After that class, Alainna followed Solea into Solea’s room, seething. “What is he planning?” Alainna said, once Solea closed the door.
“So does this mean that you’ve decided that you can finally talk with me?” Solea said sarcastically, glowering at Alainna. “About time. It’s only been three weeks.”
Alainna glared right back at her. “I have every reason to be angry with you. You humiliated me at my birthday party. Your father attacked me while you just sat back right beside him and watched. And then you had the audacity to open — and keep! — gifts that had been specifically given to me. What do you expect me to do? Be happy?”
Solea eyed the cloak, which hung by her door neatly on its hook, and clenched her hands into fists. “You rejected that gift from my father,” she said, trembling. “You knocked him so hard off the table that he bled. And, when he got back up and tried to give it to you again, this time offering an explanation, you insulted his dead wife to his face. What did you honestly expect?”
“At least I’m not the one who killed his wife!” Alainna hissed.
Solea stared at Alainna, stunned.
And then she started to cry.
At first, Alainna stared at Solea unflinchingly. Then, after a minute passed and Solea sat down and buried her head in her arms, Alainna looked uncomfortable. “Come on now,” she said sharply. “Why are you crying? It’s not as if he hates you now for it. He still loves you. Despite everything, he loves you. Doesn’t that make you feel happy?”
Alainna frowned. “Then you’re an idiot.” When Solea continued to cry, Alainna said, “It could be worse. My father? He left as soon as my mom told him that she was pregnant with me. I am the Lady now, and he still hasn’t tried to contact my mother. To him, I don’t even exist. My mother and I could die, and it wouldn’t be important to him. Your father might be strange, but at least you have one.”
Solea fished for a handkerchief and blew her nose.
Alainna sat down next to Solea and grabbed her hand. “Stop crying. It’s not important anymore. I have your father and you have my mother, and I suppose we have each other as sisters, whether we like it or not. Which is a good thing too, because now we need to talk. That Swan, Sergius? You seemed to know him already. And he said something about ordering your execution early before class. He called it a big misunderstanding. What was that about?”
Solea took several deep breaths and shuddered. She started to hiccup. “Remember when we first met? When my father was really sick?”
Alainna shook her head. “Not really,” she admitted. “That whole part of my life is a confusing blur.” When Solea’s face fell, Alainna said, “I remember some things. I remember that Theron was really sick. I remember that my mother tried to marry him when he was really sick. And she tried to do it quickly, since she wanted to adopt you if he died, since she was afraid that you would be shipped to the orphanage. But she couldn’t marry him since he was too sick, so she tried to adopt you. And then suddenly you disappeared for some reason and you came back, you were a Black Swan’s daughter. The whole thing didn’t make any sense at all. And then they tested me and they found out that I was the Lady, and that’s when things really became crazy.”
Solea took a deep breath. “When your mother tried to adopt me, they took my blood to test to see if I was a Conqueror, just because that’s what they always do. Well, the test came back as Indeterminate, which meant that I either had Swan blood or Conqueror blood."
Alainna made a face. "What does that even mean to have Swan blood? I never understood."
"What do you mean?" Solea asked, hiccuping.
"Besides ancestry, how is your blood different than mine?"
Solea suddenly glared at her. "What sort of question is that? Do you like me to bleed myself and show you?”
Alainna suddenly blushed. “I didn’t mean it that way! I would be perfectly happy if you just described it to me. Just, I honestly don’t know what makes it different. All I know is whenever they test me, they prick my finger and put my blood in some water. But they’ve never explained why.”
“So you don’t know?” Solea asked warily.
“I honestly don’t know,” Alainna insisted.
Solea grimaced. Then she sighed. “I suppose you should know, seeing as you are the Lady. It seems like that might be something the Lady ought to know.” Then she sighed. “Here, I’ll show you. It’s easier for you to see than it would be for me to describe.”
Solea took out two bowls and filled them with water. Then she set them on the desk. Then, while Alainna peered at the bowls skeptically, Solea grabbed her sewing bag, which she had brought out for embroidery class, took out a needle, and handed it to Alainna. "Prick your finger so that a drop of blood falls into the bowl."
Alainna frowned at Solea, but did what Solea told her to do. A moment later, a drop of blood fell and began to diffuse normally.
"Now watch," Solea commanded. She took another needle and pricked her finger, letting the drop fall into the bowl. Instantly, the water exploded with light, save for the drop of blood, which seemed eerily black in the brightness of the light. And then the light faded away and the bowl looked just like Alainna’s bowl.
"Oh!" Alainna cried, looking at both bowls in astonishment. "Is that what happens?"
“Can your blood do anything else?” Alainna asked, picking up the bowl with Solea’s blood and swirling it around, as if to make it do something different. “Anything special?”
