The Birth of Silvantana

180 years ago...

She would accept charity from no one. Not even her mother, the queen. It is not the way of a warrior.

Finished with the buckles of her leg plates, Finerelace groped for her sword belt, found it where it should be, and belted it on. Twin human-style katana swords went on her hips. Gauntlets were last, and she shoved her hands into them with a sense of finality. She straightened, arched up on her toes and back down. She twisted her torso left and right, testing her armor's mobility, flexed her fingers, stomped her feet. Everything felt right, sounded right. It's time.

Grabbing her helmet and staff from their pegs, she went to the door. Seven steps. She paused at the door, drew in a steady breath. Today would be the last time she counted. If her lips had been made for smiling, they'd be doing so now.

The door opened at her pull, the middle hinge squeaking its protest as always. One hundred forty-two steps to the stairs. Her boots began rhythmically ringing on the hallway flagstones, and she pushed the count to the back of her mind.

An observer that stopped to watch her stride past would first be struck by her sheer size. Not only was she a good head taller than most other moon elves, over a century of intense training had packed her frame with a heavy musculature unmatched in the cavern-city of Erevy'nelaen. They might next be impressed with the polished and enameled white plates of armor scaled over her arms, chest, and legs which only added to her raw bulk, or the unusual swords that glowed at her hips, or the intricate braid of braids that swung nearly to the floor behind her—the length marking her as a daughter of the queen, if the royal white of the armor had not been sufficient.

They might then notice that she was blind.

She felt the old anger rise, despite the decade that had passed, and welcomed it. It had been a simple trap, a voice calling from a pit in the passage ahead of her patrol. The dwarves were cowards, honorless, notorious for trapping the passages connecting their realm to Erevy'nelaen territory, and sometimes a patrol would stumble into one and require rescue. But as she had leaned over to look into the pit that day, her last sight had been a grinning red-bearded dwarf and his vial of acid.

One hundred forty, forty-one, forty-two. She didn't hesitate at the spiral stairs anymore—not like she used to, probing with her foot at each drop—her count was exact, her stride exact, and the stairs never moved. Fifty-six steps spiraling down and to the right. Her foot landed right where it always did. One, two…

The healers had done much to repair her face, she'd been told, and indeed she could feel no blemish when she touched her skin or eyebrows or even eyeballs, but nothing could be done for her sight. Healing by transimilation—the process of swapping cells between bodies—had limits. Most healers could take as much as half of an otherwise mortal wound on themselves, leaving both wounded and healer less than whole but neither in danger. The healer could later go into a meditative state where she would focus and channel her power into rapidly regenerating the injuries she'd taken on. But what transimilation couldn't do well was replace damage to nerves, especially optic nerves, at least without sacrificing the healer's own vision. Nerve cells could not be regenerated easily. Not even Queen Ascarna herself, one of the strongest healers known, dared risk more than a fraction where nerve damage was involved. Her one attempt restored no vision for Finerelace and left the queen half blind for months. Finerelace had allowed no further attempts.

The stairs had ended. She strode purposefully across the Keep's inner courtyard and through the gates. "Sir!" the guards said, snapping to attention fist to breastplate as she passed, and she nodded to each side. She imagined the smirks of derision on their faces. Her mother had newly raised her from her position of Captain of the Ascarnen Guard to the title of Marshal-General of the Combined Militia despite her infirmity, a position that would have her sitting in endless discussions with merchants, craftsmen and representatives from each House to arrange the fair and equal distribution of resources and access. She was to be assigned an "advisor" to do all the real work, arranging deals and trade, reading the contracts to her, and even guiding her hand to affix the royal seal in the right place. Mind-numbing tedium far from where I am needed. The game played out almost daily; Erevy'nelaen militia and dwarven soldiers and mercenaries squabbling over a few spans of tunnel either way. I am a soldier, and the site of battle is where I belong, not stamping papers in the dark.

