THE Hall of Prisms in Sarona was nothing like the Rose Fortress. Everything was so…damp and stony, walls punctured by enormous stained glass windows that dwarfed the young girl standing where the great Ranov queens once stood, in garb they once wore, waiting to be called down to her coronation in the very halls they once stalked.
The Daughter chewed her lip as red-clad seamstresses and tailors circled her for yet more pinning, tucking, and stitching. Normally, the gown would have been finished ages ago, but her accession to the throne of Sosna Chonok was so sudden there had been no notice until the moment was nigh. Or…that’s what her mother told her, at least.
“Young mistress?” Her governess’ voice queried from the plush chair on the other side of the room. “How do you fare?”
The Daughter stopped chewing her lip. “Like a mannequin. When will they be done? I want to see my mother again before…well, you know.”
Her governess came to her, cupping the Daughter’s cheek in her smooth, grey-skinned hand as if she were a child much younger than fifteen. “I am certain your mother would love to see you before your coronation. Know she will be watching you every step of the way even if you are a Chobortsriya when next she sees you.”
The Daughter bowed her head and considered her feet, which sweat something awful buried in fine black-and-red-jeweled slippers that looked far too imposing for her taste. She mumbled, “I suppose it’s better if we don’t. I want to be taken seriously as a Chobortsriya.”
“And you will be,” said her governess. “You look exactly as fierce as your mother. Eyes, red as garnets. Hair, crimson as an Ignan rose. Skin silver and dewy as the stars. More wit than most know what to do with. And, most importantly of all—” she rested a manicured hand on the Daughter’s shoulder. The seamstresses worked around the intrusion, stitching beads onto a high, red collar. “Birthright. Your mother’s armies crushed the false queen’s rebellion just weeks ago. Sosna Chonok has been a lawless pit since well before then, but it must be restored to order. You, her eldest heir, are the only woman to whom she can entrust this most important and sacred job. Chobortsriya of Sosna Chonok. The Rose of the North. You will raise this realm to greatness.” With a reassuring pat, her governess withdrew her hand.
The Daughter bit her lip. As far back as she could remember, everyone had just talked about what would happen if Zoldonya Chovrekozh broke the allied North and finally claimed its land: who would lead Sosna Chonok once the newest false queen was ousted and how the Blue Queen’s remaining allies would be wiped out, what to do if the Yellow Queen went back on her word and attacked. It all seemed so…big. And herself, so small. Her stomach was a jar of fireflies. She was just two years old when the Blue Queen was executed one early spring—not that she would have wanted to see such butchery. It took thirteen years to break the Northerners of their dedication to her, but her mother proved it could be done. Yet, some dark and deep part of the Daughter wished the Blue Queen had never been captured at all, nor the Northern regions shattered beyond recognition. Perhaps then filling her shoes wouldn’t seem such a daunting task.
“I just don’t feel ready,” she admitted. “I don’t think I’m ready to lead anybody, much less the former capital of Kandrisev.”
“Neither did your mother, when she became Chobortsriya of Zoldonmesk at no older than six. But that’s what your household is for: a governess to teach you, advisors to guide you, and many more members to keep your necessities at bay while you focus on honorable rule and just command.” Her governess clasped her hands around the Daughter’s. “Please, young mistress, don’t worry. Everything will turn out perfectly fine.”
“But what if they don’t…” her voice grew as tiny as she felt. “Like…me?”
“The Chonokians. A-and the rest of the Northerners. Surely just because we conquered them they won’t turncoat and start hating…her.”
Her governess bent down to look her directly in the eyes. A stained glass cornflower reflected in her deep pools of yellow. The Daughter’s heart fluttered. Was it a sign?
“They will love you in time. You are kind, brave, and a more capable leader than you know. Your abilities will only flourish as long as you are still willing to learn. I am certain of it.”
The cornflower’s reflection enraptured her. The sigil of a dead queen. On her coronation, she’d be asked to choose a sigil to herald her presence, too. Nothing had stood out to her other than a rose until the reflection of that glossy cornflower in the eyes of her governess. There would be riots if she chose such a symbol. She may even be killed over it.
“Mistress? What’s wrong?”
The Daughter shook her head to clear it. “Sorry, I…” she looked around the room, searching for an excuse. Most of the old furniture had been covered in sheets and ancient tapestries telling stories of the Ranov family’s ancestors. One bore a pedigree chart. She shifted her feet. “I just know the Yellow Queen isn’t happy about this. I was supposed to marry her nephew and now I’m not, and she called all the Rahvi warriors back to Chariv.”
Her governess’ knit brows faded to a softer look. “Marriage contracts shift all the time, as do military alliances. Your mother won the North, so she picks who leads it. If need be, she will win the West just as easily. Do you trust me?”
The Daughter swallowed. Truthfully, she didn’t know. Her head was spinning with scenarios, plots, and subterfuge. All of it just seemed too big. Too hard. Up until her mother brought the last bastions of the Blue Queen’s allies to heel last autumn, the Daughter hadn’t set foot outside the Rose Fortress in Igna, much less the borders of Zoldonya Chovrekozh. Still, she sighed. “Yes, governess, I trust you.”
“Then believe me when I say there’s no reason to worry.” She extended a hand. “Looks like they’ve finished dressing you up. Are you ready to meet your future subjects?”
The Daughter barely realized the seamstresses had finished stitching her into the gown. They now stood in a neat, pin-straight line off to the side, heads bowed so they could better hear her next command.
She looked down at herself. Red, as always. Vermillion, crimson, currant and ruby, interspersed with sable and onyx. Her hair, plaited into one waist-length braid, cascaded over her shoulder and down her front. It was stunning. Then, every outfit she wore was stunning. She could be given no less.
Cautiously, she stepped toward the door. When she moved, the gown tinkled. She looked over her shoulder at her governess and the stained glass window behind her. The Blue Queen had also been young when she came into power. She hadn’t been ready for it, either. Such thoughts made her doubt her own true-heartedness. A thought that raised the hair on the back of her neck crept to the forefront of her mind. Had Sofezhka Ranov been scared, too, when she was crowned the Blue Queen of Kandrisev?
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