“Because of my blood, I was nearly killed,” Solea snapped. “I suppose that’s special.”
Alainna scowled at Solea. “That’s not what I meant! There’s no need to be nasty to me.” Then she looked closer at the bowl and frowned. “Why would the Swans kill you for having Swan blood anyway? That doesn’t make sense to me.”
“Because Conqueror blood looks the same, and the Conquerors always have unclaimed blood,” Solea said bitterly. “See, when they tested my father’s blood — that is, Theron’s blood — and they found that I was not his true daughter. Nor were there any records of my mother having any Swan blood. So, since my mother had died and no one had officially claimed me, they declared that Theron wasn’t my real father, and they put up notices for Swans to come and claim me, just in case I happened to be a Swan’s accident.”
At those words, Solea stopped. It felt as though there was a lump in her throat and, if she kept talking, she would choke.
Alainna looked thoughtful. “That sounds familiar,” she said slowly. Then she frowned. “At least, it sounds familiar. But didn’t Uclepidies come to claim you?”
Solea swallowed hard and nodded, more tears coming to her eyes. “He tried to claim me then. But when he came forward, nobody believed him. They thought he couldn’t have a child, since he was too broken. And it wasn’t as if he could tell his story to them anyway, because he can’t speak without his Voice, and Father was so sick. ”
Alainna suddenly looked grumpy. “Uclepidies didn’t seem very broken at my birthday party,” she muttered darkly. “In fact, he seemed terrifyingly strong.”
Solea shrugged. “He’s not strong at all,” she said miserably. “My uncles were teasing him about how crippled he was when he first came in. He never participates during Frenzy. And my father — that is, Theron — told your mother once that he never changes into his human form because he is too broken for that. Even when we’re at home, all he does is just sit down in a pile of blankets by the fire and shiver. So he must be quite wretched, even if we can’t tell.”
Alainna considered this. “He does like his spot by the fire,” she said reluctantly. “I suppose you must be right. Though, I still don’t understand. The Swans asked if anyone would claim you, so he did. Then they assumed that this meant that you were a Conqueror?” When Solea nodded, Alainna said, “Wouldn’t the very fact that he claimed you make you not a Conqueror?”
Solea blushed. “Except anybody who is of Conqueror descent can possess the Twelve Black Swans and he is one of the Twelve. So they thought that I must be a Conqueror for inducing him to make such an outrageous claim. Then Sergius — since he is the one who is in charge of that whole program — charged me with possessing a Black Swan and ordered for my execution.
“Which, fortunately, never happened.”
Solea grimaced. “It might have happened, except Uclepidies forced his way into my prison cell and fought off anybody who tried to touch me,” she said glumly. “That’s when Sergius decided to do a better job investigating, since something seemed strange. So he healed Theron to get his story. And he found Archondid and Eurodities, since they are my legal godparents and he thought this was a strange coincidence. They had been away when all of this had happened because they were molting, so they had no idea what had happened. And that’s when the truth finally came out.”
“That’s what happened?” Alainna said, stunned. Then she frowned. “If your father — I mean, Uclepidies — did all of that to protect you, then why are you so angry at him still?”
Solea made a face. “He could have claimed me from the very beginning when I was born and avoided this entire mess.”
“Why didn’t he claim you?”
Solea shrugged. “I asked him once, and he only apologized. He didn’t try to explain it at all. He probably hoped that he would never have to claim me to avoid embarrassment.”
“I see.” Alainna thought about it for a moment and shrugged. Then, in a bitter voice, she said, “I suppose I would have been angry too if my real father had shown up without any sort of explanation at all. Though, that is not a problem that I’ve had to face. My father didn’t even try to claim me, even when everybody found out that I was the Lady. Aren’t I the lucky one?”
And Solea didn’t know what to say to that.
Alainna stood up and started pacing. Then, in an angry voice, she said, “If I had known this story, I would have made Sergius bow to you as well. That makes me mad! And then, to have treated you so rudely? He’s the one who needs to be taught manners!” Then she stopped and turned to Solea. “You need to write your father a letter. He is one of the Twelve Black Swans. He has influence. Perhaps he can sort things out and stop Sergius from doing whatever Sergius is planning to do.”
Solea snorted, in spite of herself. “What am I going to say?” she snapped. “‘Dear Father. Sorry for humiliating you and your mother in front of everybody at your mother’s birthday party. Please stop your crazy brother from ruining my life. Again. Love, Solea.’”
Alainna shook her head. “I mean, you can apologize to him, if you haven’t done so already. You were pretty awful to him. But, clearly, Uclepidies is doing something to aggravate Sergius. Remember what Sergius said? Before we went to class, he asked you to tell your father to stop being stubborn. And then in class, he said that all they needed to do was finalize the replacement. They haven’t done that yet! And my guess is that your father is standing in the way of finalizing that decision.”