It was charity, an act to occupy her otherwise useless existence, and everyone knew it. She would have none of it. She could still fight despite her blindness—well enough one-on-one, even two-on-one. Long decades of swordplay had taught her the pattern of the dance. One did not need to see a body to know where it must be if its weight-bearing foot was planted, nor did one need to see a weapon to know the likely arc it was taking after its last parry or swing. And once she knew where her opponent was, very few had the strength to defend long against the whirlwind of strokes she'd release from her deadly katana. No, she would not wither into a bureaucratic shell of a warrior wielding a stamp for the remaining centuries of her life. Not when the dwarves will gladly meet my march into their halls with their axes and spears.

Her route from Ascarnen Keep to the Dwarven Gate—so named for the trade that once flowed through it—was a total of seven thousand nine hundred-odd steps, give or take a few dozen if she'd have to deviate around an obstacle. Not that she'd ever completed the count through; it was divided into numerous smaller counts as the composition of the path, or ambient sounds, smells, or turns would create checkpoints. She'd begun making this daily trek for "inspection and status report" a year or so ago when she'd first contemplated how to end herself well. Although many at first thought it odd, no one paid her any mind these days. Over time, she had found a narrow window in the patrol routes she herself had designed, a gap she could slip through unnoticed and then fall upon the dwarves to make an end the storytellers would weave tales of for centuries.

Helmet cradled in the crook of her left arm, she began tapping the staff with her right hand on the stones before her to the left and right and back as she strode. It was an indignity, announcing her blindness so graphically, but necessary. There were never random obstacles inside the Keep—the servants were careful of that by her order—but she had no such authority out in the city. As the cobblestones of Ascarnen Keep's outer courtyard gave way to the packed gravel of the city roads, she took a right turn onto a meandering servant's footpath up and through the Warren, having found it far easier to navigate than the sometimes hazardous and more public route through Crafter's Row. Her pace was deliberate, her stride unhurried but exact. There was no need to quicken her steps, the window would be open exactly when she arrived and close just behind her.

The Warren was where most of the craftsmen and other moon elf males not otherwise absorbed into some House militia lived. In university she'd learned that their cousins on the Surface, particularly the sun elves—the followers of King Solon, the Aspect of the Sun among the Twelve—bonded with males for life, living together as equals and letting males lead as often as not. As the stench of the first male hovels assailed her, the question of how the scattered feralen factions could ever overcome such divisions and reunite, as many still hoped for, was beyond her. She pushed the thought away. The fate of our planet-stranded race is hardly my concern any longer. Ninety-nine, three hundred. One, two…

"Finerelace, you're here." She stopped. The voice was her much younger sister Senerelace, a child of scarcely more than one hundred, a voice otherwise indistinct from that of her twin except for the wavering uncertainty, even touching surprise.

"Of course she is, Sen. Mother said she would be. So give her the message already." Arderelace, the younger twin, always spoke with the brash confidence of a brat.

Feet scuffed on the gravel path towards her, and small hands wrapped around the hand holding her staff. "Mother sent me to bring you to her."

"Sent us," Arderelace corrected. "She figured Sen would be too timid to stop you alone."

"Did she now?" Finerelace said, and resumed her walk, slightly quicker now, dragging Senerelace along with her. Three, four… Return to our mother and inform her that my business today is pressing—"

"She's birthing the Eighth," Senerelace said, vainly digging her heels into the gravel as she clutched at Finerelace's hand.

"At the Dais," Arderelace added flatly.

Finerelace paused. "Now? It's not due for another year at least," she said. Then the second part hit her, the part so casually added by the twin, and the first fingers of dread touched her. "The Dais?"

"The whole Council is there already," Arderelace said.

Finerelace turned her head in the direction of Queen's Park and the Dais at its center, the place where all matters of importance or ceremony in the cavern city were held. The birth of a child was an event often celebrated city-wide, and ceremonies presenting the infant, especially a girl child, were commonly held at the Dais. But the birthing itself was never performed there.Something must be wrong.

"I think Mother is sick," Senerelace said, the quaver in her voice stronger. Finerelace could imagine the tears streaking her face. Where the one had a dark side to her that would be dangerous if given command, this one was too soft-hearted to be a leader or even a warrior. But they were just children; maybe they would grow into respectable adults despite her misgivings. Either way, it seemed the dwarves would live another day.

