The king’s first son was born after a long string of miscarriages, childhood illnesses, and general bad luck, when his three daughters were twelve, eighteen, and twenty. The child was healthy and smiling, and no one doubted that the king finally had his heir.
The king's first daughter, Penelope, was already married to a leader of an island nation. The king's third daughter, Sibylla, was too young even for courtship. The middle daughter, Chloe, was just old enough for men to come calling, and call they had, but after a year of her brother's life, she came to her parents with a request.
"Don't make me marry," she said to her father and her mother. "You have my sisters to give you alliances and my brother to take your throne. Don't make me marry."
The king leaned forward in his throne. "Don't you wish to be married, daughter? Who will be by your side when you die?"
Chloe laughed at that, like she laughed at everything. "I'm awfully young to think of dying, Father," she said, bowing her head in respect. "And I have my friends. My sisters and brother will have children that I can see. What need have I of a husband?"
The queen spoke now, her eyes understanding but not sympathetic. "Daughter, you know you can refuse any request you wish. You must not judge all men by the ones you have met. How long did your sister wait before Maui approached her? You may wait as long as you like, and the choice will always be yours in the end."
Again, Chloe laughed, and again she bowed her head in respect. "I know that, Mother. You want me to be happy. But I would be happiest if I never married at all."
Her parents looked at each other, asking questions in the silent language of long marriage. Frowning, the king looked back at his daughter. "But why? What reasons do you have?"
At this, Chloe tucked her hands behind her back. "I told you already, Father. There is no reason for me to marry, and I do not wish to. I want my books and my friends and my gardens, not a husband and children and a home far from this place."
The king and queen looked at each other again, but neither had an answer. After a moment, the queen spread one hand, and the king nodded. "I see no reason not to grant your request, daughter. If you change your mind—"
Chloe was the only girl who could get away with interrupting her father. "I will not, Father. Thank you."
Chloe's sister Sibylla was just old enough to think but not old enough to think much, and she had an opinion on everything. Chloe's decision was no different. Sibylla came to her sister's room and found Chloe sitting on her balcony, paging through a book with one hand and drawing a design in chalk with the other. Sibylla did not ask what kind of magic her sister was doing or how she was feeling; she walked right up to Chloe, crossed her arms, and said, "I think not wanting to get married is stupid."
Chloe found what she wanted in her book and turned her attention to it. "Do you?" Her voice was mild, without the slightest hint of amusement or condescension. She knew how to talk to her sister.
Sibylla frowned down at her. She was old enough to suspect everyone of trying to trick her and not old enough to know when they were. "I do," she said, when she had turned Chloe's words over in her head and failed to find anything objectionable. "It's stupid. All women want to have children. All women want to get married."
Chloe tapped a diagram in her book and turned back to her chalk drawing. She frowned and erased what she had, then started over. Only when she finished did she speak. "Have you asked every woman, Sibyl? What about the Red Guard?"
Sibylla's certainty flickered, but then she frowned. "They might want to get married. But they make a promise not to. That's different. You can't break a promise."
"That's a very good attitude, Sibyl. But I know for a fact that plenty of Red Guard women join because they don't want to get married. Kezi told me so." Chloe erased a single line in her drawing and redid it, her brow furrowed in concentration.
"Kezi's weird, Chloe. I keep telling you that. Why do you always listen to her?" Chloe didn't respond; she set aside her chalk and bit her thumb, drawing blood. Sibylla made a face and looked away. "Anyway, you're not going to join the Red Guard, so why don't you want to get married?"
Chloe pressed her thumb to each point of the compass on her drawing, then to the center. A bubble of golden light appeared over the drawing. "I already said everything to Mother and Father. Ask them." Sibylla opened her mouth, but Chloe held up one finger. She bent over the bubble and blew; it lifted from the circle and transformed into a golden butterfly.
Sibylla held out her fingers, and the butterfly landed on them, touching her nails lightly with its tongue as though Sibylla were a rare flower. Sibylla's eyes went wide with wonder, and she did not continue her questions.
Silas was a student at the royal university, a year older than Chloe, and incapable of keeping his mind on his studies. Especially when he spent time with the princess and their mutual friend Nomiki. "Can you really do that?" he asked Chloe. "Just—decide not to get married? Princesses can do that?"
Chloe and Nomiki were bent over a mathematics book. They did not look up.
Silas was used to talking to himself. It was how he got his best thinking done. "If one of my sisters told my parents that, they'd get laughed out of the room." He paused. "I mean, all my sisters are already married, but I'm sure that's what would have happened if they said no."
"What do you think of this, Nomiki?" said Chloe, pointing to a formula. It was one of the author's own creations.
