Crown of Coral and Pearl Page 1


   Sometimes I wonder if it was our names that determined our fates, or the other way around. Nor and Zadie: coral and pearl. Both precious to our people, both beautiful enough to adorn the necks of queens. But whereas a pearl is prized for its luster, its shape, its lack of imperfections, coral is different. It grows twisted. In its natural form, it can hardly be considered beautiful at all.

Still, Zadie and I were born as equals in beauty, grace, and wit. We were, the elders declared, the loveliest babies ever born in Varenia. Mother proudly rowed us around in our family’s wooden boat, where Zadie and I would spend much of our childhood. She shaded our olive skin with wide-brimmed hats to prevent sunburn; she forced Father to sand down the sharp edges on our furniture; not a single dark hair on our heads was sacrificed to a pair of scissors. She inspected us every night for scratches or scrapes, then applied oils and salves while she scolded us to be more cautious.

After all, though Varenian women were blessed with hair as varied as the fish in our waters—from straight to ringlets, flaxen to ebony—and our skin was smooth and healthy in every shade from gold to burnished copper, beauty in our village was held to a higher standard. A girl’s features must be symmetrical and well proportioned, her complexion clear, her gaze bright and curious, though never too direct. Her presentation should always be impeccable, no matter the time or place. To truly stand out, a girl could be nothing short of perfect.

Because in Varenia, being a beautiful girl wasn’t just lucky. Once every generation, it determined which one of us would become a princess.


* * *


“Nor!” Zadie cried, pulling me back from the edge of the boat where I balanced on one foot. “What are you thinking? You can’t risk an injury now.”

I scratched at my scalp, tender from where Mother had plaited my hair extra tight as punishment for forgetting my hat yesterday. She was forever fretting that the sun would turn our silken hair brittle or—gods forbid—summon forth a freckle, but these days, the angry grumblings from my empty belly were loud enough to drown out Mother’s shrill voice in my head. We’d been looking for oysters for hours, to no avail.

Zadie, ever the dutiful daughter, batted my hand away. “Please, for Mother’s sake, behave. You know how nervous she is about the ceremony.”

The ceremony. When hadn’t Mother been nervous about it? Every cloudless day spent in the shade of our stilt-legged wooden house, every missed pearl-diving opportunity because the sea was too rough... I owed them all to the ceremony and to our mother’s obsession with it.

“Ours is a kingdom without borders,” Father liked to say as he stood on the narrow balcony outside our house, shading his eyes with one hand as he scanned the horizon. Maybe that was true for him, but our life was a constant reminder that one day, the Crown Prince of Ilara would come of marrying age. And as it had been for hundreds of years, so would it be in three days—the elders would finally choose the most beautiful girl in Varenia to be his bride.

The last girl had left us twenty years ago, when the present king was still a prince and the shoals hadn’t yet been plucked bare, but Mother assured us that she wasn’t half as beautiful as Zadie and me. Before the incident, she teased the elders that they would have to send both of us to marry the prince and let him decide for himself, because we were as indistinguishable as two silver featherfish.

Now, of course, it was clear who would be sent. The small pink scar on my right cheekbone was all that stood between the crown and me. Anywhere else on my body, an imperfection smaller than a Varenian pearl might have been overlooked, but compared to Zadie’s flawless skin, the jagged mark was impossible to ignore. Fortunately, I’d had the seven years since the incident to prepare for this, and seven years of relative freedom from our mother’s constant fussing—at least compared to Zadie.

I flopped back onto the cushions in the bottom of our boat and turned my face up to the cloud-dappled sky. “Are you ready for it?” I asked.

“For what?” Zadie feigned ignorance while she pulled her skirts over her exposed ankles.

“To leave Varenia. To leave Mother and Samiel.” To leave me.

“You don’t know they’re going to choose me. You’re just as beautiful as I am, and you never get sick. And I’ve heard rumors that Alys is being considered as well.”

I arched a skeptical brow. “Mother says that even with my scar, I’m prettier than Alys will ever be. How did she put it? ‘Alys has only to smile, and that snaggletooth will send the prince running for his nursemaid.’”

Zadie frowned. “Mother shouldn’t say such things. Alys can’t help it.”

“Neither can Mother,” I said with a wry look.

Zadie pulled on one of the lines hanging over the side of the boat, frowning at the tiny fish dangling from the end. Our waters had been overfished for years, though no one seemed to want to admit it. Zadie carefully laid the shimmering creature in the palm of her hand, removed the hook, and dropped it back into the sea. The fish was too small to eat, though we might have used it for bait, had there been anything larger to catch.

“I know Mother can be difficult, but she only wants what’s best for us,” Zadie said after a moment. “What she herself couldn’t have.”

Half a dozen snide comments popped into my head, but I held my tongue. “Perhaps you’re right.”

Though I’d never told her, I knew for a fact Zadie would be the chosen one; the only one of us who would ever set foot on land—something I’d wished for since childhood. Because scar or no scar, Zadie was beautiful in a way I would never be. In Varenia, we were constantly searching for imperfections, whether in pearls or people, but Zadie only ever saw the good. Just last week, while I lamented the damage to our house from a passing storm, Zadie watched the sky, searching for rainbows.

So even when our mother was at her worst, Zadie could find something kind to say in return.

I would never be that good, that pure of heart. And that was a harder sort of pain to bear.

“I’m going swimming,” I said, wishing I could shed my thoughts as easily as my skirts.

Zadie glanced around anxiously. As young women of marrying age, we should never be seen barelegged in public, but diving in a skirt wasn’t just difficult—it was dangerous. Before, when oysters were plentiful, young men did most of the diving. But these days, girls and women helped out whenever possible. And in our family, with Father fishing every day and no brothers to share the burden, there was no other choice. Even Mother couldn’t complain too much—she knew how badly we needed the extra money.

“Are you coming?” I asked.

“The salt will dry out our skin. Mother will know.”

I placed my hands on my hips and grinned. “Last one to find an oyster has to make dinner tonight.” The truth was, we couldn’t afford to go home empty-handed. Not if we wanted to eat next week. But it was easier to pretend this was all a game, one in which the stakes weren’t life or death. “Ready?”

Next page