In the earliest of memories they would cluster around her, wan ghosts in the shadows of the Tall House. Always they seemed more shape than human, with kind words on their lips and eyes slanted by shade; friendly wraiths who told her not to fidget and pressed sweet liquids to her mouth. Their voices would rise and waver in an oblique chant, but among them she could catch the thick drawl of Lord Berret and the butterscotch tones of Leitha, the maid who swept her room and helped her wash. Often they would talk to her, those indecipherable others, while she kept as still as she might and filled her lungs with the taste of scented flames and scorched flowers.

"You have been born to serve, Small Ivy," they told her, over and over, in hushed and high words. "Born to serve, remember; bred for the good of us all…"

Their voices would ripple to a murmur while they pressed cool fingertips against her forehead and left her light with confusion. She didn't mind their games; sometimes they would give her gifts of iced berries and honey-brew that felt too thick against her tongue. But for all the sweets they offered, she knew they were wrong; it was they who served her. "Little Princess", they called her, Leitha and Lord Berret and the rest; "Small Ivy". They kept her hair clean and clothed her in bright satin. She was allotted the airiest room in the House, from whence she could watch the morning birds take flight and see the sun fill the windows.

Even the venerated Ones – women with milk-white hair as sparse as parched grass – named her special. They offered her bony smiles and ran stick-fingers through her hair, fussing all the while. "Ripe as silk," they would caw, one after the other, digging at her scalp and pulling curls out of shape. "Dark as autumn. He will be pleased."

He. The king of the silent mountains. The lord who haunted the hills upon sundown and brought night on his heels. She would dream about him sometimes, of his cape with its trailing flame-tongues and his face aglow with a light that blinded her. He was taller than she could ever have imagined – tall enough to reach the bleeding skies of twilight – and even in her dreams she hesitated to approach him. But he called to her – "Ivy!" – voiced her name in tones that made the earth quake beneath her, and it was as though a wind sprung at her back and pushed her closer, ever nearer to the faceless God she had been promised to.

She never told anyone about those dreams, least of all the heart-pounding fear that crippled her following each session. The old women would never understand – they who croaked of signs and omens – and she figured the others would only shake their heads and squint suspiciously. A true princess was never afraid; Leitha often told her as much. Dimwitted as she was, the maid seemed to know of every princess who had come and gone before her, and recited their feats of will and bravery upon Ivy's command. There was Phirna, who had refused to lose herself following the murder of her Lord and her own abduction; Serialle, who had remained chaste and stoic until her Crowning late in life, though she watched her beauty fade and felt her womb shrivel within her.

"And though she suffered, she was brave," Leitha would conclude, grim-voiced and glossy-eyed, "for she knew that there was naught to fear in the next world, that the silent king would restore her youth and walk beside her for the remainder of her ever-life. You must not fear, Small Ivy, for a true princess knows that nothing can harm her."

Ivy would think back to this counsel whenever the first threads of fear began to gnaw and uncertainty made her palms crawl with sweat. Dreams were only mind-pictures, no matter what the venerated Ones made of them, and the little rituals those in the Tall House conducted were part of her duty to the faceless Lord. The sting of a blood-offering and the odd injustice of losing her hair to their shears were nothing compared to Phirna's sufferings or Serialle's lost children, and Ivy found it easier to swallow her misgivings. A true princess knew that nothing could harm her; the faceless Lord frowned on tears.

She often wondered what it would be like when her turn finally came, when the ever-life of the previous consort came to an end and it was her own turn to walk beside her Lord. Would he swoop from the sky to carry her away, burning as bright as the sundown sky, or would he still wear mourning colors for his lost princess? Would he greet her with a touch; speak her name as he spoke it in her dreams?

How would it feel?

Leitha, who spoke stories with such care, proved useless at answering her questions. "Every Crowning is different," she would recite with precision, almost as though the answer had been given to her beforehand. "No two ceremonies are the same, though each is equally special. Whatever happens, you must not fear, for a true princess and ever-wife knows no harm."