As Nomiki tapped her lips in thought, Silas continued. "I mean, I could say I didn't want to get married, but I don't think they would care. Why wouldn't they care? Is it because I'm a boy? But shouldn't everyone want somebody to be with for the rest of their lives?"
Nomiki was still thinking. Chloe lifted her head and looked at Silas, one eyebrow arched. A smile played around her lips. She would never wear such an expression around her sisters or her parents, but Silas enjoyed it. "And who says I need to be married to have companionship for the rest of my life? You said you wanted to live in the capitol, and Nomiki has no plans to leave either. Are you saying I couldn't come visit either of you after you both get married?"
Silas looked dismayed. "No, of course not. But… I mean, marriage is different. You get married because you want to be with somebody. Because you want to spend time alone with them. Because you don't mind seeing them every day—because you want to see them every day."
Nomiki lifted her eyes from the book. Silas froze, even though Nomiki's expression wasn't threatening, as it sometimes was. "That might be how it is for you, Silas," she said, carefully, as though she were trying to restrain herself from something, "but it isn't that way for me or for the princess. When you're rich or royal, you don't get married because you love somebody. You get married to become richer or to make sure nobody's going to take your throne. If you're a boy, you get married to make sure your children have your name and not anybody else's. I mean, look at that man Princess Penelope married. She only met him once before the wedding—that certainly wasn’t a match born of mutual affection."
"I thought she loved King Maui," said Silas, confused.
"She does, but it didn't start out that way," said Chloe. Her voice held no judgement, nor any agreement with Nomiki; she was simply adding information to the pool of the conversation. "I remember she told me he was just the man who bothered her least at first. But once she got used to life in his land, she really did come to care for him." She looked at the table, studying her long, thin fingers. "If I were to get married, that's what it would be like. I wouldn't do it just because my parents needed me to."
Nomiki huffed. "Which only proves how lucky you are."
In response to that, Chloe brushed hair out of her face. "You still haven't told me what you think of the formula."
"I think he's a blowhard who just wanted his name on something before he died, no matter how useless it was." Chloe started laughing. Nomiki scowled. "If you didn't want my opinion, you shouldn't have asked."
"But I did want your opinion," said Chloe, covering her laughter with a hand. "That's why I asked. You're perfectly right. I just didn't want to be the one to say it."
Nomiki looked at Silas despairingly; he raised his shoulders in a sheepish shrug.
Chloe's mother came from a long line of noble women. She was used to power, to wealth, and to siblings, daughters, and cousins who did not know what they wanted. When she sat beside her daughter, both of them knew what was going to happen, but both of them made a good faith effort anyway.
"Chloe," said the queen, "is there anything you want to tell me?"
Chloe was sketching the parts of one of her flowers, freshly picked from the largest of her gardens. She had plucked one petal to study the inner structures, labeling them neatly on her drawing: the stamen, the pistil, and their constituent parts. "You look lovely today, Mother. And my willow tree is finally blooming. You should see it."
Her mother sighed—delicately, the way she had been taught when she was a girl. "Chloe, dear, you know that's not what I meant." Chloe turned the flower in her fingers and did not speak. "Is there anything you want to tell me about your announcement?"
Chloe considered this, but not very hard. She was an obedient girl, but even obedient girls like to needle their mothers. "I'm glad you and Father did not object. Is that good enough?"
The queen got to her feet so she wouldn't sigh again. She placed her hands behind her back and thought carefully before she spoke. "Dear… I know it might be hard for you to believe, but there are men out there like you. Plenty of them, in fact. And they get married all the time."
Chloe stopped turning the flower. In fact, she went remarkably still. "Do they, Mother?" Her voice was toneless, but not for her mother: for herself. For protection.
"Yes, they do. Many scholars get married after years of insisting they want to focus on their research, and—" Chloe's shoulders slumped, and she set the flower on the notebook. Her face showed nothing, but it was a particular sort of nothing, and her mother frowned. "What's the matter?"
Chloe looked at her notebook, her lips parted as though she might speak more. Then she picked the flower apart, careful not to tear any delicate piece. "Nothing, Mother." She paused. "But I don't want to marry a scholar. I don't want to marry at all."
Her mother looked at her, perplexed; Chloe wrote the labels on her diagram in precise, perfect handwriting.
Kudukezi—called Kezi by everyone but the captain of her regiment—had not been born in Chloe's father's kingdom. She was a northerner and light-skinned, and she never talked about her past if she could avoid it. "Your Highness, you really shouldn't be out on the balcony this late. Come inside."
