Rohs, the beating heart of Thenia, and at its centre the Golden Palace; Inna stared at her home in wonder, as if for the first time, while the merchant ship Phoenix glided into the broad harbour. Those spires seem to pierce the very sky, beckoning her home more insistently than her fathers' cryptic letter.
"Inna, my sweet girl, come home - and do so soon. Tell no one, arrive in peace and secrecy."
She folded the letter and tucked it into her plain travel cloak as the ship docked, and slipped into the crowd like a fish slipping into deep water. The seething mass of people carried her through the docks to the broad Royal Road where she was more out of place than she could ever have expected. Fashion had changed since she last visited; the necklines were lower, the stays tighter, and the men had taken to wearing skin-tight breeches that clung to every part of their legs. As a widow, a recent one at that, it would have been improper for her to dress as such. As a Princess arriving like a thief in the night, it would have been stupid.
So she kept her head down and slipped into the side streets, making her way towards the servants' entrance where a familiar face stood waiting. Kurt, by name and nature, was one of those men that seemed to have been bred for a guardsman's life. Broad and bullish, yet surprisingly smart, he narrowed his eyes as she approached and lifted her hood slightly, concealing her face from the other man,
"I was summoned," she said, adopting the accent of her husband's people and he nodded,
"Enter." She felt his eyes track her, knowing her old Master-of-Arms would have questions later. Up three winding sets of stairs, she brushed past servants and footmen, few of whom she knew, and with a susurrus of fearful intuition, waited for the patrolling guards to pass before slipping into her mothers' old room. It was from there she entered her father's chamber, causing his physician to jerk with shock and fear before she lowered her hood.
"You called for me, father?" She raised her chin, trying to hold back the biting tears; he was old, she realized, and sick. Very sick. The once proud, athletic man had withered into an aged husk. His red hair had turned grey, his eyes were set deep in pallid skin.
"By the Divines you look like your mother, Lady Inna," the Physician, unfortunately known as Mort, said,
"Forgive me for frightening you, old friend," she murmured, sweeping her silvery hair over her shoulders, "I was told to come in secret."
"Yes, a wise choice, I think," he said cryptically and nodded to her father,
"I will tell your guards you do not wish to be woken from your sleep, Inan," he said, one of the few who could call her father that anymore. He nodded,
"Go, go," he wheezed and struggled to sit, turning his rheumy eyes to her, "you know why you are here?" He asked then gave a series of hacking coughs that shook his sharp shoulders,
"You are dying, I suppose," she said, though her heart was tearing itself into bits,
"I am, and soon." Inan cleared his throat, and the phelgmatic sound was swallowed by the room, just as his body was dwarfed by the royal bed. "Your brother, Dawy, has become a poor excuse for a man."
"I had heard his reputation was low," she said and lifted a cool cloth from his bedside, standing to wipe his face, but he pushed her away,
"Low," he spat, "he's an animal, Inna, a bloodthirsty, feckless beast. He cannot replace me." Her heart sank as he took her hand in his bony grip. She felt every sharp edge in those fingers."You are the oldest, named for me, taught by your grandfather, blessed as he was, you must take the Golden Throne as my heir."
"I am not so clean myself, Father," she said, but he shook his strangely large head, bobbing it on the stalk of his neck,
"Blood is blood," he said, and she wondered whose he meant, hers? Her brothers? Or perhaps her husbands', "You are already a Queen. You have brought your new kingdom great fortune. You must do so for Rohs and Thenia. So I say, so it is."
"I will deal with him." He lay back with a wheeze, and she wondered how that would be so when he looked barely able to deal with a stiff breeze. He shuddered and pulled the heavy covers further up his body. "Speak to Mort. He knows what to do. He is sending Kurt to collect you." With that he waved her away like a fly, the thick rings now rattling on the bones of his fingers.
In the silence of his slumber, cocooned by the ragged wheezes that passed for breaths, Inna felt like a rabbit in a snare. The sense of being caught in a box that had been carefully laid out for her was strong. All she could wonder was whether there would be holes for air and light when the lid snapped shut.
