Until the last moment, I do not know if I will dance.
There are two of us, my twin and I, the two youngest princesses they never thought would rule. We found our own paths in life, I in dance and Gentian in song. But Lord Vikare destroyed them one by one — my Father the King, my Mother the Queen. Our eldest sister, our brother, our next-eldest sister.
One by one, until only we two were left, and we agreed to rule side by side.
My sister Gentian wrote the song now sung by all — in secret, at least. A bitter, mournful song of treachery and betrayal. But the verse she sings only to me is more self-loathing yet, for Vikare turned our own family against itself, poisoning the hearts of a once close-knit clan.
How careless we were to lose our loves, she sings bitterly, only to me.
I can see Gentian now, sitting next to Vikare in her wedding dress of white and lilac, her cheeks flushed with cosmetics, her tight smile painted red.
He touches her arm, possessively, and it is my arm too, in the way of it when you are twins.
It is the thing that makes me bend down and lace the black satin slippers, fit the ribbons around my ankle.
That does not mean that I will dance.
The fire jugglers finish and run past me, red and orange tights flashing. One turns — I do not know her, but she knows me, she knows how we feel, she knows why I dance. She whispers what is now treason and says, “I would have flung my torch at him, only. . .” Only she has a lover, a sister, a child, some other reason to live. Fast and low I squeeze her hand, a moment of solidarity before she runs, disappears into the costumed troupe.
It is my turn now. My music starts. And I lace my shoes keen and tight, drop my finger to feel what my sister has stitched on the outside of my shoes, next to the blocked toe. Razor blades, black-painted, disappearing against the black silk and silver embroidery. A weapon, smuggled to me just seconds before the dance.
I am not just me. I am a symbol. I am Queen Aster, who was born a minute before Queen Gentian, who danced when she was a free princess, who danced when she was the Queen of half a country. As long as Gentian sings and Aster dances, we are yet free, goes another of Gentian’s songs. Until Lord Vikare moved his treachery from the shadows to the open, until he slid into the throne of the kingdom he had destroyed from within.
I swore I would never dance for Vikare. And yet here I am, deciding to do it, for he has taken Queen Gentian to wed and we cannot bear it.
I stand and walk to the wings, ready my arms.
When he took the city, a month ago, he claimed it was for us. That he had slain every member of our beloved family because he knew the twin princesses were the ones meant to rule. He merely would share that with — one of us, he said, but it was clear that he would wed us both if we could be convinced. He is quite mad.
I am Queen Aster, who ordered the public castration of a rapist last winter. I am justice when my sister gets to be mercy. Perhaps he knew he would have better luck capturing even her pretend consent, for I see her now, laughing in pretense that she loves him, that she could ever love this monster who claims he did it in love of us.
It is my beat and I go. A delicate dance around the circle, still on flat feet, a dance I have choreographed for this moment of defeat that will turn to victory. A moment of giving in, of pretending to cede. And then the dance moves closer to this pretend King, and he will be too captivated to call his guards, for I am Queen Aster, the half he could not have.
His eyes light as he watches me, and my sister’s too, and her face is sharp and watchful.
Around the circle, in turn, and then the step to pointe, arms outstretched.
That is when I feel the other blades. The ones that have been stitched inside my shoe. Hidden deep in the cotton by skillful fingers, worked free in the first few steps of the dance.
I stumble, and the guards put hands to their swords, leaning in. Queen Aster does not stumble. The music stops. Across the room the cold face of my sister watches me like a hawk.
I stand. The razors have cut between my toes, across the top of my foot. If I stop now I can repair the damage. It will heal. I can dance again.
Queen Aster only dances when her country is free.
Or, perhaps, for her country to become free.
I gesture to the musicians and the bows rise and plunge into my music, the music my sister wrote, long ago when I thought things were different.
I have danced through pain before. I change the pointe steps to flat feet as I can, but the blades are loose now, working their way in.
My sister is white — the flush was not cosmetics after all. She is frozen, her hand on her lover; at any instant she will confess everything, pull him free. But he is rapt, leaning into my dance, and she is caught between revealing her treachery to him and her treachery to the whole country. I did not know she was so eager to be the only Queen. I thought her song was enough. I would rather dance than be Queen. I had thought I would rather dance than anything.
But apparently I would rather be free than anything else at all.
Closer to him, and closer; it is all decided.
I am Queen Aster, and I dance.