Read The Usurper's Crown Online

Authors: Sarah Zettel

The Usurper's Crown

The
Usurper’s
Crown

by Sarah Zettel

a division of F+W Media, Inc.

This book is dedicated to my friend
and fellow practitioner of the
writing arts, Karen Everson.

Contents

Prologue

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Epilogue

Main Characters

Place Names

About the Author

Also Available

Copyright

Acknowledgments

The author would like to once again thank the Untitled Writers Group for their honesty and support. Many thanks also to my editor, James Frenkel, and my agent, Shawna McCarthy, without whom this book and this series would not have seen the light of day.

In the lofty chamber, at the river mouth … a fair maiden stands, stands and decks herself, commends herself to valorous folk, glories in deeds of war
.

— from a Russian spell of protection in battle

Prologue

Medeoan will not yield
.

Those words echoed inside Avanasy’s head as he stood in the vestment room of the god house, one eye pressed against the rough, wooden door so that he might watch the wedding. Shame weighed on him. He had not found in himself the strength to leave while any chance remained for Medeoan to change her mind. Therefore, he must hide like a thief waiting for a household to settle into sleep. Avanasy was under sentence of banishment, and if he were found today within the borders of Isavalta he would be killed. So, where did he choose to harbor himself? In the heart of the Imperial Palace of Vyshtavos. Emperor Edemsko, Avanasy’s patron, would have snorted at that, had he known, and pronounced it “arrogance typical of a sorcerer.” Then, however much the emperor might regret it, he would carry out the sentence his daughter Medeoan had laid down.

Medeoan will not yield
.

A rush of air swirled the scents of incense and burning candles through the cracks in the door. By pressing his right cheek against the door’s pitted surface, Avanasy could just barely see the tall, gilded doors open to let High Princess Medeoan pace gracefully but deliberately into the god house. As she glided past his vantage point, he saw how the assured glow of a maiden’s love had taken on a sharp edge in her face. This was her decision. Against council and advice, this love was all hers, and he could see clearly that she felt pride as well as joy in it. Her parents on the dais and the statues of the gods on their pedestal watched her approach with the same stately equanimity. Avanasy’s jaw tightened as the courtiers’ murmurs reached him. The poets and the gossips would doubtlessly set out a banquet of approved words to describe this sight. All those assembled in the god house would later be said to have noted how the color in the high princess’s cheeks rivaled the roses in her wedding crown and girdle for brightness. They would say her sapphire blue eyes shimmered with joy the way the golden symbols of luck, happiness, and fertility embroidered on her blue gown shimmered with the light of braided candles set in every corner and cornice of the gilded room. Ballads and romantic themes would be composed on the heir of Isavalta and her great love.

Those themes would not last. Avanasy knew that fact as he knew that the sun would rise the next morning, and the knowledge burned his heart. The pain only grew sharper because he could do nothing. Finally, his restless, discontented student was happy. Finally, she was at peace with her place in the world.

That peace, however, rested on a carpet of lies. He had tried to tell her this hard news, but Medeoan had just stood before him, her jaw hanging loose in stunned disbelief.

“Why are you saying this, Avanasy?”

They had been in her private chamber, the only place he could possibly utter his accusations. They stood on opposite sides of the central fire pit so that he seemed to see her standing in a patch of flames. Beyond the princess, her ladies-in-waiting sat in their alcove, her wedding veil stretched out between them so they could work on its embroidery. All of them bent studiously over their work, pretending very hard not to hear anything that was being said.

“Because it is the truth.” His voice had been soft, then. Anger would not serve. Medeoan had always looked to him for sympathy. He had to show her he felt that sympathy still. “Kacha means to use you to gain Isavalta for himself.”

“He does not need to use me,” countered Medeoan doggedly. “Once he becomes my consort, Isavalta passes to his heirs, our children. His bloodline will have Isavalta.”

As it has been denied its native land of Hastinapura
. Avanasy met her eyes, willing her to hear what he truly said. “Medeoan, you are a sorceress. You may not conceive easily, and you will most certainly outlive Kacha.” He did not say, why do you think your parents had to negotiate the marriage treaty so carefully? He did not say, why do you think those who sit on the Pearl Throne offered you the son of their emperor’s brother rather than their heir? Medeoan already knew these things, however much she might wish not to. That knowledge hung in the air between them like the scent of the wood and charcoal burning in the fire.

He expected anger her from her. Indeed, he hoped for it. Anger would mean that she had heard him, and that his words had reached beyond the walls she had erected in her heart and her mind. Instead, she drew herself up, her whole bearing showing an unfamiliar resolve. “You think I do not know that my existence is shaped by politics? I know that as I know my name. The needs of the empire shape every single facet of my life but one: Kacha loves me.”

Kacha. Now, he waited for his bride beside Bakhar, the keeper of the god house. Kacha’s narrow, rugged face was appropriately solemn as he watched Medeoan’s approach. Like Medeoan, Kacha wore the imperial blue, but his elegant kaftan was covered by a white coat embroidered with silver. He would not officially obtain imperial rank until Medeoan accepted him before the gods. Then, that white coat would be removed, and his crown of white roses would be replaced with a crown of gold and sapphires, and he would have all that he wanted.