A smile played across Chloe's lips. She was drawing a design in chalk once more, and she did not look up from it. "No, Kezi, I don't think I will. It's stuffy inside. Why don't you come out here?"
Kezi leaned against the doorframe, her back pressed to the glass door. "It's going to storm, your highness. Come inside."
But Chloe shook her head again, the gold beads that capped each of her many braids clattering against each other. She bent over the drawing, adding each flourish with precision as careful as her attention to the flower or to the magic that had produced a butterfly for her sister. "I like the rain. Come outside, Kezi. And call me Chloe, for goodness' sake."
Kezi stepped out of the doorway and let the door click shut behind her. One hand went to her baton as she walked over to the princess, and her eyes moved restlessly over the garden beneath the balcony and the walls beyond it. "Princess, please. Your mother will have my head if she finds out I knowingly let you ruin another of your dresses."
Chloe's lips twitched. "I'm not going to ruin my dress, Kezi. That's what the chalk is for. And I would have let you stay inside if you'd call me Chloe."
"Who says I wanted to stay inside?" said Kezi. She wasn't standing quite still: her weight shifted subtly, like she was trying to pick a good stance, and one of her fingers tapped a staccato beat on her baton.
Chloe smiled again. "I know you're scared of storms, Kezi. And you have good reason to be." She began coloring sections of her drawing in. "We have rains that sweep away roads, mudslides that erase towns, lightning that sets the whole forest ablaze. But it doesn't have to be frightening. It's beautiful."
"Princess—" Kezi began.
"Chloe," said Chloe.
"Princess," Kezi repeated. "I really wish you'd come inside. It's late. Anything could happen out here."
"I like hearing of your wishes, Kezi, but I'm afraid I must disrespect this one." She licked her thumb and smoothed away a mussed section, then drew it in again. Circles within circles; delicate lines like the embroidery in her dress. "I'm going to stay out here, and so are you." She stopped, apparently satisfied, and bit her thumb in the same spot as before. This time, though, she encircled the entire picture with her own blood, and a veil of golden magic appeared over the balcony. She frowned, and the veil grew translucent, though soft crackling betrayed its presence.
Pleased, Chloe stood. "And I must disagree. 'Anything' is not going to happen. Here is what will happen: you and I will stand out here and watch the storm, and we will talk about why I'm not going to marry."
Kezi tensed, though which topic inspired it was hard to tell. She watched the darkening sky, and all the while her fingers beat on her baton. "Why would we talk about that?" she said finally.
Chloe feigned surprise, moving closer to Kezi even though she was watching the sky as well. "Everyone has asked me about it today."
"I didn't," said Kezi, as though that was supposed to mean something.
"Don't you want to be like everyone, Kezi?" Chloe looked at her with a different question in her eyes, but Kezi turned her face away. "I won't be pert, and I won't dodge the question."
"You're always pert," but Kezi's voice was fond. "Most people just don't notice. I would."
"I know you would. That's why I'm promising." She turned her head just as the first thunderclap sounded; her lips parted in excitement. "Look, now. It's going to rain." As she said so, it did just that. True to her promise, the rain did not touch them, though Kezi flinched when lighting struck one of the poles on the wall.
"I'm not going to ask you about it." Chloe raised her eyebrows. Kezi avoided her eyes, but her voice was soft. "If you married, you'd have to leave. You'd go somewhere new, and you'd like that, but you'd be homesick within the week, because no one would appreciate what you have to say the way they do here. You wouldn't get to watch your brother grow up like you want to; you wouldn't get to see your sister grow into a woman. And you'd miss when your nieces and nephews came to visit—whenever your siblings have them, I mean. You love this place, and you love it the way it is. You don't want to change."
Chloe's lips parted again, but it wasn't because of the storm, now just steady rain pattering against her shield. "I suppose I don't have to say anything after all," she said, smiling at her feet. "Should I be flattered that you know what I think?"
Kezi swallowed; her drumming speeded up. "No, your highness. I've thought about it too much for entirely selfish reasons, so you shouldn't congratulate me. I am a member of the Red Guard. I shouldn't."
"They have an awfully long list of things you shouldn't do in the Red Guard. And I hesitate to call anything you do selfish." Chloe turned to face Kezi, ignoring the lightning rippling through the clouds above. "…Why do you call it selfish?"
Kezi closed her eyes and sighed. It said a lot of things, though Chloe was sure she didn't catch them all. "Because I don't want you to leave either, obviously, your highness."
"Chloe," said Chloe firmly, and her voice was even, although she was glad Kezi couldn't see her face at that moment. Kezi began tapping on her baton again, but Chloe put her hand over Kezi's to stop her.
Kezi opened her eyes; Chloe stared back into them calmly.