Time seemed to stand still until Kurt entered without explanation to the guards outside the door. He pressed his hands to his hips and gave her a sad look,
"This way, Lady," he said and led her out into the hall, ignoring the shocked murmurs of the servants that were bustling by. Her presence was now known, and she could feel the sand beginning to slip through the hourglass. What had her father gotten her into?
"Keep your head up," he said without turning his head, "and don't react. You will not be sleeping in your own rooms."
"Dawy will try to kill me when he finds out?" She asked though she knew the truth already,
"He may already know," Kurt said and took the broad stairs to the guest suites two at a time,
"And how do you intend to keep me alive until the coronation?" She asked, trying not to hurry behind him like a puppy on a string,
"Carefully." His broad back led the way; a new, pink scar stood livid on the back of his neck where the fine hairs were greying and there were a few spreading lines where the skin had creased and folded time and time again. A reminder of how age crept up from behind.
"And after?" She let him usher her into a suite with the eyes of servants and maids on them; the rumour mill would turn, now, but that could work to their advantage. A scandal could be a powerful tool,
"Forcefully," he grunted and led her through closeted rooms where furnishings remained covered, through to a servants' corridor, down into a study and through a secret door into a small set of rooms reserved for foreign diplomats and pricey whores. Which, she had to admit, were hard to tell apart. "The doctor will explain it to you," he said and bowed stiffly to her and then Mort, "I will bring you everything you need, Lady, and collect you when it is time to speak to the people."
Mort was waiting like a statue, shrouded in shadows and clearly up to no good. It didn't suit him; he was twitchy and nervous. A healer by nature, it seemed he had no stomach for what her father had planned,
"Thank you," Inna nodded and sank into a plush chair, waiting until Kurt left to speak again, "so Mort, you and my father have been scheming while my brother has been drinking and whoring?" The old man gave a reedy, nervous laugh and twitched his head as if shaking something away,
"Your brother, Lady, has been doing more than that," Mort said with a grimace, his thin, mousey face pale and covered with a sheen of sweat. He was terrified, she realized and horrified by what was to come, "Dawy has lost what little wits he had. Half of the brothels won't see him anymore; he keeps killing the women. One in the merchants' quarter, the Royal Fortune, turned him away; he had Skade and Belish burn it down with the patrons and girls inside."
Inna felt her face blanch.
"Is he mad?" She gasped, truly shocked for once,
"Oh completely," Mort snorted, "nuttier than squirrel shit, if you'll forgive the language. I told your father he caught the pox. It hasn't spread to his face yet, but it's made its way to his mind."
"Then he will die soon?" She asked, and leaned back onto the dusty fabric. "Why do we need a scheme? Can I not simply wait for him to die before I claim the throne?"
"He could live for years," Mort said, "it's like rabies, you know. Some go down quickly, but others... they live longer than they should. All the world unravels in their mind, but the body just won't die. He should be dead already, but that witch Skade is prolonging it somehow." He shuddered then and made a sign to the Gods, as if her name alone was enough to make him unclean,
"Skade..." Inna murmured the name, "She's from the Azure Isles?"
"That's her," he said, "a more vile heathen you never could have seen, Lady. Always reeking of blood."
"Aren't we all," Inna leaned back, ignoring his curious stare as she saw the witch in her minds eye. Tall, too tall by far for the taste of most men, and broad like a workhorse. Pretty, though. It was her eyes, Inna fancied, that made men like Mort wither; they were... unnervingly direct. Mort busied himself arranging bottles and writing notes,
"We have to ruin his reputation, make him unfit to rule, and then sequester him in a hospital," Mort said, "or so your father has decided." He hesitated before handing her a small vial of milky liquid,
"Hogroot extract," she said, "you want to blind him?" Mort faltered, giving her another one of those curious stares,
"I know it seems brutal, Lady Inna, but-"
"No," she said and placed it down, "tell me, when the Royal Fortune went up, was Lady Tullain in it?" He looked away, the small fire behind him crackling and spitting,
"Yes." He said it as if he didn't mean to - threw that word out into the gloom like a fox being thrown to the dogs,
"Leave me," she whispered,
"Get out. Send Kurt back." She waited in silence as he gathered his things and shuffled away to take the long road back to her father's chamber. No doubt to tell him that she, too, was mad. No matter; her doubts had slipped away.
