Read The Usurper's Crown Online

Authors: Sarah Zettel

The Usurper's Crown (2 page)

Kacha stood beside the keeper of the god house, waiting patiently while his bride poured out a small heap of gold and sapphires at the feet of the gods. He was handsome, for the most part. Although his face was narrow, the rest of him was broad and well sculpted. As suited a prince of the Pearl Throne, he had been well schooled in the arts of his homeland. He could read, and he could write several languages, which was more than most nobles of Isavalta could say. He could judge horse flesh, cloth, and gems. He could dance, sing and play music, and write a letter that could singe a maiden’s soul. He could speak politely but firmly in front of his elders, and he could weave a web of words to get what he desired. He had only two flaws. His right hand was twisted and withered like an old man’s. The flesh around his right eye was a network of white scars, and the eye itself was sunken and somehow aged. A chariot accident, he had said. He had been thrown, his hand becoming entangled in the reins and then crushed when the car overturned and his face had been pressed hard into the dirt. These outward signs that he had suffered in his life seemed only to draw Medeoan closer to him.

That scarred and aged eye glittered at Avanasy. As his suspicions had begun to deepen about Kacha, he had tried to find out the truth of the story of the chariot accident, but he had no bond of blood or vow with Kacha. That lack had caused his scryings to fail. No other sorcerer at court could be persuaded to so doubt the word of the young man who would soon be their emperor.

“Forgive me, Medeoan,” Kacha had said then, his gaze darting between Avanasy and his intended. “I did not realized you were occupied.”

“No, come here, Kacha.” Medeoan held out her hand. Kacha, his gaze fixed firmly on Avanasy, crossed the room in a swift stride to take her fresh, unlined hand in his withered one. “What is being said here concerns you.”

Kacha’s eyebrows rose minutely. “Then I am anxious to hear it.”

They did not look at each other. Their gazes both fixed on Avanasy, Kacha with the mildest of curiosity, Medeoan with cold anger. “Avanasy, who has never lied to me, says that you have been giving bribes to the treasury ministers.”

Kacha bowed with his palms pressed against his eyes, as was the fashion of his homeland. “Avanasy does not lie.”

What little blood she had left drained from Medeoan’s face. “Then it is true?” she breathed.

Kacha bowed again. “It is true.” He spoke casually, and as he lifted his head, Avanasy saw how the prince’s eyes shone.

Before either Medeoan or Avanasy could speak, Kacha asked, “Did Avanasy tell you why I did such thing?”

Avanasy felt his heart go cold. “Tell me why,” said Medeoan.

“Because your father’s Lord Master of the Treasury has been stealing.” Kacha held up his hand, forestalling protest. “I have been reviewing the ledgers. I have some proof, but not enough. I needed spies.”

“And why did you not see fit to inform the emperor of this?” asked Avanasy evenly. He must not accuse, not now. He must not lose hold of his anger.

“The emperor is a sagacious man; he will require more than my word as a prince when I say that one of the high families of Isavalta harbors a thief,” countered Kacha. “Which is why I needed proof.”

“And why did you not see fit to tell me?” asked Medeoan quietly.

Kacha dropped his eyes. “I was afraid.”

“Of what?” Medeoan stepped closer to him. “Of me?”

“No.” Kacha shook his head, and lifted his eyes, and stared straight at Avanasy.

It was a gesture Medeoan could not miss. “Of Avanasy?”

Kacha reached into the breast of his kaftan and brought out a tiny silver mirror. The surface had been carefully etched with a complex series of crosses and knots. A single human eye had been drawn in the center. “My servant told me Avanasy had asked for this to be placed in my chamber. He was told it was an amulet of protection. There are books in the library that say otherwise.”

Kacha handed the mirror to Medeoan, and Avanasy knew the young prince, the would-be emperor of Isavalta, had made his mistake.

“Highness, I swear on life, blood and soul that is no work of mine.” Avanasy stretched out his wrist. “Take my blood, work your will, and see for yourself which of us lies.”