“Politics shapes your existence, yes.” Avanasy rounded the fire pit and stood directly in front of Medeoan. “It also shapes Kacha’s. His father should have been on the Pearl Throne, but he is not. It galls him. His son — ”

“Is his route to empire,” Medeoan cut Avanasy off sharply. “Why does that matter? I am marrying him. His father will have the empire he desires.” She turned from him then, gripping the back of a gilded chair. “It is done. There is no need for this treachery you would dream up.”

“No need, perhaps,” said Avanasy to her back, “but I fear that owning the future of Isavalta is not enough for them.”

Medeoan whirled around then, at last truly angry. Avanasy suppressed a grim smile at that anger. At last, at last, she was beginning to hear him. “How can you say such things?” Medeoan demanded. “What proof have you?”

“You require proof?” Avanasy said gently, taking another step forward. “Answer me this question. Where is Kacha now?”

Medeoan frowned, her brows drawing together. “He is meeting with the Master of the Treasury and the under treasurers.”

Avanasy nodded. He had known the answer before he spoke. “Were you not supposed to be in consultation with them?”

Medeoan hesitated, but she covered the pause with a dismissive wave. “I must see to the wedding clothes. There are sigils that must be properly prepared.”

“I could do that with the aid of your mistress of the weaving sheds, as could any of the court sorcerers.” Avanasy spread his hands, encompassing the room and leaving her nowhere to turn. “Why are you not in consultation with the men who will most likely be your ministers when you assume the throne?”

“Because I wish to be here.” Medeoan pronounced each word carefully and clearly, but her voice trembled all the same.

Forgive me
, thought Avanasy silently, as he pressed on. “Kacha said he would take care of these matters for you, did he not?”

Medeoan had a ready answer. Avanasy had known she would. “I wish the Council of Lords to become used to him and his position of responsibility.”

“So it was your idea?” He raised his eyebrows. “He did not suggest to you that he sit through this dull meeting while you are more agreeably occupied?”

Medeoan stood silent.

“And how many other meetings in these past months has Kacha shouldered the burden for?”

Her fist knotted against the back of the chair. She was so young yet. She believed she had finally found the escape she had always sought, and it grieved him to force her to see the truth. But how could he be loyal and do otherwise? “He is the first person who wished to make my life easier rather than more difficult.”

“He is the first person who wished to cut you off from the functions of the government that will be yours, or should be yours.”

That was his fatal miscalculation. Medeoan turned away.

There were those who had heard of Avanasy’s objections and cautions regarding the marriage and looked askance at him. They wondered if he had fallen in love with his imperial student. He kept his silence at these whispers. They were not entirely wrong. He did love Medeoan. He loved her as a daughter or a sister. So he told himself, most days. He was too honest with himself not to admit that there were times, when they sat together in confidence, and she told him of her fears, that other loves were stirred in him. He loved the brilliance of her mind and of her magic, and he was by no means blind to her beauty. To see her so utterly overcome by treachery and flattery left him devastated.

As was required upon entering the god house, the High Princess Medeoan paused to kiss the robes of Vyshko and Vyshemir, the house gods of the imperial family. Vyshko lifted his pike high, and Vyshemir spread her hands, offering her cup and knife to the assembly. Coins and velvets lay heaped at their feet, the gifts of the ones who stood before them. Those who were close enough, and those who knew Medeoan well, knew she did not observe the gods dressed in their finest indigo silk for this ceremony. Instead, she stole covert glances at her groom, who had already processed in and honored the gods with treasures from his southern homeland. Now, he waited for Medeoan. Doubtless, she saw how fine his chiseled features were. In her memory she heard the sweet words of love and sympathy that he poured endlessly into her ears.

Perhaps they are right after all, the ones who call me a jealous fool
. Avanasy bowed his forehead against the vestry door.
Perhaps she was right to exile me
.

“He’s told you you’ll be free, hasn’t he?” he had said to Medeoan, his voice growing harder with each word, even though he knew it was a mistake. He knew he should stop, he must stop, or he would drive her away, but he could not stop. There had been then only himself and her, and the fire burning beside them, echoing the anger and fear burning in his veins. Nothing else registered in his mind. “He has told you that you can have the one thing you have longed for, as long as you trust him.”

“He is helping me,” said Medeoan. “Is that not what a husband and consort should do?” She walked up to him slowly, deliberately, far too close for courtesy. “Is that not what a teacher should do?”

“Is a consort supposed to bribe the treasury ministers?” shot back Avanasy.

Two bright spots of color appeared on Medeoan’s cheeks “What?”

I’m sorry. I’m sorry
. “Your ministers have been the recipients of several small but expensive gifts from the hand of your consort-to-be.”

Medeoan ducked her head, pretending to turn her attention to the ladies working so diligently on her veil. “He is generous to all who serve well.”

“To all who serve him well,” Avanasy corrected her.

“I have heard nothing of this,” Medeoan said without looking back at him.

“No,” said Avanasy. “Because you have ceased to attend meetings, and because Kacha has not told you.”

She whirled around then, and Avanasy saw fear behind the anger blazing in her eyes. She believed him, at least in part. She remembered that he had never lied to her, and so she must know that now he spoke the truth.

Had not Kacha walked in at that moment, everything might have been different.

Avanasy heard the sound of something scrabbling against wood, and realized it was his own nails scraping against the door as his hand curled into a fist.

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