the closest to Astra. If the two nations could set up an exchange–guarantee so many spots at the Academy for Astrian students and supply them with the necessary materials to set up their own practices back home. Gram could hold exclusive oversight of the Astrian alchemists, ensuring their work benefited Astra how he wished and line his coffers in the process. Hakon had even given her two good justifications for introducing the practice to Astra. It also held the same sort of long-term tie that Massen was looking to secure without involving Senara one bit.
Now she just had to find a way to convince the rulers and their heirs to accept a new arrangement.
I think it might be time for me to have an unfortunate accident.
“Alchemy? Are you certain?” Wes didn’t hide his skepticism. “Surely Astra would have sought out help before now if they wished to establish the practice.”
“That’s the thing, Wes,” Senara insisted, sifting through the pile of old treaties. “They’ve never really tried because they don’t have what’s needed and they’re so isolated they haven’t really been exposed to it. They’ve only seen it when traveling in the south, so most of what they know about it is second hand. Rumors, legends, the sort of thing that can be dismissed by all but the most curious.”
“Who, upon seeking out more information, learn it’s not viable at home. All right, I concede that point. But they’ve done without for so long, why would they be interested in changing their ways?”
“Because,” Senara looked up and beamed at him, “now they’ve faced a loss that alchemy could have prevented, which is our foot in the door. On top of that, they’re losing productivity in the winter because there’s so little daylight and candles and lantern oil aren’t readily available. Start them off with alchemical lamps and crop protection. We offer training and materials to continue producing those, and the training will expand to more uses at a natural pace. That gets everyone used to it and proves to Gram it’s worth maintaining a relationship with Sunpeak.”
“So, what’s your plan?”
“I take the information to Enyon,” Senara told him. “He’s the most likely to listen, and I’ll point out it’s a huge opportunity, maybe comment that if we had thought of that before, the marriage wouldn’t even have been needed to cement the alliance.”
“Are you going to tell him what you’re planning?”
Senara shook her head. “Too risky. He might decide it would be better for him to tell Father and stop me. But when I have my so-called accident, the seed is there in his head. He’ll use it to keep the treaty from falling apart.”
Wes sighed and removed his spectacles, polishing the lenses with a handkerchief. “I still think it’s too risky, but I agree it’s the only chance we have. Are you certain this accident of yours will be convincing enough?”
“It has to be.” Senara tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. She’d given it a lot of thought. Half the time she was with Hakon, she let her mind wander to her plans, going over every possible way they might go wrong. “I’ve fallen from my horse before. It won’t be a stretch for anyone to believe I landed on the old break and it snapped, leaving me helpless.” The idea was for Senara to go for a ride while Hakon was in a meeting. She would pretend that her horse had been startled by something. She’d make it look like the horse threw her and she’d been hurt, then dragged off by a mountain cat. There would be no body for anyone to find, but she meant to leave enough of a blood trail to convince them that she’d been killed.
“You’re sure you can get away from your guard?”
Senara bit the inside of her cheek and nodded sharply. It was the weakest part of her plan, and she wished Wes would stop bringing it up. He’s just worried about you, she reminded herself. “I’ve got it covered.”
“When will you leave?”
“I’m having lunch with Enyon the day after tomorrow. I’ll tell him about the alchemy then. I need a few days to gather supplies and place them–“
“I can help with that,” Wes said. “Less suspicious that way.”
“Thank you.” She tucked another strand of hair back into place. “Hakon meets with his father all day at the end of the week. That’s when I’ll plan to go. So,” she drew a deep breath. “In four days.”
“May the goddess grace you, your Highness,” Wes told her.
May she grace me, indeed, Senara agreed. I need all of the luck I can get.
But the goddess must have been sleeping. The god that kept the day appeared to have less patience for daughters trying to escape their father’s orders. It was the only explanation for what happened at dinner that night. As they finished their dessert, Massen turned to Gram with an expectant look. Receiving a nod and a grin, he stood and announced, “My family and friends, I have wonderful news! Today, we concluded our treaty negotiations. In the spirit of a new and long-lived friendship between our two nations, Gram and I have decided that the wedding between my daughter Senara and his son Hakon will not take place here in Sunpeak, but instead will happen in Astra so that the princess may be properly welcomed to her new land. Preparations are underway for us to begin our journey to Astra tomorrow, so I suggest everyone get a good evening’s rest!” He gestured for Gram to stand and receive the smattering of excited applause from the gathered nobles. The two rulers shook hands and then turned to leave. Senara stared after them in shock, not noticing the smug grin on Hakon’s face or the annoyed look Enyon shot at Massen.