The smell of food came long before Kurt, and her belly roiled despite the lack of hunger,
"This room is pitch black," he grumbled and set two plates down before throwing a few logs on the fire. Seated across from her, illuminated by the fire, he looked older than she remembered, and there were fresh scars on his face. "I'm sorry about your woman, Inna," he said with a shrug, "she was kind."
"And now she is dead." Inna drained her wine glass and poured another, "but I am not, and I will live." He said nothing for a few moments, then leaned forward, folding his hands. He knew better than to speak for the sake of it; it was one of the many things that made her fond of him. "I don't care what my father told you, he is dying. I don't care to listen to Mort, he's not of the blood." She leaned forward. "Do as I say, and we will do away with the need for their schemes."
"I can manage," he said carefully, "I've no head for plotting, anyway."
"Good," Inna said and straightened, "tell them I have agreed to their plan."
"What?" He frowned, heavy brows creasing,
"Tell them," Inna repeated carefully, staring at the blood-red gem on her wedding ring, "I have agreed to their plan. And then fetch me amortensia, bright bloom, and whisper root. Quietly. Have the crown taken to the jeweler and fitted to my measurements as they ask," she reached for her coin purse, "and give him this when you do." The small bag of coins was heavy enough to make him raise his brows. "Tell him I wish to make sure it grips my hair. It cannot fall or slip, lest the people think the Gods no longer favours me." He nodded and placed the coin purse down. "And tell the servants that Dawy is to be treated with respect... make sure everyone hears you tell them that he is my brother and I support him."
"Anything else?" He drained his own glass and she poured him a second. Inna sighed,
"No. Simply keep me alive," she said, "and trust me."
She woke to the sound of death horns, and rolled onto her side to weep. The palace felt empty, though she knew it would be bustling with activity. If she knew her father, which she did, better than anyone, the wheels had been greased long ago. Two women with plain faces and grim mouths entered her room just after dawn, holding mourning clothes and, between their layers, a bag of herbs and roots,
"Our condolences, Lady Queen," the younger one whispered, giving a shadow of a curtsey,
"I am not your Queen," Inna shed her clothes and stood bare in the grey light, then smiled, "not yet." The women shared secretive smirks and stepped forward to help her dress. Layers and layers of black; when she was Queen again, and not simply a widow waiting for a new husband to be assigned, she would wear gold and fiery red, Inna thought. Or green, for sweet Tullain.
Until then - black. She had to be cloaked in propriety and piety. Women's weapons.
Though the death march took all day to wind through the streets, Dawy never appeared. Instead, Inna marched alone beside her fathers' golden litter and stood alone with the torch to set it aflame. Kurt sidled up to her as she entered the vast, gilded halls of the palace,
"You've moved rooms," he grunted, "two men ransacked them during the march. The woman I left there as a ruse is dead." Inna could have laughed and leapt with glee. How these men failed to see their own end.
"And the men?" She nodded solemnly to the gathered nobles as they passed, voice low and venomous,
"Also dead," he said, "but they had a note."
"Obviously." He extended a thick arm to push some of the nobles back as they crowded around her, muttering and babbling their condolences like children seeking a prize,
"Perfect. The crown?" She asked, turning to accept flowers from a child held in its mother's arms,
"Your father already had the interior altered to fit you. I took it to the jeweller anyway... he said he will add Pellan Grips, I think? Is that what you wanted?" His eyes slid from place to place; anyone who knew him could see his nerves were worn. Poor old Kurt, she thought, poor old dog, so used to guarding the hen house that he had lost the taste for blood,
"Yes," Inna smiled as the stepped into the throne room, "exactly what I wanted. He will not wait until the coronation to strike."