"Lead me," she commanded. After a few tentative steps, she barked, "Swiftly, child. I am blind, not lame." Arderelace snickered. The pace was much more satisfactory after that.

The moon was bright and full today, casting its white radiance through the narrow opening in the ceiling of the cavern city—she could feel its energy on her face as they rushed over the bridge to Queen's Park. In her memory she could still see how the beams would illuminate the crowns of the small forest of laednic trees that populated the park, their leaves absorbing the light and glowing brilliantly in shades that changed with the seasons. The usually dominant signs of the shops lining Crafter's Row running along the road north, with their multi-colored glowing inks, would be sulking in the shadows, unable to compete with the sheer brilliance of the park on a day like this.

Queen's Park had been set aside by Queen Ascarna from the foundation of Erevy'nelaen. The park was actually its own island, cutting crosswise across the cavern city, separated from the main city chambers by the river Oronfer'dhur that gushed out from under the queen's palatial Keep at the park's head and rushed along either side. Footpaths lined with glowing stones meandered beneath and between the trees that covered the island, each path ultimately leading to the center clearing.

The air was thick with murmuring when Finerelace arrived at that clearing and its Dais, but long before the voices were distinct over the sound of the river, she could sense the size of the crowd and smell the acrid sweat of their fear. It seemed every resident not on guard duty was here. The guards better not be here and away from their posts, or I'll have them pounding target dummies nonstop for the next month.

Anxious whispers resolved from the general muttering; "The queen is dying!"—"No, she isn't, she's one of the Twelve."—"Even the Twelve can die, others have."—"What of the child?"—"Look, the First is here."

Finerelace gave no apologies for manner as she shouldered her way through the ring of the city's important people to the Dais itself. After seeing who she was, none made issue. Queen Ascarna, the Aspect of the Moon among the Twelve, one of the legendary founders of the aer'feralen race and ruler of the ere'lanen faction, alive at the Origin, was her mother, and she her first-born after the Descent. Even her name, Finerelace, served as her title, meaning 'first-born of the moon' in elde'laen—the purest form of their language.

The sounds of her mother laboring were clear as she mounted the ring of polished stone stairs circling the Dais. One of the twins silently took her staff, the other her helmet, and another hand slipped into hers and drew her to the Dais' head. She could tell it was her favorite sister Shar by the delicate smallness of the hand and the scent of sweetflowers she perpetually veiled herself in. Her given name was actually Vlonerelace, 'second-born of the moon', following the same naming convention their mother had used for all of her daughters, but Finerelace had always used the nickname "Shar" for her, a word that in elde'laen simply meant 'beauty'. They were opposites in nearly every way physically possible, yet had always been as close as if they were one soul.

The whispering of the crowd had quieted somewhat at Finerelace's arrival, but quickly resumed. Finerelace knew Shar would be casting a stern glare around the assemblage, but when that didn't do for them, she snapped, "The queen and her child labor heavily towards birth, and they require your support and encouragement, not your whispering and fear! Focus with me in song."

A chime rang, and Finerelace joined the chant. "Fire lend passion, Wind lend breath, Earth lend strength, Water lend beauty, and Moon light your path through the dark, laboring mother."

As if cued, an autumn breeze drafted through the crack overhead and into the park, rustling the branches of the laednic trees. Crystal and glass wind chimes scattered throughout the massive cavern rang musical encouragement; the crystal from the balconies of the noble Houses that lined the park, the more distant glass echoing up Crafter's Row from out of the Warrens.

"Mother, your First is here," Shar said.

"Come to me, Firstborn. Lean close," Ascarna commanded. What happened next took Finerelace completely off guard. Her mother's hand wrapped firmly around the back of her head, and pain punched through her eyes. She flinched back, but despite her strength her mother held her easily. The pain radiated into her ears, exploded in her nose, sapped the strength from her legs and focused her entire being onto two lances of agony in her skull.

Suddenly it was over, winked out as if it had never been, and she sagged to her knees. She was distantly aware of someone calling out her mother's name in alarm, nurses tripping over her to get to the Dais, other voices gasping in surprise. She raised her head to see, and found that she could.

