Chapter 26: Burning Hope

Chapter 26: Burning Hope

No mention of the Xulta...

The glow of a shuttered lamp lit Vara's private chamber in the Spire. These days, she preferred to work into the evening, when the demands of the day died down for a few hours of merciful quiet. Around her, stacks of books and scrolls from the Praxis and Combrei libraries covered her room. No records of the Xulta so far, she thought. Perhaps, the Solis—

A knock on the chamber door broke Vara’s concentration. Frowning, she crossed the room and opened it cautiously. Svetya stood on the other side, in simple winter clothing, snow clinging to the red scarf that covered her hair.

Vara opened the door and looked down the empty hall past Svetya.  “How did you get to this point?  I’m afraid I’m busy.” Vara said, masking her shock under a harsh tone as she withdrew and started to close the door. “Please bring your petitions to the Throne roo

Svetya’s hand slammed into worn oak, keeping it open. “Please,” she asked, her voice hoarse. “A minute of your time.”

She’s desperate, Vara thought, you can hear it. Grimacing, she relented. Svetya ducked her head in thanks and stepped inside. “Again, I ask. How did you get in here?” Vara asked, locking the door and turning to face her visitor. “The Spire is heavily guarded at all hours.”

Svetya smiled apologetically. “Maybe less well than you think. I met someone who trades in secrets, and she helped me find a way in… for a price.”

Do not put your trust in the Cabal.

“The Cabal,” Vara guessed, staring at Svetya. “My uncle cut a deal with them when he was regent. It ended poorly for him. I suggest you choose your allies more carefully. And I will have many questions for the guard tomorrow.” Eilyn sent one of her warriors to root them out, Vara thought, but they’re like rats… and the Spire is infested.

The Orene looked down. “You left me with few options. I gave up something of personal value to see you here, alone. I-I won’t take up much time, but…”

Svetya took a slow breath and met Vara’s gaze. “I came to you because I know that you lost your father recently, too.”

I thought I had, for the longest time. Vara thought, gritting her teeth through a flood of memories. I remember my mother's voice when she told me that Caiphus was gone. She was cold… and furious.

“Yes,” she replied.

“So you of all people know. You understand what has happened.” Svetya put an arm to her chest. “My father, the Oren. My mother. Camrin and Markōs too. All gone, killed on a madman’s orders. Yushkov’s orders.”

We were forced to flee...

Svetya grimaced, “He is no Oren. No ruler. He’s a butcher.” Fumbling, she pulled a small hunting knife from her belt. Vara took a half-step back, the room darkening slightly by reflex. But Svetya made no move toward her, instead she held the blade out into the lamplight. The handle was wrapped in worn leather, and a small crest gleamed on its brass pommel—the profile of a bear. “This is my father’s knife,” Svetya said, all grief burned from her voice. “He gave it to me when he knew Zhelan and the carriage would not be fast enough. It is all I have to remember him by.” Her eyes flashed. “And it will be the last thing Yushkov sees.”

I know exactly what that hate tastes like, Vara thought. But I am more than that, now. I have a city to look after… She crossed her arms, and smiled a small smile, trying not to show the compassion she felt.

“Your conviction would do him proud,” she said. “And while I cannot stand Yushkov, our ruling in the Throne Room stands.” Slowly, feeling the weight her words carried as she spoke, Vara continued. “Argenport cannot provide the aid you need. Whether Yushkov’s claim to your throne is legitimate or not, our city simply cannot risk another war. Not after everything it’s been through.”

Svetya held her chin high, but Vara saw her shoulders sag, defeated.

“I’m very sor—”

“No, you are right.” Svetya cut Vara off, her voice numb as she bowed slightly. “You have your people to look after. Thank you for listening to me, and pardon my intrusion. Please. Be easy on the guards—they did not know. I will see myself out.”

As the door creaked shut, making the lanterns gutter, Vara slumped into her chair. This is right, it is, it must be, she thought, the scar on her collarbone itching. So why do I feel so cold?

“Make way for the Savior of Kosul!” The standard bearer called. Soldiers started to rise, but before anyone in the rubble-strewn hall of Korovyat Palace could stand, Yushkov stormed in, his great bear Vargo lumbering behind him.