"No, you have days to get out of this, Inna," Kurt hissed, and she felt a flash of affection. If she had any time for men, she thought, he would have been the one to choose. Of course, that would have been even more scandalous, but what was a life without secrets?
"I am already out of it, my friend," she murmured, leaning in to whisper in his ear as he took her hand and guided her up to the empty seat on the right side of the Golden Throne. The scandalized whispers were just loud enough to be heard over the hubbub. Perfect. "All you have to do is keep me alive until noon tomorrow." He thumped his meaty fist against his chest and bowed before stepping to the side.
"I'll do my best," he muttered as he sidled out of her eyeline. Inna drew in a breath and steadied herself for battle,
"My father is dead," she said, voice clear as a church bell and heavy with sadness, "Rohs must mourn, all of Thenia must mourn today. But we cannot stand idle while our enemies gather." The nobles murmured. "My rooms were ransacked this morning by assassins sent to slaughter me." The gathered crowd rippled as gasps and shouts echoed out. The doors opened, Dawy entered with his men... and Skade. Perfect. The woman was as beautiful as Inna remembered, and she remembered her well. And all the lessons in herbalism she had imparted.
"Brother," she called, "you are safe, my gratitude knows no bounds."
"Why would I not be?" He asked as he approached. Her stomach turned; he was a wreck. The white of one eye had turned bright red, his skin was sallow and somehow loose. The reek of sickness around him was like oil sliding over water. Slick, sticky, and inescapable. Courtiers slid out of his way with desperate calm, the flesh on their faces tight as drum skins.
"Because you have a traitor in your retinue," she held out her hand and Kurt, Gods bless him, handed her the note, "someone who sent assassins to kill me," she said, "and tried to blame it on you, forging your signature." Guilt and fear flashed across his face as the courtiers whispered and whimpered, whipped into a frenzy,
"How do you know who this traitor is?" He asked, and for a moment, she thought about letting his own stupidity take him down. Instead, she raised the note to show it, and when it fell, seemingly because of her shaking hands, she stooped to retrieve it, tugging the fine gold chain from her ankle.
"Because the man who had the note," she said and let the delicate, jewelled chain drop into view, "also had this." Skade faltered, eyes flicking between Inna and the jewellery, "this is Azurean design?" She looked the woman in the eye, "is it not, Lady Skade?"
"I could not say," the witch said, calm and cold, "for I cannot see it."
"You do not need to see it," Inna said, "because it used to be yours... is that not right, Lady Arabelle?" She turned to a red-haired noblewoman, a favourite of Dawys, and a venemous snake, "look at it. You were Lady Skade's lover a long time ago," she let her eyes wander as the whispers became like thunder, "before you found the Gods and became and honourable woman once more." Kurt shifted, and for a moment the hiss and creak of his armour was the only sound, or so it seemed. A risk, yes, but a calculated one. Arabelle stepped onto the dias and held out her hand to take the anklet.
"Yes," she whispered, eyes downcast, "it is hers."
Skade fled, or tried to; the dagger that lodged in back did not kill her, but Kurt was behind it, and he certainly did. Inna held the creeping smile at bay as blood seeped across the white marble floor, then raised her eyes to look at her brother. Hate was too pale a word for what she saw there,
"With such enemies at our gates, we cannot wait for aproper coronoation, no matter how we wish to. We will crown my brother tomorrow," she said and some in the crowd failed to contain their horror. Belish stood behind him, face tight, "Myself and Monsignor Thorn will crown him, and if it pleases the Gods he will be our king. Until then I will be in mourning for my father, and do not wish to be disturbed." The chaos that broke loose almost broke her facade, but as Dawy and Belish turned to meet the crowd, she stood and slid away, motioning for Kurt to follow as Mort fought against the tide of people, calling for her,
"Find a woman that could pass as me in low light, and have her show herself in the company of trusted servants. Have her wear a veil and tell anyone who asks I will be silent and covered until the coronotion, as a small nod to the proper period of mourning." She turned her head slightly to him as they pushed through the crowds,
"I can do that."