Basil, the plump little son of Lord Berret, was equally unhelpful, though Ivy grudgingly welcomed his company whenever he was permitted to visit. He would sort through shells with her – something no one else did – or sit beneath the awning of the House to toss crumbs at larks and songbirds, rosy cheeks packed full with fruit or honeyed almonds. He had stories of his own to tell – silly, childish tales he had probably learned from his nurse – and Ivy found Leitha's ambiguous answers preferable to the ones he concocted.

"Dunno how it'll happen for you," he told her as he chewed, "but I reckon it'll hurt."

Ivy had stiffened at that, feeling herself a fool for listening to a child. Even so, the air seemed to turn a little colder. The once-warm sun was a harsh spot in the sky.

"It won't and you know so," she retorted, straining to keep the irritation from her voice. The grass was scraggly beneath her sandals, dry as old roots, and she suddenly wanted nothing better than to pull up a handful and smear it across his lying face. "Ceremonies never hurt."

Basil had the audacity to shrug. "Why ask me if you already know?" He peered sideways at her, still working his jaw, and Ivy caught something in that look she could not quite pinpoint. Whatever it was managed to quell the better part of her anger. "Are you scared?"

Strangely, she had to think before she found the answer. "A true princess never fears. I know that nothing they choose to do will harm me."

Basil swallowed reflectively and was silent for a long moment. To Ivy he seemed to be gazing toward the stilted shadow of the Tall House, though it might have been just larks he was watching. "My old milk-nurse told me that's what they all said. They weren't afraid, but she heard them scream all the same."

Afterward he did not come around as frequently, and Ivy was just as content to sort through shells on her own. Basil was only a stupid child after all, and ever-wives did not take counsel from stupid children.

Ivy did not think back over his words until the day Leitha came to fetch her at an abnormal hour, and even then it was a fleeting recollection. The sun was a blazing eye on a bright blue canvas, the air warm enough to bring her shells outside, and she would have protested had she not sensed the importance of the situation. She expected to be taken to the Tall House, where shadows stood vigil on the brightest of days, but Leitha led the way back to her rooms instead.

It is time? Ivy thought to ask, just as Basil's words came back to sour the bubble of excitement rising within her. I dunno how it'll happen for you, but I reckon it'll hurt.

Two of the masked others stood waiting in a sun-drenched alcove, dust motes floating round their dark robes like loose moths, and Ivy felt a twist of relief to see that they held shears in their hands. She was never taken to the Tall House for a simple hair-cutting. It was a quick, curt procedure; a Tall member's presence was not required. The shorn locks would be passed to the venerated Ones, who spread her essence among the hills to give her Lord "an early sampling" of his future ever-wife.

She was about to chastise Leitha for taking her from her shells when she caught the strangely doleful expression in the maid's dull eyes, and gave in to their shears without a word. She had been granted her customary stool, and the masked ones were as gentle as they ever were, but the locks came down around her feet in abnormally thick piles. They had never taken as much, and the sight of those limp auburn feathers glinting in the sun suddenly made Ivy's stomach turn.

Think of Serialle, she told herself as they snipped and snipped, the poor maiden who lived out her life in waiting. Phirna, who was kept prisoner within her own walls and sang nightly for her lost Lord. You can be brave, too.

And yet when it was all done and they swept her hair into their baskets Ivy could find no sense of relief. Dread had settled within her breast like a gluttonous intruder. Her shoulders felt naked without the blanket of hair she had grown so accustomed to, and she did not like the blank, persistent look on Leitha's face. Something sinister had taken her tongue, and the stories of Serialle and Phirna suddenly felt paltry and disconnected, like comfort taken from a child's storybook.

They weren't afraid, but she heard them scream all the same.

Leitha's hand was lead against her exposed shoulder, and Ivy had to bite back a howl at the maid's mechanic words. "Whatever happens, you must not fear it, for a true princess knows that nothing can harm her. You must prove yourself brave, Small Ivy."

Brave like fairytale princesses.

The next day they burned her hair, and Leitha came to take her at an abnormal hour.