Chapter 29: The Winter CrownApril 1, 2019
When Svetya stepped out of Korovyat Palace, bloodied hands bearing a warrior’s crown, Kosul held its breath.
Her father had opened the country’s borders, welcoming traders and new beliefs. Yushkov had shut that down by force; Kosul was stronger alone. Many agreed with him. Svetya had seen—and survived—many things to prove him wrong.
So as Svetya took the throne of her father, and his mother before him, the people of Kosul waited, a single question on their lips: What kind of Orene was she?
Would Kosul’s future be free from the scars of its past?
The diplomat stood proudly, in a heavy, fur-lined mantle, before the three rulers of Argenport. The Eternal Throne sat behind them, heavy and absolute.
“…and so I return,” the diplomat concluded, “to offer a new treaty between our powers. Kosul is free, once again.”
The rulers shared a look. They all remembered Yushkov’s entrance into the Spire. Vara spoke first. “Yushkov was a tyrant, and Svetya gave him more than he deserved. I hope she knows what she’s doing…”
Eilyn shot an alarmed look at her daughter. The nuances of statecraft did not come naturally to the girl. Too much of her mother’s hot-blooded youth still burned in her; in this moment, more of Caiphus’ carefully-laid plans would have served them better.
The elder queen rose, and Vara fell silent. “We congratulate the Orene on her victory, and the people of Kosul on their liberation. The renewal of the treaty between our gr—”
“No,” the diplomat cut in.
Eilyn’s eyes flashed dangerously at the interruption. “What do you mean?”
“The Orene will negotiate a new treaty. She well remembers those that helped her to reclaim Kosul, and,” the emissary said, her cold gaze sweeping across the seated figures, “those who did not.”
“Now listen here,” Kaleb drawled, leaning forward. “Argenport has—”
“Seen its fair share of turmoil, yes” the woman said. “So you—who have lost so much – understood the Orene’s position when she came to you. And yet, when she begged for aid… when you knew that her cause was just… when you knew that our people suffered, and our treaty required your aid…” The emissary shook her head, her voice hard, “Never again. Orene Svetya wishes to work closely with Argenport, but in the future we will do so from a position of strength.”
As the tall doors thudded shut behind the emissary, Eilyn cursed. “I told you we should have helped the girl.”
“It wasn’t our fight,” Kaleb said, a note of warning in his voice.
“It was a bad situation, but we were in no position help,” Vara added, nodding. “Win or lose, it would have torn Argenport apart.”
“But she was right.” Eilyn said flatly. “About all of it. The treaty was valid; we had made a promise, our people to hers. And when we were called to honor that promise, we didn’t.”
“I don’t kno—” Kaleb began.
“We could have saved lives!” Eilyn cried, wheeling on him. The air around her crackled. Before Kaleb could speak, Vara cut in,
“And if she lost?”
Eilyn turned to face her, eyes blazing, but Vara pressed on. “You’re right, mother. Of course you’re right. But a man like Yushkov is also petty, vengeful. If Svetya had failed, if Yushkov had held Kosul, and seen Argenport troops at the side of an attempted coup… would we have been next? Would you command the Crownwatch to bar the gates again, tell the people to endure another war? How much should we risk to save a frozen country far from here?”
Eilyn glowered, “I should have struck him down where he stood!”
“Hey!” Kaleb cried.
Eilyn growled, biting back a reply, and stormed out of the room. As she left, she said, “We must live with this decision. I hope for Argenport's sake that it was correct.”
Every harsh winter has a quiet spring.
It was something their mother had said, when she and Markōs had acted out as children. They had been the twin terrors of the palace grounds. But, she recalled, their mother rarely got mad at them, and even when she did, she never stayed mad. Even the roughest storms must pass, and there would be a time for kindness.
She didn’t know if she believed it, but she held onto the memory.
In the thin, pre-dawn light, she rose and packed her bags. Everyone else had left the old, abandoned estate, either to return to their homes and families, or abroad, fleeing recent memories. This place was my home, or what passed for it, she thought as she broke open the last barrels of lantern oil and soaked the dusty, rubble-strewn rooms. I suppose I have a family too… I spent so long thinking I was alone. But would they welcome a murderer to their side? Would she be comfortable in that life again?
No, she decided, and lit a match.
Kosul had changed, even in the few weeks since the coronation. The air was no longer heavy with smoke or tension. People spoke freely to one another in the market once again. Many who supported the Usurper, who looked the other way as he had run rampant, still walked freely, as citizens. There’s little I can do, now. The thought made her burn with fury.
The country was quieter, as people returned to their farms and their shops. They were ready to return to order, to normalcy. To their lives. And what is normal for me? She considered. The answer hurt. She had been forged in Yushkov’s Kosul, a place built on blood and strength and guile. Maybe I’m still there, she thought as she cleaned her rifle, running a cloth along the pitted, scarred barrel.
Kosul needed healers and politicians. Not blood-drenched fighters.
It was still early when she turned her back on the ashes and faced the sunrise. Kosul was healing, or at least changing.
She hoped she could do the same.