"Good, once you havesend a man you can trust to take me to Thorn, there is work to be done," Inna took a steadying breath and let every step ground her. The thrill of the game was unworthy of her, but she had to admit she loved it.
Reeking of herbs and smoke, face oil from blessed oil, Inna waited in a black gown so stiff that it would have carried itself had she stepped out of it. Grey pearls and rich sapphires winked at the solomn crowd, but they were looking at Dawy. Wearing white and red, he stood out in the sea of black, the only one celebrating his coronation. Monsignor Thorn frowned at her, flesh face drawn down by the weight of a sleepless night, but for all the world seeming to be contorted in a mask of disapproval. Each word was heavy, and when he handed her the bottle of oil to annoint Dawy his wrinkled fingers did not shake.
The crown was sharp from every angle, looking for all the world like it was dripping upwards to heaven, the irregular spikes and dips alomost organic in nature. A single, blood red ruby sat in its front, looking like a great eye when worn. As she swiped the oil across her brothers brow with one black gloved finger, Inna smiled at him,
"Forgive the gloves brother," she whispered, "as you celebrate, I mourn our father. Your true coronoation will be a grander affair." He nodded curtly, the smell of death rolling from him like sea fog. As she reached for the crown, Inna raised her voice,
"This coronation, though hasty, is binding," she said and turned to him, "my brother, may you be a wise and just king. May you lead us to glory and greatness. May the Gods show us a sign of their favour, and may the rejoice with us when we can give you the celebration befitting your glory. Protect us and guide us -" his hand closed around her wrist like a vice, causing a ripple of gasps and whispers. He stood and took the crown from her, looking her in the eye with a strange smile as he placed it firmly on her head, pushing hard enough that the needl-like Pellan grips breached her hair and bit into her scalp and made her wince. Time stopped, as if tied to that corpse's smile. Dawy waited, and then his smile slipped. Inna blinked at him, tilted her head, and waited for the realization to dawn behind his dull eyes,
"Forgive me," he said with a throttled laugh, "I just had to see it." The gathered people laughed weakly, and shuffled as she took the crown from her head and placed it on the altar, smearing more oil onto his head, beginning again,
"A coronation must be uninterrupted," she said, "and so I once again call upon the Gods to bless you and keep you, and ask them to forgive us until we can give you the celebration your highness deserves." she placed the crown on his head and stepped back, kneeling as he stood. Counting the words from Monsignor Thorns lips, waiting for the sudden halt, and when it came, she looked up at Dawy's blood red eyes, watch in time for him to fall. Blood seeped from his ears and eyes. From his loose mouth. She did not scream when the others did, only stood and looked at the stunned onlookers. "The Gods have judged," she said, "and found my poor brother wanting."
From his place in the centre of the hall, Mort covered his mouth and stepped back.
"The King is dead. Sound the horns of death. Prepare a funeral... leave me." Her voice was low, solid and devoid of feeling. The very sound of dazed grief. As the nobles hurried into the open air, no doubt to tell the whole city what they had seen, Inna watched Monsignor Thorn gather the symbols of coronation before crushing the vial of blessed oil beneath his foot. When he swept from the throne room like a great crow, Inna took a breath and turned to look at Kurt, still standing by the side of the dias, still holding his hands behind his back.
"Poison in the anointing oil," he said softly, "you are a piece of work, Inna."
She settled in the Golden throne with a smile,
"Yes," she sighed and pulled her gloves off, "but effective, no?" He nodded. "Burn these." She said and leaned back.
"As you wish, Your Highness." He stepped in her brothers blood as he passed, and left a series of fading marks across the white floor. A trail leading to the midden. A flash of poetry she had not planned for.