There are times when a moment can be captured in a single sight, and for Finerelace this, her first in more than ten years, was one of those. The crowns of the laednic trees overhead were indeed in full autumn glow, the breeze causing them to wave and scatter moonbeams and shadows over the assemblage. Shar was holding her hand over their mother's eyes while a nurse handed her a strip of cloth hastily torn from her own sleeve. Her sister looked worn and frail, her normally radiant black skin a dull drained gray drawn sharp over her cheekbones, her enormous red eyes lidded and sunken in their sockets. She was a talented healer, second only to Ascarna herself, and she had clearly driven herself to exhaustion helping their mother. Finerelace didn't need to see Ascarna's eye sockets when Shar moved to bandage them to know what her mother had done. And what it meant.

Ascarna pushed herself up on her elbows and strained through another contraction, but as plain as the exhaustion was on Shar's face, it was more so on the queen's. The midwife shook her head at another. Finerelace heard her whisper, "It's as if the infant knows what fate awaits in the living world and fights with the entirety of its strength to resist the birth." The queen sank back into Shar's arms, and the Second eased her to her pillows. A cloth being used by a nurse to clean up around where the midwife squatted was tossed away, soaked with blood. Finerelace was no stranger to blood—no warrior was—and she knew the color of hot lifeblood. That cloth was glowing with it.

She could hear the knot of nurses and healers near the midwife talking softly about breeches and tearing, but her attention was drawn away after another contraction took their mother and passed, and Shar leaned down and whispered something urgent close to their mother's ear. Finerelace couldn't hear what was said but didn't need to. "No!" Ascarna said vehemently. Her hands went protectively to her belly. "This child must be born!" Shar flinched and drew back, her expressive red eyes welling with tears. "She must live," the queen muttered, "no matter the cost."

Finerelace pushed herself back to her feet, steadying herself against the Dais. Shar looked up at her in mute appeal, and after a moment Finerelace realized she was looking for support to go against their mother's own wishes, but she was unable to react. She was still getting used to sight—her brain focused on reintegrating it back into her usable senses—other thoughts slogged past that like they were wading through a pool of slime. Cost? Another contraction seized her mother and passed, and Ascarna once more fell back onto her pillows. Finerelace couldn't remember ever seeing her look so frail. She had always been a paragon of inner strength and regal determination. Was she going to die for this child? But she was one of the Twelve! She couldn't die, could she?

Ascarna pushed herself to a sitting position with Shar's help. "I will tell you now why the Council was called," she began. Though she spoke softly, the words cut through the din better than any shout could have. She plucked wearily at her coverings until the assemblage quieted. A nurse started fussing with them as well, until Ascarna batted her hands away. Finerelace noticed her mother slip one hand low on her belly under her bedclothes, and while she held it there the contractions abated.

The queen reached a hand over her shoulder to Shar, which the Second took. "Vlonerelace, you were born my Second in this place, but are called 'Shar' by some, and for good reason. It is fitting." Shar cast an accusing glance at Finerelace, but her face flushed with pleasure. "I am giving you the name Sharinida, 'beautiful elevated one'. Along with this name, witnessed by all those gathered here, I am appointing you Queen Regent of Erevy'nelaen."

Gasps and whispering erupted from the gathering, none louder than Sharinida's own. "Mother! Your First is restored and a mighty leader. I am but Second and not ready to be queen! Certainly not while you and Fin—"

"Quiet, child. I have little time, less than I wished, and none to spare. You are chosen, and you will lead our people a good while, holding the throne as regent until my true successor is found." Sharinida's mouth worked quietly, her eyes searching her mother's face. What seemed like minutes passed, and an expectant stillness settled over the gathering. Sharinida ducked her head, her long snow-white hair draping forward over her shoulders to hide her face, but Finerelace could feel the heat radiating from it. Embarrassment? Or anger?

"I understand, My Queen. I seek only to serve your will, as do we all." Murmurs of agreement and approval drifted up from the assemblage. "How will we know the true queen?"

