DAWN had just broken the horizon, but one wouldn’t know it from the musty, windowless depths of Saltwater Keep’s kitchens. Bleary-eyed, the steward monitored the new hire working quietly to fillet the pile of salmon atop his workstation—a very new hire, as today marked his first shift. He was a young boy with earlobes still crusted with blood from the metal rings punched through them on his fifteenth birthday. He sliced quickly, setting the fillets in a pan filled with brine as he finished each fish.

The steward cleared his throat. “You there. With the fish.”

“Aye, sir?”

“You aren’t from here, are you?”

“No, sir,” the new hire said.

“Where, then?”

“Sosna Chonok.”

The steward considered his response. Most fresh blood that came in through the kitchens was Nilovan, born and bred. Curiosity as to the circumstances of his arrival piqued the steward’s interest. “What city?”

“Sarona, sir.”

“Ah, the capital.” The steward smiled. Perhaps he’d be an even better worker than Nilovans. “Loyal to the Rirah, then?”

The new hire paled, but he didn’t stop working. As he flopped another half of salmon into the pan, he cast the steward a sidelong glance.

The steward slowly walked around the table to stand at his side. He paused, simply observing the new hire’s harried work. “Nilova is loyal to the Rirah,” he said. “It matters not to me personally as to whether or not you support her in your own head, but I wouldn’t let the words slip from your mouth or you may end up in a position of stress.”

The new hire nodded. “Aye, sir. I am loyal. It’s just…” his voice shook. He pulled another fish onto the table. “Well, folks are callin’ her the Blue Queen now, amongst other things. Rirah’s turned into a dirty word up north, what with three other women claimin’ the title for themselves. Most folks don’t know who to believe.”

“She inherited the Candrish throne from her elder sisters and their mother before them. She is the Rirah, regardless of what the other three claim.”

“That’s…not what most folks are sayin’ is the matter.”

The steward raised an eyebrow. “I think if anyone is suited to ruling alone, it is none other than your ‘Blue Queen.’ She’s a woman of great strength and faith. Certainly the most promising leader we’ve had since her mother Ïnna the Great, Seamstress guide her shattered soul.” He moved away from the table, hands behind his back. “Why, the gods saw fit to give her the gift of Shardsight. If such a blessing isn’t a divine remark on her suitability, I couldn’t tell you what is.”

“That’s…also not it.”

“Well then, what is ‘it’?”

“She’s nezhdoya.”

The steward pressed his lips into a thin line. “Careful now, boy. You’re treading dangerous waters.” He glanced to the door, then turned to face the boy. “But you may continue. What bearing does being nezhdoya have to do with her right to rule?”

The new hire looked as if he was going to be sick. “So…that makes it so she ain’t really a Ranov.” He quickly added, “Some folk say she’s a lowbirth in Upperbirth’s clothes. Lots are callin’ her a caste whor—”

“Bite your tongue, whelp,” the steward commanded. “She’s a Ranov by the very laws those warmongering traitors in the West hope to reinstate, and that’s that.”

“But she married a redblood. What’s more, a lowborn redblood. Her own bodyguard. She should—”

“Have done just that. That’s what nezhdoya were chosen to do, before she struck down the law. Marry into other blood colours so your ‘real’ Ranovs of the world don’t have to muddy their own. She’s a blackblood through and through, regardless if her birth mother was no Upperbirth.”

The new hire spoke quietly. “I like the Blue Queen. She’s done a lot for Kandrisev, starting with the nezhdoya ban. I’m grateful for it even. My baby brother was chosen to be one before she came into the crown. He only knows me because of her orders for them to go back to their real families. But this war…”

“The Rirah did not start this war. The traitors Elgana Yolkerev and Magya Odov did.”

Sighing, the new hire stuffed his hands into another bucket underneath the table. “Let’s just get back to the fish.”

The steward snorted. “That’s how we got into this mess: ‘just getting back to the fish.’ Listen well, boy, the death of an ocean lives in the silence of fish. When Chedevrena and Nelavnï Ranov stood up to Yarpok the Usurper, do you think they could have acquired such massive legions for their revolt if not for the uprisings of fish?”

“Well, it ain’t like you or I can do anything about it, so we may as well.”

“Not individually, no, but together…” The steward raised a finger to the ceiling. “Those first Ranovs walked these very streets, fished in these same waters, and were the mothers of this modern era. They put an end to Yarpok’s tyranny with no more knowledge of tactics or rebellions than you have because they believed they must do it. Just like we must and will depose the traitors in this war.”

“Well, they didn’t have the Rosehearts and the Yellow Army to contend with, not to mention Ochetski war parties goin’ on raids all the time.”

A moment of silence passed. The steward’s next question was dangerous, especially if any eavesdroppers were about. He leaned in across the table until the new hire’s breath warmed his nose. “You tell me, boy. Do you believe the Rirah will win this war?”

“I don’t think she can,” he replied, voice barely above a whisper. “There’s two armies for her to fight and she’s got the smallest one. They’ve teamed up against her now. That’s too many enemies.”

“And too many non-believers like you.” The steward shook his head. “Finish sorting those fish, boy. I’ll be back with someone to relieve you at midday.”

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