“How exactly am I supposed to talk with my father?” Solea said bitterly. “We don’t exactly have the best relationship, if you haven’t already noticed.”
“He just gave you a priceless feather from Diamea!” Alainna snapped. “And, in any case, you have a better relationship with him than I do, just in case you haven’t already noticed that little fact. You need to be the one who writes the letter.”
“But you’re the Lady,” Solea said.
“And you’re his daughter,” Alainna said. “Besides,” she said miserably, “everybody thought I sounded like a Conqueror when I wrote those last letters to Swans. And that was for a birthday list! If I write a letter to him now, I don’t even want to think about what he’ll say. That’s why you need to write the letter.”
Solea reluctantly brought out a piece of paper.
Dear Father, she began writing. And then she stopped. “I have no idea what to write.”
“Maybe if you make it seem like Sergius is forcing you to write a hostage note, it’ll make him mad,” Alainna suggested cheerfully.
Solea smiled at that. “Well, Sergius did tell me to tell him to stop being ridiculous.” She looked at the paper again. “Are we friends again?” she asked suddenly, looking up at Alainna.
Alainna made a face. “Worse. We’re sisters.”
Solea smiled and wrote:
First, I am very sorry for how poorly I treated you and your mother, the Lady, at the ball. You will be happy to know that Alainna and I have since made up and are friendly with each other again. I hope that you will forgive me too.
I have been requested by my uncle and your brother, Sergius, that I should tell you to stop being stubborn and to let him do what he feels like he needs to do. He said something about teaching me to fly. I am not sure what he means. Perhaps you can remind him gently that I am a human and my hopes of flying are limited, preferably before he shoves me off a cliff.
Thank you for looking out for us from afar.
“You forgot the part where Sergius was arrogant and cruel and disrespectful towards us,” Alainna said, squinting over the letter.
Solea shrugged. “Uclepidies is a Black Swan. I don’t think that’s something that he cares about a lot.”
Alainna shook her head in disdain. “What about the part where Sergius is trying to implement an evil language teacher over us to subjugate us to his whims?”
“We don’t know that for sure, do we?”
“Still, you could ask him for some more information about that, or ask him why he is stalling as much as Sergius thinks he is,” Alainna insisted. “He might be willing to tell you what’s going on in more detail than Sergius would bother telling you.”
“I don’t really want to ask,” Solea said strangely.
“But that’s the entire point of the letter!” Alainna snapped. “He won’t listen to me. But maybe there’s a chance that he’ll listen to you. And besides, what’s the worst that could happen?”
“He gets annoyed and attacks me?” Solea suggested.
Alainna made a face and read over the letter once more. Then she said, “Why did you sign it with sincerely? That’s something that you would do with an acquaintance. You’re his daughter. Shouldn’t you sign it with love?”
Solea shrugged again. “We’re not that close.”
“Yes, but if you sign it with love, he’ll probably be even more receptive to your letter and probably be more willing to fight with Sergius even more.”
“He’ll understand,” Solea said, annoyed. “As I said, we’re not that close.”
Alainna shook her head. “I don’t understand you sometimes, Solea. He’s already shown you that he’s willing to fight for you, if he needs to, even though he’s not very strong. He claimed you as a daughter, even at the expense of his own reputation, when he could have just left you alone to die. He just gave you a feather from Diamea, even though he didn’t have to do anything. What more do you want from him?”
Solea’s face grew hot. “I don’t know.”
Alainna rose uncomfortably and paced, pausing at the old cloak that Uclepidies had given Solea, which was hung up neatly by the door. “My father abandoned me,” Alainna continued strangely, fingering the fabric of the cloak. “When I was a little girl, I dreamed of him taking me out of that — that place. You know. But he never came. And now I see you and — well, you know you’re ridiculous, don’t you?”
“Yes,” said Solea miserably.
Alainna touched the brooch and it lit up underneath her hand, deep and purple. Then she hung her head and sighed. “I am an idiot,” she said. “I was so annoyed with the other Black Swans that, when Uclepidies came forward with his gift, I lost my temper.”
“To be fair, the cloak is awful,” Solea said, laughing nervously. “I wasn’t very happy about accepting it either. Remember how he said that the brown marks were bloodstains? It’s probably haunted or cursed in some horrible way. The only good part is that it belonged to my mother!”
“But at least you accepted it.”
Solea winced. “Only because I thought he would kill me if I didn’t.”
“True,” Alainna said miserably. “He looked really angry, didn’t he? Mother was really angry with me afterward. She was sure that Uclepidies would kill me, or worse. Apparently, you’re not supposed to reject a Black Swan’s gift. Even the Conqueror would never dare to reject a Black Swan’s gift, and apparently the Black Swans gave her some pretty bad ones.”