Ascarna released her hand and reached towards her youngest, Vyunerelace, the Seventh. The child carefully held a smooth, clear crystal orb in both chubby hands, and toddled to her mother as the twins guided her. "The fersilis responds only to the strongly threaded," Ascarna said. Finerelace held her breath expectantly, and realized that nearly all gathered had done the same. The fersilis was one of only a bare handful of artifacts remaining from the Origin, when the Twelve had first arrived on this world. Most were closely guarded in the sun elf city of Aer'feralys, and the moon elves had managed to carry away only this one, as it had been in Ascarna's possession when they fled after the Debates erupted into civil war.

Vyunerelace placed the orb in Ascarna's waiting hand, and it began glowing. The light rapidly outshone the moon and soon bathed all who stood gathered in its radiance, chasing away all shadow, even casting everyone's dark skin a glowing white. It was a curious light, a pure white as bright as any Finerelace had ever seen but somehow not painful to her new eyes. None of those gathered seemed to be flinching away or shielding their light-sensitive red eyes either. Lines of every color seemed to weave through the inside of the glowing orb, twisting and spiraling and braiding about each other. A black thread seemed prominent, stretching from the deep depths of the orb to her mother's hand. But it was only a glimpse before the queen passed the orb into Sharinida's hand, and the orb quickly faded to an inert non-glowing clearness once her sister held it. She was surprised to find no afterimage, no indication that the orb had ever been other than clear glass.

"The fersilis is to be placed in the hands of every daughter of our race, highborn or low, on this Dais before all, on her Coming of Age day. When the fersilis burns as you saw now, you will know my heir. Her blood will free us from exile, lead our Ascent, and reunite all our scattered peoples."

When Ascarna finished talking, she took in a deep breath and made a sharp motion with the hand holding her belly under her covers, then screamed. Several of those gathered around the Dais jumped, including Sharinida, who nearly dropped the fersilis in surprise. The queen's wail grew in intensity until it seemed she would burst from the effort, drowning out the nurses' encouragement, the wind, the startled cries of the gathered, thought itself. Abruptly, she stopped.

The queen's bedclothes now glowed with hot blood. Sharinida pressed the orb into Finerelace's hands and reached for her mother's covers, scolding the queen even as she tried to see what she had done, her words and actions echoed by the midwife on the other side. Ascarna slumped back into the arms of a nurse who'd moved into Sharinida's place, panting shallowly.

No one spoke. A small wind arose briefly, giving the leaves of the laednic forest a nervous shuffling quality and conducting a soft symphony of chimes, but it faded into the expectant stillness. Even the river that burbled through the cavern seemed to hold its breath.

The midwife brought a bloody bundle out from beneath the sheets. She pinched it, and the thing moved, then rent the quiet with an infant's cry, startling Finerelace and all those gathered out of their morbid thoughts. "The child has been granted existence," the midwife intoned ceremonially. Nurses, daughters, kin, allies, rivals, and even the wind and river erupted back into noise once again.

Finerelace and Sharinida exchanged looks. Existence, but at what cost?

The chime rang clearly through the din, quieting it. Sharinida straightened and shook her floor-long mane of hair back behind her shoulders, cleared her throat and once again led the benediction. "Fire lend passion, Wind lend breath, Earth lend strength, Water lend beauty, and Moon light your path through the dark, new child." Finerelace mouthed the words along with all gathered but knew her voice had failed her. The chant felt suddenly hollow. The four elements were eternal, and the Moon is supposed to be too.

Fragments of low conversation caught Finerelace's attention as the baby quieted in the midwife's arms, speculations from those gathered as to who would be chosen as "Second Mother" for the newborn. The second mother acted as guardian and mentor for a child. In the event that the birth mother died before the child reached her Coming of Age day, the second mother would actually inherit the child as if it were her own daughter. A mother would often choose her aunts or established sisters until her own daughters were old enough to accept the responsibility. As she watched the nurse sponge the tiny newborn clean, Finerelace reflected that the choice of second mother would be of particular import for this child.