He hoped she would take his word, but knew she could not. Medeoan carried a knife with the small bundle of keys that hung from her girdle. She raised it now, and cut his palm, the swift, shallow slice he had taught her to make. Avanasy held himself completely steady. One, two, three drops of blood fell from his wound onto the mirror. Medeoan breathed deeply, calling up the magic that was part of her soul, part of her world. She traced her finger through the tiny puddle of blood drawing a new pattern, as complete and precise as any he himself could make. The air tingled cool and sharp against Avanasy’s skin. It was a sensation Kacha could not feel. Medeoan shaped a spell of understanding. Had the watching mirror in truth been his, the blood would be absorbed into its surface. As it was, it would fall away like water, and Medeoan would know the truth. It was Kacha who lied to her, not he.

But the mirror drank in the blood until every trace of red was lost.

Avanasy’s soul plummeted. Medeoan raised her face to his, and her skin had gone paper white. He saw the flash of triumph in Kacha’s eyes, his scars standing out very white against his dark skin, and Avanasy knew like a sickness in him that he was lost, and that the fault for the loss was his own. He had grossly, stupidly, fatally underestimated how well Kacha’s father had prepared his son for the role he was to play.

“Get out.” Medeoan’s voice shook with her fury. “I ban you, I banish you. If I find you within my country again, you will be killed!”

“Medeoan …”

“Do not speak my name! Be grateful I do not have you killed here and now for the traitor you are! Get out!”

As the memory of her cry made its echoes in his mind, Avanasy made himself watch Medeoan, trembling with excitement, complete the journey to her waiting husband. Part of him mused that this voyeurism must be his own punishment for his arrogance. This was how he sought to deepen his own guilt and at the same time justify his fatal boldness.

And it is just as useless
. He watched the court, resplendent in its golds, silks, and velvets, reverence, bowing deeply from the waist with their hands crossed upon their breasts.

Medeoan will not yield
.

Those words had been spoken by Edemsko, the emperor of Isavalta. Medeoan’s father, relieved that his only living child had finally ceased to sigh against the burdens her birth had placed on her. Avanasy had felt a traitor going to the emperor in private to ask that Medeoan’s order of exile be rescinded. But how could he not? Now that he had seen the depth to which Kacha had laid his plans, how could he abandon her? So, he had finally managed to work his way past Iakush, the lord sorcerer, and gained audience with Medeoan’s father to lay all his suspicions before the emperor.

But Emperor Edemsko was not one of those who believed the heir to the throne should be kept from power. Medeoan had never been supposed to be the heir. Her older brothers had been stout princes, but one had been thrown from his horse into a freezing canal, and the other had succumbed to fever, leaving only Medeoan to take up the burden. No effort of the court sorcerers could produce another living child from the empress’s womb. So, from her youth, the emperor forced Medeoan to attend council sessions. He had insisted she have practice in direct governance, knowing that she would rule when he was gone. Now that she had seen fit to give an order of her own, he would not overrule her, even when that order was to exile the teacher the emperor had chosen for her.

Avanasy watched Keeper Bakhar gesture with one strong hand so that the court could rise and watch as he placed Kacha’s mismatched hands into Medeoan’s fair ones.

No
, he said in the silence of his own mind.
No, Medeoan. Stop
. His eyes turned involuntarily to the emperor and empress. They sat on their thrones on the dais behind the keeper, laden with pride, sphere, scepter and crown. They glittered more brightly than even the gods. Today, the royal regalia seemed no burden as they watched their daughter tilt her happy face toward her husband. No doubt, they were blessing fortune that political necessity could be married to happiness. Isavalta, fledgling Isavalta, Isavalta called eternal but really just a babe in its new borders, would be safe now. This union, this happy union, would assure it. There were plenty of other sorcerers at court. Kacha would be well watched, by them, and by the emperor’s own informants. Were it true that Medeoan was in danger, it would be seen well before any plan could be completed. Such a discovery might even be useful during future negotiations with the Pearl Throne of Hastinapura.

“Now I do call on those all here assembled to bear witness.” Medeoan’s voice rang strong and clear through the god house. “High Princess Medeoan Edemskoidoch Nacheradavosh being well pleased with the form and the offerings of Kacha
tya
Achin Ejunlinjapad do take his hands under the watchful eyes of Vyshko and Vyshemir, now and forever, as husband and consort, as Beloved Prince before the Pearl Throne of Hastinapura and High Prince of Eternal Isavalta.”

“Let Vyshko and Vyshemir hear,” intoned Keeper Bakhar. “Let all pray to Vyshko and Vyshemir for their aid and blessing.”

Avanasy closed his eyes. He did not want to see the contentment glowing on Medeoan’s face. He did not want to see the satisfaction of her parents.

