THE air was a wet and suffocating blanket. Behind rain-thickened clouds, the moons struggled to bare their faces. Starlight died in the swirling grey mist before ever gracing the ground. A crackling bonfire hidden away in a poplar grove alone lit up the night.
Thankful for the kiss of heat against his clammy palms, the Son rubbed his hands together and held them just above the flames. Warm. Invigorated. Stripped of coldness and uncertainty. That’s how he imagined his whole body would feel when at last Ranovi Hoshal and its Sentinel fell to justice. For Sosna Chonok. For the Blue Queen. For him.
“You’re certain?” his elder sister, Chedevrena, asked.
Alongside her stood many familiar but stony faces, eyes eager for the blackness of war. Avgana, their eldest sister. Their mother’s brother, the Commander. All the generals and officers under him who were dedicated to doing the true and right thing. Each would receive a promotion and a pay raise if the plan succeeded. When. There was no “if” because there was no uncertainty. Nearly the entire city was behind him and his sisters’ plan.
“If they refuse to fight we’ll bring the fight to them,” the Son said. “Why are your feet so cold just now? We’ve planned for months.”
“My feet are fine,” Chedevrena snapped with an air of indignance. “You just…you seem different now that we’re so close is all. I want to know you’re alright.”
“I’m fine,” he said through gritted teeth. Silence. He went back to contemplating the flames.
If Nezhlovyad Region had just chosen a side in this war—the Blue Queen’s side, the right side—and quit stuffing their ears with cowardice by pretending neutrality would cure this madness, he wouldn’t have had to act. If Ranovi Hoshal, at least, had agreed to side with the Blue Queen and aid her armies in driving back the Usurpers, it wouldn’t need to be overthrown. Nezhlovyad wouldn’t lose such a valuable spot near their borders. In their daft eagerness to remain uninvolved—as if that would keep the Usurpers from cutting them down where they stood once they made it to the eastern coast—they had done little to defend themselves from the Red and Yellow armies. Overthrowing Ranovi Hoshal and taking it for the Blue Queen would be a simple task; especially when the so-called leader they prepared to overthrow was their mother.
The pathetic loon knew what Ranovi Hoshal’s support would mean for the North. Solidarity meant everything to the Ranovs: rather, the only Ranov left. Her dynasty began here in Hoshal Fortress over two hundred years ago. Instinctively, his hand covered the back of his neck. It didn’t matter one bit if the Blue Queen had been nezhdoya. She bore the name Ranov, and that should have been enough for anyone. His tattoo prickled. Nezhdoya. If his mother had ever cared about him, she had an odd way of showing it. Choosing neutrality was choosing inaction. It was choosing against him.
“Then if everyone is warm and ready, we await your command,” he said to Avgana.
After tonight, she would become the Sentinel of Ranovi Hoshal and declare it independent of Nezhlovyad. If Nastveta Evgorod wanted it back, she could damn well raise an army and take it herself.
Everyone looked at Avgana. She gave a quiet nod.
“Move out,” the Son commanded.
The mob advanced on the city walls. They were hardly impregnable, being made of wood and stone that was crumbled and rotten in more than one place. Complacency had made them weak. As they drew nearer more faces joined, ducking out of alleyways and turning off street corners, pouring from backdoors armed with whatever they could grab. Scant few had outright refused to participate. Their silence was duly ensured. Those who were expected to refuse were never asked at all. When dawn broke, they’d know.
As the mob thickened, so too did it hasten. The Son, along with his sisters, led the charge. His veins buzzed with levity. The corners of his lips cracked into a grin. Tonight, justice. Tonight was for everyone like him.
Like waves, the mob broke through the outer walls of Hoshal Fortress, flooding the gates with cries for blood and war that grew louder as their passion crested. The Son and his sisters breached the curtilage first, followed by a surge of bodies. The watchers at the fortress door turned their spears on the position they once defended.
“Down with the Xobortsriya!” Someone shouted. “Kill the Sentinel!”
The Son didn’t care to hide his mirth any longer as more voices joined in murky chants. The day had finally come when his sisters stood at his side to say “No.” The Blue Queen’s word was law; the time of nezhdoya was over. He would not be sold like chattel to some foreign princess. They had already torn him away from one family and he refused to suffer through it again.
The watchers at the fortress door held it open for him and his sisters to enter. The wood cracked against stone as the mob bled in, inundating the main hall. The Son and his sisters raced to their mother’s quarters.
The Son slammed open the reinforced door. Their mother huddled in a corner with her handmaids, her bodyguard standing over them with menace in his eyes. When their eyes locked, his mother burst into tears.
“My son! My son! Thank Leladya you’re here, my son! Have they hurt you? How did they get in? My gods, it’s like the whole city has gone mad.” Her face fell as his sisters stepped out aside him. A general guarded the threshold. “What’s happening?”
“It didn’t need to be like this.” The Son drew a lithe blade from the strap on his chest and handed it to the bodyguard. “But it is what I wanted.”
His mother and her handmaids screamed, wailing like the fools and lunatics they were. The bodyguard jerked down on each handmaid’s hair to force them to expose their throats. He slit them with no ceremony. They coughed and gurgled for some moments, clothes stained black and floorboards slickened by a swelling pool of hot, black blood. This room would need intense tidying after this was over. Or…perhaps it could serve as a deterrent.
“Mercy. Mercy!” his mother screeched.
Her bodyguard seized her and pulled her up. She doubled over, still sobbing, skirts wet with blood and urine. The bodyguard returned the blade.
“Sisters?” he asked.
Quietly, Avgana and Chedevrena stepped around him. They, too, held blades. Their mother made a horrible noise as if the air had been sucked from her lungs. Sputtering, sobbing, all she cried was, “Why?”
Avgana came to her and kissed her on the cheek. “I’m sorry, mother.” She stuck her stomach with the blade.
Chedevrena approached. “I’m sorry, mother.” She stabbed her ribs.
The noise it made pleased him. Like a dart whistling past one’s ear. Torn cloth, flowing blood. He approached. “I’m sorry, mother.”
When his blade entered his mother’s back, no pangs of remorse sickened him. In fact, he felt nothing. Not even relief. The bodyguard released her. They stabbed until their mother’s blackened, stumbling form slumped over on the floor. She convulsed. Her lips quivered as if she were trying to speak, but only air escaped. The Son knelt at her side. Her sea-grey eyes, glossy and fading, searched his face.
“The Sentinel is dead,” he whispered to her. “Long live the Sentinel.”
She stopped shaking as he spit in her face.
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