Finerelace watched the queen's head turn briefly towards Nineredril, the Fourth, newly come of age but largely unskilled, lazy and still undecided about her future; past Teleredra, the Third, large with a child of her own soon to be born; skipped Sharinida entirely and came to rest on her as surely as if the empty eye sockets under that hasty bandage were examining her soul. She felt every drop of blood in her body pool in her feet. No! Surely any of the others would be better. She knew nothing of children and had no desire to have any, despite the pressure on her—and every female—to help grow the race. With her restored vision, she could hardly wait to get back to the battles and wreak her vengeance on those that had dared to blind her with their cowardly trap. Everyone knew that, everyone would expect that. But her mother's head didn't turn from her, and, worse, she looked amused, as if reading her thoughts and dismissing them.

"Come to me, Firstborn," Ascarna whispered, weakly raising a hand towards her. She did, hesitantly, holding the fersilis in both hands between them almost defensively. Ascarna seemed to sense the orb and rested her hand on it, causing it to pulse softly at her touch, then pushed it down and drew Finerelace close to her. "The child's name.. is Silvantana," she breathed, barely audible. "I have Seen.. many… possibilities, and only you can—you must—defend her.. as your own. You are uniquely qualified. It is the price I demand.. for the gift… of your sight."

Silvantana? Finerelace wondered at the name, 'eyes blue daughter'. Not Ascerelace, the expected name following the same convention used for her prior seven, or even Jyserelace if the formal elde'laen word for 'eight' was used instead of the popular Ascarna-honoring asc in their own dialect. But she would not question her. Mother must know something to choose such an odd name. That Ascarna was a gifted precognate was well known, even if academics scoffed that it wasn't possible to read a future that hadn't yet happened. How much of this day had she foreseen? How many versions of it and how far beyond? What would that imply? Finerelace swallowed. Every rational thought in her head screamed at her to protest against her mother's choice, to convince her to name another, but duty was long her mistress.

"My Queen, Mother; I give my word," she replied solemnly. Ascarna smiled serenely, her entire being somehow conveying a feeling of final satisfaction—a mother who rescued her child from a predator's lair with full knowledge that she only takes its place. With that, the light in the orb faded away, and the queen lay back, her breath hollowly draining from her, hand slipping from the orb to lie at her side.

Sharinida pushed Finerelace aside and placed her hands on her mother's throat and wrist. She froze, her eyes going as large as the moon and her skin gone shades even grayer. Her gaze cast about at the faces surrounding the queen's body, aimless and lost, finally locking on Finerelace. A tear leaked from the corner of her eye, a sight more unnerving to Finerelace than any blade-swinging foe she had ever faced. "My strength is in my arms," Finerelace whispered to her in answer to the unasked plea. "Leadership is strength of will, and Mother chose you for that role, and chose well."

The queen's death was whispered through the crowd, accompanied by moans and sobs, but the din was slowly replaced by an expectant stillness. Sharinida took in Finerelace's words and visibly gathered herself over long moments, then nodded and pushed herself away from Ascarna's side and moved to her head. She reverently untangled the crown from the queen's silver hair, smoothing it back after, then raised the crown overhead, turning a slow circle, meeting the eyes of all gathered as she did. Her gaze lingered on Finerelace, on the baby slightly longer. Her presence dominated the cavern, the crown's diamonds sparkling in the moonbeam that seemed to be centered on her. No one spoke now, awaiting her words.

Sharinida sucked momentarily on her upper lip—a nervous habit she'd carried since childhood—but Finerelace nodded to her in encouragement, and her features firmed. Thinking of Shar as queen made Finerelace vaguely uneasy, but she dismissed it as simply being unprepared for the day's events. No one could have anticipated that Ascarna's reign would end today, or any day soon, except maybe Ascarna herself. But as First and Second, ascension to the throne was what we have been prepared for since old enough to understand the obligation of our birth. Finerelace wondered if that accounted for her sister's poise. Exhausted from her healing efforts, visibly shaken by the queen's death—as were they all—she still looked ready to receive foreign dignitaries at a state dinner. She might be a bit too vain, and would reign with a heavier hand than Ascarna, but she would be an able leader for the ere'lanen, a worthy replacement for their mother. Finerelace could pick none better from among her sisters or the leaders of the other major Houses of Erevy'nelaen, including herself. Mother made the right choice.

