The Dictator's Daughter
by Kayla Bashe
Zada, the dictator's daughter, walks the dungeons gowned in poison flowers; limping, regal.
"Is it true?"
Who dares address her informally? Zada whirls: a girl with moondew-dark hair and honey-soft eyes regards her from a damp cell.
"I heard you've never once been held, not even in the cradle. Never sung a lullaby."
The words stab like her own execution dagger. "And on the full moon you'll die," Zada replies, chin raised.
"But I'll have known so much. Honeysuckle, roundel dances, harvest plainsong. Kittens sleeping in my lap. What've you known?"
The answer comes to her: a painted sneer, a magic orb raised to send electric sting. Endless kneeling on cold stone, hoping her mother will not find fault.
In unearthly fungus-light the girl's face is a flawed masterpiece.
Zada, scowling and shaken, recedes.
Again the dungeons draw her like a lodestone. The girl's eyes are as clear as watered-down broth; she flinches at Zada's approach.
Zada clicks her purple talons. A giant spider forms a mobile chair, and she draws close. "What," she says, intent, "is a honeysuckle?" The faintest sunlight slips away. Zada, magic-maker, is herself ensorcelled. She learns of haylofts, pranks, shepherd hounds. All seem gold-draped in the girl's words. Her name, Coradel, means orchard's song.
Zada's thoughts meet her lips: "I wish I'd had your life."
It's the softest murmur. Still Coradel hears. "Please. You own twenty marble palaces. Your mother bathes in young brides' blood to smooth her skin. What could you want?"
Friendship, Zada thinks, and love.
Zada dances with captive princes resplendent in gold-braided livery. She kneels at her mother's side through long audiences with pleading peasants. She spends hours trying on new gowns made from velvet tapestries, the sleeves trailing spiked stripes of jade and amethyst silk.
"All we need is power." Her mother's voice is like liquid crystal; it's one of those rare days when she remembers her heir exists.
Zada completes the saying: "And nothing comes free."
Her mother bought her unwilling father. She's seen soldiers cast lots for young virgins. Compared to reality, Coradel's stories throb with nonsense. Friendship, an alliance sans fear, sans force, sans some larger enemy to unite against. How could such a thing be real?
On a moon-jeweled night Zada dreams Coradel's myths. Running hand in hand under apple trees. The caress of spring's first daisy. Soft starry curls. Zada wakes flushed, uneasy. Realization troubles her: She could be dead in her dungeon and I wouldn't know. Hastily she dons a dragon-embroidered wrapper and descends to the cells.
Coradel shifts in her iron pen, her cheeks bone-dull, her eyes cold sea.
Zada grips the iron candlestick like a weapon. "You're awake."
Candlelight ripples over Coradel's features. "I wanted to spend my last hours thinking of those I love. My dreams are uncertain."
Mine are all of you.
"And I'm glad you came. I wanted you to have this." From tattered indigo folds she produces a soft treasure. Hand-sewn from mismatched scraps, faded from cuddling, the toy kitten lolls forward in her hands. "They'll burn my belongings with my body. I'd rather it be yours."
Zada's first playthings were blunt knives, army models. All stolen. She hid them to avoid punishment. "What is it?"
"My sister sewed it for me. It holds good luck, and you can hug it when you're lonely."
Zada holds the toy away from her body. It's still warm. "And you're giving this to me… why? Some pathetic attempt to bribe freedom?" She tries to summon her mother's contempt, but the anger won't come. Being angry with Coradel would be so much easier than this inward unsteadiness.
"No, I just want you to have it."
Confusion spirals through her again, an unnamable pain. "This is well-made; you could trade it for a good last meal, or tuck it in your boots for warmth. Even in your final hours, this might do you some good. You'd trade away that benefit?"
"Not trade. Give."
Coradel wouldn't hit me for not understanding. Even if she had power over me, she wouldn't hurt me. The realization is like lowering a heavy weight at the end of a magic-training session, like unlacing a tight corset. She wants to squeeze her eyes shut and block out the world. She never wants to stop looking at Coradel, not even to blink.
"Your mother would sooner put a needle through an eye than knit you a blanket. No one's ever sung you back to sleep after a nightmare or boiled you hen's foot soup. There's so much you've never known. If you keep this, if you look at this, it'll help you remember that those things exist. Like a passport to someday."
Something flares through Zada. She yanks the obsidian key-crystal from her tender rose bosom and shoves it through the bars. "When the guards bring mornmeal, unlock your cell. They carry keys, truncheons-" She swallows imaginary glass as Coradel's eyes light with joy. "Remember, under pain of death, I wasn't here."
"Your name will be locked in my lips to the grave."
Zada's body thrums with a single clear note. Impulsively, she bows her head as if before an equal; Coradel does the same.
People have prostrated themselves to Zada since she was old enough to speak. But this feels different. This feels earned. If I never see you again, she thinks, I will remember kindness exists.
They would meet again many years later. Coradel, the Patchwork Knight, strong limbs dragonfire-battered but courage unbowed, her dark hair all but shaved, determinedly clenching the ancients' sapphire sword. The dictator's daughter, now a refugee rebel hard-eyed in purple dragonscale, the battle armor her only remaining trace of decadent luxury. Together they would stand before the dictator and, with hands entwined, end her long reign.
But tonight Zada pulls the blankets over her head and wraps herself around the stuffed toy. It's the first hug of her life- and with it, the first seeds of doubt.
Kayla Bashe is a theatre and publishing student in the New York area. A dual citizen and frequent traveler, she tweets at @KaylaBashe and has written several novellas.
What inspires you to write and keep writing?
For so long, mainstream culture has only permitted certain varieties of stories to be told. I write so that the rest of humanity can get caught up.