Tomorrow? How can we be leaving tomorrow? Senara sat very still, working hard to keep a neutral smile on her face. She feared if she moved, the tears she was holding back would burst forth for all to see.
Hakon slid a hand up her back, coming to rest on her shoulder in a strong grip. “An Astrian wedding! How wonderful is this, my dear?” He kept on speaking, not requiring a response from her, for which Senara was grateful. “It will take us five days by wagon to get to the river, but once we’re on the ship, that’s another five for you to learn the traditional marriage vows and joining dance. If the wind is with us, we might even return home in time to still be joined beneath the full moon!” His hand slipped down to her forearm, and he tugged her up from her seat, turning her to face him. “Come, Senara, let’s take another walk along the battlements. One last look at your homeland before we leave for mine.” She thought his smile was intended to be warm, but it felt like a cruel jab, nonetheless. She had no desire at all to go anywhere with him, but it seemed all her hopes of avoiding that fate had been dashed for good.
“Excuse me, your Highness,” Enyon said, coming to stand beside her. “I was wondering if I might borrow my sister? I need to discuss the change of plans with her.”
“Very well,” Hakon said, allowing himself a small pout. “I suppose I cannot deny you a few more moments together. If you will excuse me, I think I would still like to take in that last view of Sunpeak.” He bowed his head to Enyon and departed.
“Senara?” Enyon frowned at her where she stood frozen in place. She had a dim awareness that the room had cleared out, save for their guards waiting along the wall. “Will you come with me?”
“Of course,” she said after a moment, giving herself a shake. “What did you wish to speak about?”
His frown deepened, but he offered her an arm. “Let’s go to my rooms.” She nodded and let herself be led. They reached his rooms and he gestured for her to sit before the fire. “Are you all right, Senara?”
“Hakon’s not…that bad. There are worse matches Father could have made for you, although I think we can both agree it’s a shame you can’t remain in Sunpeak as my second.” He ran a hand through his hair, mussing it. Senara felt a spark of annoyance at that. Mother never chided Enyon when his hair was mussed. It must have shown on her face because he dropped his hand and sighed. “He seems rather fond of you,” Enyon tried. “I am sure you’ll grow used to him in time.”
“I suppose I will have to.”
“I know this isn’t what you wanted for yourself, but–“
“Why did Father change the wedding plans?”
Enyon snorted. “Gram was getting impatient.”
“I thought the marriage was Father’s idea?” She finally looked at her brother, really looked at him, and saw his frustration at the situation.
“It was,” Enyon agreed, wrinkling his nose. For the first time, it occurred to Senara that her brother might not approve of sending his sister off to Astra. “Although as soon as he got here, Hakon threw his full support behind it. Father wanted the first shipment of food to be a wedding gift to you, to give to Astra. He wanted it tied irrevocably to your marriage in the minds of the Astrian citizens. Gram didn’t want to wait to send the shipment until you returned with Hakon.” He shrugged. “The compromise was that we leave with the first shipment now and hold the wedding upon arrival in Astra.”
“I see.” And she did. This whole thing was about her father trying to sink his hooks into Astra, and to do that, he wanted her arrival to be seen as providing something that the Astrians needed. It was vain and petty, but it served his purposes well. Not to mention it caught her up in a neat little trap with no chance of escape. She stood. “I find myself weary. I’m going to bed, if you’ll excuse me. It seems that tomorrow will be a long day.”
Enyon sighed again. “Good night, Senara.”
Her rooms were one corridor over from her brother’s and it did not take her long to reach them. She almost turned around to leave again as soon as she arrived, finding them abuzz with maids packing up her belongings. A small trunk had been left out for her to fill on her own, with personal items and mementos she wished to have access to while traveling. She stared at it, unsure of what to put inside. Eventually she settled on a collection of her favorite codices and the container with her feather collection and coins. After further thought, she pulled the coin purse and her favorite feather from the container and tucked them under her pillow so that she could slip them in a pocket when she dressed in the morning. It would do her no good, but she thought maybe having them with her would give her a small pretense of hope to get her though the journey to come. She also removed Eryl’s map from its hiding place and traced a finger along it, finally allowing the tears to fall. Once she had cried herself out, she folded the map and tucked it into the coin purse, a promise of a bright future that no longer existed.