"My people," Sharinida said in a voice that carried clearly from the Dais to all those listening, "the Queen, Ascarna, the Aspect of the Moon among the Twelve—my mother—is dead." She paused, composing herself. Finerelace watched her chin tremble, and another tear traced a line down her other cheek, but she stood straight. The gathering remained still. "Though we have endured much since the Descent of our faction into these caverns, exiled by our sun elf cousins for a wrong they themselves committed, our hair bleached and our skin blackened against the wild radiations we are exposed to daily, beset on all sides by fierce beasts and relentless enemies, we have continued and even thrived under Ascarna's leadership."

Her large, expressive eyes glistened as they fell to Ascarna's face, peacefully reposed in its frame of silver hair. "But that era is ended. By Ascarna's own words, I am raised to the throne as Queen Regent until such time as the fersilis appoints her true successor from among the daughters of our race, the one who will lead our triumphal return against those who unjustly banished our people from Aer'feralys. I will seek to lead our people with the same determination as my mother, the same drive to live, build, train and prepare for that day." At that, she lowered the crown to her head.

"I ask you now for the same support and allegiance you gave my mother."

The gathered circle of ere'lanen murmured in approval. Finerelace inclined her head to her, as did all her sisters, followed by a ripple of bows and kneeling through the gathered crowd. Once the rustling of skirts and creaking of leather had ended, Finerelace declared, "It is given, Queen Regent Sharinida."

She drew a dagger from its sheath hidden among her leg plates and without preamble reached behind her for her braid. It took a bit of sawing, but she managed to cut through it at waist level and dropped the shorn length at Sharinida's feet. Teleredra took the dagger next and followed suit, and handed it to the Fourth.

Nineredril hesitated before cropping hers, but Finerelace was sure it was not from any sense of challenge to the throne or loss of social rank or even sadness for their departed mother, but simply because she adored her hair. The girl was even more vain than Sharinida, and had often informed them how much superior her hair—and hair care regimen—was to theirs. Finerelace found neither sympathy nor disdain for the girl, merely impatience. Of all the events that had transpired here today, none were about her. But to be fair, she was past her Age day and truly had no real skills, and the shearing of hair length was acknowledgement that she was no longer a royal princess entitled to the queen's care. Sharinida might elect to retain her as a lady in waiting, or one of the other House matriarchs—particularly Lady Durna, Nineredril's second mother—might, but her world was still shattered. Perhaps she could find a place in the university's School of Arts. It was said she was a fair dancer.

The twins and the toddler kept their hair length. They would still be raised as royals under Sharinida's care, as she was their second mother, until they came of age and found professions or founded their own Houses.

Sharinida nodded to each sister in turn, accepting their public notice that they were no longer rivals for her throne. They still retained noble status of course, and waist-length hair was the limit of public display for that. A formal coronation would undoubtedly take place later, but between the crowd's approval and the submission of siblings, this simple ceremony would suffice for now.

With the throne secure, attention once more turned towards the newborn. The thin autumn wind strummed the leaves of the laednic trees and plucked at the wind chimes, playing scattered melodies. The midwife, who had washed the child and cuddled the thing to keep it from fussing, waited patiently for Queen Sharinida's nod, then announced in a clear voice, "It's a girl."

Sharinida nodded to Finerelace. Finerelace blinked at her. She felt more than saw the ribbon and the silver knife a nurse pressed into her hands, and the midwife raised the baby towards her. Another nurse, wearing a mildly disapproving frown, mimicked tying and cutting motions. Finerelace mechanically knotted the white ribbon around the birth cord and then severed it. A soft white swaddling cloth was pressed into her hands, and she inexpertly wrapped the child and held her.

Again the chime rang, and her sisters, nurses, and the other ere'lanen gathered in the darkness below the Dais joined hands and voices for their final benediction. "Fire lend passion, Wind lend breath, Earth lend strength, Water lend beauty, and Moon light your path through the dark, Second Mother."