“Where is he!?” Yushkov roared, his face red from the winter winds. “Bring him to me!”

“W-who, your excellency?” A recruit stammered.

“Severin!” Yushkov bellowed, rounding on the shaking man. “The lying snake.”

“I, uh, d-don’t know where h—”

Yushkov growled, and buried a fist in the soldier’s stomach. The crack of ribs echoed through the hall.

“I, uh, think he is in his chambers,” another soldier volunteered in the silence that followed.

Without a word, Yushkov marched out of the hall. Lazily, Vargo padded over to the recruit, leaned down until his heavy fangs were next to his head, and snarled, low and menacing. The soldiers flinched. They knew what happened to those who displeased the Oren.

Boots ringing on the marble floor, Yushkov stormed past the palace’s ruined temple. It had been a new addition to Korovyat, made under the previous Oren, and Yushkov had turned it over to Severin for his rites. Past the temple was Severin’s chambers. As Yushkov raised a hand to strike, the door swung open on noiseless hinges. The room beyond was dark and spartan, with dried plants, desiccated corpses, and other items hanging from the rafters. A single brazier stood in the center, glowing with a green tinge.

The man who opened the door was tall and thin—his robes fine but unadorned, and his features sharp, with a wild shock of hair. A rusted astrolabe hung from his neck. From a distance, he would not be out of place among the learned, a scribe who spent more time in his tomes than on his appearance. Until you met his eyes. Severin’s eyes burned with an intensity that bled into an awkward smile. “Ah, Oren Yushkov. What need have you of my services?”

Smooth-talking scum, Yushkov thought. Severin was useful—as he had proven many times—but the man’s silver tongue enraged Yushkov. And that smile… Yushkov could barely stand it.

“No survivors.” Yushkov growled, thrusting out a hand and sending Severin sprawling back into his chamber. “I gave you a simple order, seer. Kill them all. And what do I find in Argenport? The crown princess, pleading before its rulers.” Standing over the man, Yushkov placed a hand on his hammer. “Explain yourself.”

This is the way of the stars.

Fear flickered through Severin’s eyes, but quickly vanished, replaced with a serpent’s guile. Yushkov felt his lip curl, but stayed his hand as his advisor spoke.

“Sire, please. This is the way of the stars,” Severin purred. “Just as you were meant to rule Kosul, she was meant to survive.”

Yushkov started to speak, but Severin held up a hand, his voice soothing. “You were right to order the slaughter of the Oren and his family, yes.” Severin smiled, slipping a small pouch out from the recesses of his robe, “With no family and few friends, Svetya will be little threat to you. With no support in Argenport, the princess is exiled. A fitting end to her line.”

His hand darted out, and the brazier flashed a bright blue, smoke pouring from it to form an image of Yushkov, as Severin’s voice rose over the crackling flames. “This is the Oren of Kosul! Draped in furs and forged in bloodshed. The people have called for strength for centuries, and you have answered!” As he finished speaking, the fire and smoke faded, leaving behind an acrid stench. “I have seen more, my liege,” Severin added fervently. “Kosul will rejoice as its fearless Oren takes their rightful place.”

I will burn them.

Yushkov nodded, his hand sliding from his hammer. “You speak well, star reader.” He said, levelly. “I am a simple man, but not so simple so as to not see through your flattery. Fail me again, and I will feed you to Vargo.” The great man bared his teeth, “Lie to me again, and a worse fate awaits.”

“You are gracious, Oren.” Severin said, sweeping into another low bow. “Kosul is stronger with your return. I will see to the princess—you have no reason to fear her, nor the rabble outside.”

“Rabble?” Yushkov grunted, eyes narrowing.

“There was an attack on our warehouse,” Severin replied. “And there are rumors of a growing resistance. One of their number was very talkative.”

“Sabotage? I have no patience for such cowardly acts,” Yushkov said, turning. “I will make Kosul strong again, sage, and tear down any who dare stand in my way. If these rebels will not fight me directly, we will burn them all.”

Behind Yushkov, Severin smirked. “Yes, my lord, all indeed.”