Stop this. Stop her
, he prayed, but whether he prayed to her mortal parents or immortal ones, he did not himself know.

But no word broke the holy silence. There was only the rustle of cloth, the occasional sigh, and one badly suppressed cough. If the gods watched, they watched in silence.

“It is done, Avanasy,” said a quiet voice in Avanasy’s ear.

Avanasy stiffened. Slowly, refusing to betray any fear, he straightened and turned around. Behind him stood Captain Peshek Pachalkasyn Ursulvin, fresh and stern in his best uniform coat. Peshek’s breastplate had been so brightly polished that Avanasy could see his own comical look of surprise in its surface. He gripped his poleax in one hand, and carried a bundle of cloth in the other.

No words came to Avanasy, so he just spread his hands. In response, Peshek shook his head.

“Our good keeper thought you might need help getting out of here today.” He pressed the bundle into Avanasy’s hands. “Put this on.”

The bundle proved to be a guard’s coat and helmet. Through the door, Avanasy heard Keeper Bakhar speaking again, extolling all the duties of a virtuous consort toward their sovereign. To be strong, to be constant, to bend mind and skill to the service of the sovereign, who in turn would shape them to work for the good of Eternal Isavalta.

Yet, the solemn, celebratory words said to Avanasy only that all was done. No one mortal or divine had seen fit to intervene.

“You will be much more use to all of us alive,” said Peshek earnestly. “You have friends enough, Avanasy. There are plenty among the high families who do not trust this treaty with Hastinapura. You can be well hidden.”

Avanasy shook his head. “No. This is my fault. I accept my punishment.” He slung the coat on over his plain kaftan and pantaloons. Its hems brushed the top of his boots, hiding his everyday clothes. The helmet shadowed his face, and Peshek passed him the pike to complete the hasty disguise.

“At least I will know you are alive somewhere, then,” muttered Peshek. “Before, you simply made a mistake. Now, you’re playing the fool.”

As ever, there was too much truth in Peshek’s words. “Then let me play my role as I see fit.”

Peshek let out a derisive snort, but said nothing else. He held silent even as Avanasy turned back to his spy hole in the door and made himself look on Medeoan, his student, his responsibility, his sovereign, and his judge, one last time. A cluster of rose petals had fallen from her crown and lay like a puddle of blood beside the hem of her wedding gown. An omen? Avanasy did not know whether to wish it was so, or that it was not so. He only knew that he could stay no longer. Peshek, as he had been so many times before, was right in this. He should already have been gone, but he could not bear to leave while any hope remained. But now the choir raised its voice in song, and Medeoan stood on tiptoe to kiss Kacha full and warmly on the mouth. Now there would be prayers and more exhortations. Hours of ceremony were yet to come, and none of it meant anything. Medeoan had spoken her acceptance, and that was what mattered before the law and the gods.

Avanasy turned and nodded to Peshek. Peshek rolled his eyes heavenward to say
finally
, but no word passed his lips. He simply lead Avanasy through the vestry, silently opening the side door to the library and striding through. Peshek carried the authority of the House Guard in his straight back and measured gait. No door could be closed to him, especially today when it was so important that the palace be absolutely secure. Avanasy made himself copy Peshek’s demeanor.

The library with its long walls of books and windows was deserted. Indeed, the whole palace was still. In the courtyard, the patrols of the house guard stood at attention. Even the servants had paused in their preparation of the feast so that their minds could be occupied in prayer and thanksgiving for the wedding they were not allowed to witness because there was no room left in the god house. None would stir until the bells rang. None but himself and Peshek, who would die as surely as Avanasy would if they were caught now. The realization that Peshek’s safety hung in the balance put speed into Avanasy’s steps. If he should die, that was one thing, but Peshek was loyal to Medeoan and Isavalta, and she was going to need such loyalty.

Outside, the spring sun was warm, but the breezes were chill. For all it was beginning to deck itself out in green and blossomed finery, the world still remembered winter. The canal that flowed past the marble steps of the palace had thawed, however, and it had been a full two weeks since word had come to him that the ice on the great river had cleared. That was all that mattered. He could leave now, leave eternal Isavalta, leave the world and sail for the shores that waited beyond the Land of Death and Spirit. There he would never have to hear the name of Medeoan spoken. There, only memory would speak of how she had turned on him, or how he had failed her, and memory would fade.

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