"How is this child to be known?" the midwife intoned in her ceremonial way. Sharinida nodded to her again, and Finerelace cleared her throat. "She is to be called Silvantana," she said as clearly as she could, though her voice sounded in her ears like a croak, and she was sure it hadn't carried far.

The child in her arms squirmed against its swaddling. It felt tiny and fragile, vulnerable to the mechanizations of the sisters, allies, and rivals who started clustering around. Finerelace wanted nothing more than to shove the bundle into one of her sister's arms and flee. When Sharinida reached for the bundle, she gladly obliged and was quickly separated from the child by the pressing crowd. Maybe she could find a way to pass the child off to another once the eyes of the crowd were gone, maybe even Sharinida if she wanted it—Who better to raise a princess than the new queen, after all?—and fulfill her vow as a sort of distant guardian while someone else actually did the…

Sharinida suddenly gasped and cried out for her. Those pressed around her started talking in animated tones, and the din quickly spread into the greater assemblage. "What?" Finerelace asked anxiously, elbowing forward. "What happened?" Something inside squeezed at her heart. Shadow take me, have I failed my duty already? When she broke back into the small space around Sharinida, she could see her sister was visibly trembling. She managed only to whisper, "Her eyes."

Finerelace nearly snatched the bundle from her, raising it protectively away from the generally much shorter crowd. It was then that she saw what had caused the commotion. The baby had opened her eyes, and it was a blue-eyed child that gazed up at her, not at all the normal red eyes of the ere'lanen. A small dark hand reached out for thin air and curled around it, those bright blue eyes following the motion like it was a foreign thing attached to its arm.

"Fates!" Lady Durna, a member of the Queen's Council and among the few tall enough to still see the child in Finerelace's arms, exclaimed next to her.

Master Relonar, recently returned after a decade-long sabbatical from his duties as the queen's Master of Information and one of the few males to have retained any position of authority among the ere'lanen, named them. "Surface eyes," he said.

"Surface eyes," Mistress Naelin, standing on her other side, a university academic and one of the oldest feralen on the planet, repeated and nodded sagely. None of them seemed disturbed by the defect; in fact, the glances they shared seemed somehow pleased. "The Eighth is marked with the ability to see in the sunlight," Lady Durna announced to the curious crowd and smiled with obvious pride at the infant. "As Queen Ascarna foresaw and well named her, she is the Daughter with Sapphire Eyes."

The assemblage stood dumbfounded for a moment, then suddenly she was surrounded again. Offers of aid and housing poured in from all around, but Sharinida dismissed them all. "My sister will remain in Ascarnen Keep, of course, and I will have her needs seen to."

Mistress Naelin moved close, and said in a low voice, "When the time comes, I will personally see her pushed to the highest academic standards," she vowed. "Her eyes are a sign. Perhaps she is the one Ascarna means to lead us back to the Surface, and I'll not follow a dullard."

Few were close enough to hear her over the general conversation around them, but Sharinida did, and her face froze. Finerelace met her eyes for a moment, just a moment, and then clutched the child to her breast reflexively. She had never seen jealousy in her sister's eyes before—there'd never been cause. None rivaled her beauty, grace or healing talent, save perhaps Ascarna herself, and she had long held their mother's favor. Now she was queen, albeit a regent, and none rivaled her power. But there was no mistaking the sudden insecurity behind that look. Ascarna rejected her, set her up to be toppled, and the child might be that threat.

Finerelace felt chilled to the depths of her—before now—fortress of a heart. There is no turning this burden aside. Her mother's last words suddenly seemed more prophecy than exhortation. The infant's eyes roamed her face, its impossibly tiny features surprisingly expressive; a blend of trust, fear, and curiosity. Life. This was not the role she had ever envisioned for herself, nor the choice she would ever have made, but no one would come between her and her vow—her baby. Not even my sister, the queen.

It took some time for the gathering to disburse; most of the city eventually filed by both to pay respects to the old and new queens, and wish the baby and her second mother well. She'd noticed Master Relonar lurking throughout, studying her it seemed. After the queen had left with the pallbearers and Ascarna's body, he took her aside. "There is much you need to know. I will find you later tonight." And then he was gone too.

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