Inophe was the sort of place for which the globe moved backward. While the rest of the world progressed, barren Inophe slid further and further into the past. Seventy years of drought had reduced the duchy’s meager croplands to endless sand dunes. The people harvested their gardens of cacti for water, and they existed in a system of bartering—a length of homespun cloth in exchange for the chore of mending a fence; a dozen eggs for a tincture to ease a toothache; and on special occasions, a goat in exchange for a small sack of precious imported flour.
“It’s a beautiful place, despite everything,” Duke Richard Bayford said as he rode his horse to the edge of a plateau that overlooked the soft brown landscape, broken up here and there by the lean branches of ironwood trees and the yellow flowers of acacias. He was a tall and wiry man, his face wrinkled by four and a half decades under the relentless sun.
“It’s a beautiful place because of everything,” his daughter Elodie chided gently as she rode up beside him. At twenty, she’d been helping him with the Duchy of Inophe for as long as she could remember, and she’d one day inherit the role as its steward.
Lord Bayford chuckled. “You’re right as usual, my dove. Inophe is beautiful because of everything it is.”
Elodie smiled. Below their plateau, a long-eared fox sprang from the shade of a desert willow and chased something—probably a gerbil or lizard—around a boulder. To the east, undulating dunes rose and fell, mountains of sand cascading toward a glittering sea. Even the dry heat on Elodie’s skin felt like the welcome embrace of an old friend.
There was a rustle in the scrub behind them.
“Pardon me, Lord Bayford.” A man emerged, carrying a staff. A moment later, his herd of bearded gray desert goats followed, indiscriminately biting off the heads of spiny flowers and their thorned stems and swallowing them whole. If only the people of Inophe had such gums and stomachs of iron, they’d be able to survive much better in this harsh clime.
“Good day, Lady Elodie.” The shepherd swept off his tattered hat and dipped his head as the duke and Elodie dismounted.
“How may we be of service, Immanuel?” Lord Bayford asked.
“Er, your lordship . . . My oldest son, Sergio, is about to be married, and he’ll be needing a new cottage for his family. I was hoping that, uh, you might be able to . . .”
Before the pause could grow awkward, Lord Bayford jumped in. “You need building materials?”
Immanuel fiddled with his staff but then nodded. Inophean tradition held that fathers gifted their sons with new homes on their wedding day, and mothers gifted their daughters with handmade gowns. But decades of impoverishment meant it was harder and harder for the old ways to continue.
“It would be an honor to provide the materials for Sergio’s cottage,” Lord Bayford said. “Do you need assistance with its construction? Elodie is particularly good with rigging solar stills.”
“True,” she said. “I’m also good at digging latrines, which Sergio and his wife can use after they’ve drunk the water they collected in the solar stills.”
Immanuel’s eyes widened as he stared at her.
Elodie cursed herself under her breath. She had, unfortunately, a gift for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. When faced with social interaction, especially the expectation that she say something, Elodie seized up—her shoulders tightened and her throat went dry, and her once coherent ideas tumbled on top of one another like books from an upended shelf. Then she’d end up blurting out whatever thought had landed at the top of that pile, and it would inevitably be inappropriate.
That wasn’t to say she was unappreciated. The people respected her devotion to Inophe. Elodie rode several days every week under the scalding sun from tenancy to tenancy, checking on what the families needed. She helped with everything from building rat traps around henhouses to reading tales of princesses and dragons to children, and Elodie loved every moment of it. She had been raised for this. As her mother used to say, giving yourself to others is the noblest sacrifice.
“What Elodie means,” Lord Bayford said smoothly, “is that she doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty.”
Thank goodness Father is still in charge, Elodie thought. One day she would be duchess of these lands. But for now, it was a relief that the duchy had the charismatic Richard Bayford at its helm.
Elodie kept an ear on the conversation as Immanuel detailed how much wood and how many nails he would need, but she turned her body so she could look past the dusty landscape to the open water beyond. Ever since she was a child, the sea had soothed her, and as she focused on the waves shimmering under the sun, some of the sting of her latrine faux pas faded, and her shoulders began to release some of their tension.
She sighed in relief.
Perhaps, in a past life, she’d been a sailor. Or a seagull. Or maybe even the wind. For although Elodie devoted her days to the work of Inophe, she spent her evenings dreaming of being out on the ocean. She liked sitting in the local taverns, listening to stories the seamen brought from abroad—what festivals and customs other kingdoms celebrated. What their lands looked like, how the weather was. How they lived and loved and even how they died. Elodie collected sailors’ yarns like a crow hoards shiny buttons; every tale was a rare treasure.
Once the list of requirements for Sergio’s new home was finished and Immanuel and his goats had departed, Lord Bayford rejoined Elodie at the edge of the plateau. As they gazed out at the horizon, a small speck sailed into view.
Elodie tilted her head, perplexed. “What do you suppose that is?” It was not yet the season for Inophe’s trading vessels to return from abroad with much-needed grain, fruit, and cotton.
“There’s one way to find out,” Lord Bayford said, climbing onto his horse and winking at Elodie. “Whoever arrives at the harbor last has to dig Sergio’s latrines!”
“Father, I’m not racing—”
But he and his horse were already charging down the plateau.
“You’re a cheater!” she called after him as she leapt onto her own horse.
“It’s the only way I have a fighting chance of winning,” he shouted over his shoulder.
And Elodie laughed as she took off after him, because she knew it was true.
The ship’s flags bore the colors of wealth, a rich crimson with gilded edges, and the gold dragon on its prow gleamed proudly. The officers on board wore uniforms of velvet with fine golden embroidery around each button and cuff, and even the ordinary sailors sported berets of deep red decorated with a jaunty gold tassel.
In contrast, the Inophean harbor stood hunched like a wizened old man, splintered and gray, its docks weather-beaten by both salt and sun. The posts were composed of more barnacles than wood; they creaked noisily with every wave, the ancient bones complaining of the wind and the damp.
The port was a sizable one, for Inophe depended on trade to feed its population. The duchy produced two natural resources—gum from acacia trees and slabs of guano, dried bird excrement used as fertilizer—and in exchange, Inophe received just enough barley, corn, and cotton to get its people by.
Elodie had spent as much of her life in the dry plains inland as she had here on the piers, tallying export and import receipts and picking up bits and pieces of new languages from the traders. But this ship’s colors were unfamiliar to her, as was their coat of arms: a gold dragon clutching a sheaf of wheat in one claw and a cluster of what looked like grapes or berries in another. When Elodie reached its dock, Lord Bayford was already there.
She exhaled. “All right, you win. It’s a good thing I was planning on digging Sergio’s latrines anyway.”
He waved away her concession. “There are more important things at stake now. Elodie, I would like you to meet Alexandra Ravella, royal envoy of the Kingdom of Aurea.” Her father gestured to a trim woman in her fifties, wearing a gold tricorn and a crimson velvet uniform. “And Lieutenant Ravella, may I present the older of my daughters, Lady Elodie Bayford of the Duchy of Inophe.”
“The pleasure is mine,” Lieutenant Ravella said in perfect Ingleterr, one of the common languages used in international trade and also the official language of Inophe. She removed her hat, revealing silver hair tied back in a neat knot, and bowed deeply.
But Elodie frowned. “I’m afraid I don’t follow. Father, what’s going on?”
“Only the very best of news, my dove.” Lord Bayford wrapped his arm around her shoulders. “Forgive me for keeping secrets from you, but I confess I have met Lieutenant Ravella before, several months ago. When we negotiated your engagement.”
Copyright © 2023 by Evelyn Skye. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.