“The Black Swans were reminiscing on the time they gave the Conqueror some dismembered rats, just before you opened your gifts,” Solea said. “They thought it was hilarious.”
Alainna frowned. Then she said, “When he put that cloak around you, I was pretty happy that you were the one that he was focusing on, and not me. I was really mad at you. And then he pulled out the brooch and—” Alainna stopped suddenly and frowned.
“Here,” Solea said suddenly, getting up. “I will give you the brooch if you let me have the cloak. The cloak belonged to my mother, after all. It’s the only thing I have of hers. But I can use another brooch just as easily, and you can have Diamea’s feather. It’s more of a gift for the Lady, after all.” She walked to the cloak and unpinned the brooch. Then she turned to Alainna and frowned. “Can I just give it to you normally, or would you like me to kneel before you?”
But Alainna shook her head. “It’s yours,” she said miserably. “They go together, remember? That’s what Uclepidies said.”
Alainna shook her head. “If you want to give me both, I will take them both, but I will not separate the gift. Otherwise, I am pretty sure Uclepidies would actually kill me.”
Solea looked at the cloak. “It’s the only thing that I have of hers,” she muttered.
“Then keep it. Perhaps you were meant to have it after all.”
Alainna walked over to the letter that Solea had just written and reread it once more. Then she shook her head. “Just try one more time,” she said. “You are a good writer, but this is such a bad letter. How is he supposed to respond? Write him something quick and remember to give him something to do!”
Solea thought about it for a moment. Then, on a clean paper, she wrote:
Please, may I request an audience with you this week? I have several questions I was hoping to ask you personally, if you don’t mind, preferably before the week is over.
Once she was done, she handed it over to Alainna, who scanned it quickly. Then she frowned. “That’s even worse! It’s too short and much too passive. You need to be more direct. Just ask him about Sergius! I am sure he’ll respond.”
Solea grew red. “He is my father. I can’t just ask him directly for things. He’ll think that I am spoiled.”
“And why did you ask for an audience with him?” continued Alainna, ignoring what Solea had just said. “It’s a dumb idea. If you can’t even write out your requests, how are you supposed to say those requests to him face to face? You’re not exactly the boldest person around. You’re better at writing than you are at talking with people. Standing around looking pathetic is not a great way to gather information.”
Solea shrugged. “Maybe he’ll offer up the information anyway.”
“Or maybe you’ll just both stare at each other and you’ll inadvertently offend him. Speaking of offending him, what is this?” Alainna snapped, pointing at the end of the letter. “’Sincerely.’ What are you thinking, Solea?”
“We’re not that close!”
“You. Are. His. Daughter. How much closer can you get?” When Solea blushed, Alainna looked furious. “Fine!” she snapped. “I’ll do it!” She pulled out a piece of paper. Then, in a childish scrawl, she wrote:
First, I am very sorry for the ballroom incident, for attacking you, and for rejecting your gifts. I hope you will forgive me.
I am writing to you because Sergius has arrived at our school, and I don’t like what he is doing. He has insulted me multiple times and refused to answer any of my questions pertaining to the recent changes that he has attempted to implement in our school. Furthermore, he has bullied your daughter, Solea, called her an embarrassment to you, her father, and has already reminded her that he was the one who tried to execute her.
During one of our talks, he seemed to imply that you were behind an attempt to stop him from taking over the school. If you would please, Solea and I would like to talk with you before the end of this week and see if we can help you stop him.
“There,” she said, putting down the pen with a flourish. “It’s a good letter, don’t you think? It tells him exactly what’s happening and asks for something directly from him. And it doesn’t end with that awful ‘sincerely.’ Though, I don’t think I am close enough to him to claim his love.”
“You’re just his mother,” Solea said bitterly. “After all, you’re the Lady!”
Alainna glared at her. “You have no right to speak to me like that! You know quite well how tenuous our relationship has always been.” When Solea glared back at her, Alainna added, “Remember, it was you who got the cloak and that pretty broach, not I. The only thing I got from him was a bloody face.”
Solea bit her lip and frowned, taking Alainna’s letter in her hands. She read it over twice. “It is a good letter,” she finally admitted. “Though, you’ve made Sergius sound like a villain, and I am not sure that it is fair. He was only doing his job when he signed the order to execute me years ago. After all, he thought I was a Conqueror.”
Alainna looked at Solea like she was crazy. “When he met with you today, he threatened you. If he was trying to apologize to you for hurting you previously, perhaps I might forgive him. But he was deliberately trying to intimidate you.”
Solea shrugged. “I suppose.”
Alainna took her letter and folded it up to put it in an envelope. Then she waved it over her head. “I shall send this priority!” she said, smiling. “And then tomorrow we shall see who will win this little battle between our newest nemesis, Sergius.”
And with that, she left.