Read The Usurper's Crown Online

Authors: Sarah Zettel

The Usurper's Crown (7 page)

“Of course, my heart.” He smiled. “In this I am but a few months old, whereas you have a lifetime of knowledge. I will be quiet.”

No, dearest, that will never do
. “You must always speak your fears to me, and your hopes. How else am I to know my whole mind and my whole heart?” She laid her hand on his chest. “We are two halves of one being, after all.”

He lifted her wounded fingertips and gently kissed them. “Every time I look into your eyes, I am reminded of how much that means.” He released her. “Go. The lords can wait. I will sit vigil over your mother.”

“Thank you, beloved. I will be back before nightfall.”

She kissed him then, allowing herself a moment to savor again the passion his touch sparked in her, and then she turned away. To look back would be to see Mother, her skin yellow and sagging against her bones. She could not carry that image with her into the woods. Her workings could not be tinged with despair. She must be all hope, all determination now.

Straightening her spine, Medeoan marched out of the sickroom to join her escort.

Kacha watched his wife sweep out of the room. Truly, she was beautiful, and when she allowed herself to be, she was a power in her own right. What a consort she would have made. He shook his head. Well, the Mothers did not always place one where one would thrive.

He felt the empress’s gaze upon him. Kacha turned to face her. Her eyes were little more than dark holes in her yellow skull, they had sunken so far back. Her hands, so tenderly cradled a moment before by her daughter, plucked nervously at the coverlet, one of them struggling to lift itself up, to make some sign or gesture.

“Now then, Mother,” said Kacha, stepping close to the bedside. “Do not bestir yourself.” He leaned across her, hearing her breath rattle in her shriveled throat.

“The empress is overheated,” he announced to her shadowed waiting ladies, as he straightened up. “She asks for a bath. Let her physicians be advised to draw one.” He pointed to the first of the aging attendants. “And you had best make sure her broth and milk are cooled before they are brought in,” he said to the second. “And a change of clothing might be advised,” he added to the last two.

The women, one at a time, reverenced before his orders. They had been scolded into obedience of his words by Medeoan’s swift and accurate tongue, shortly after her mother had fallen prostrate to the fever. They removed themselves from the bed enclosure to go pass the orders to their underlings, which gave him only a few bare moments of true privacy with his mother-in-law.

“Forgive me, my mother imperial,” he whispered. “But this is necessary.”

From his kaftan, he drew a kerchief, and then a velvet bag. Using the kerchief to shield his one wizened hand, he pulled an amber bead about the size of his thumbnail from the pouch. The bead had been cunningly carved into delicate human hands, their fingers intertwined. If one looked closely, one could see how tightly those fingers gripped each other, as if they were the hands of corpses clenched in the rigor of death.

Kacha once again leaned over his mother-in-law. She shrank from him, burrowing as far as she could into her pillows and goose down coverings. Her fingers stiffened all at once, as if they sought to scream for the woman who could no longer make any noise beyond a rasping cough.

“Now then, Mother,” said Kacha softly. “It is but the work of a moment.”

Swiftly, he caught her behind the head. Her mouth opened to cry out, and he popped the bead inside it, pressing her dry tongue down so that the bead must roll back into her throat, then sealing her mouth shut with his other hand.

“Swallow, swallow, Mother,” he ordered her, massaging her throat with his free hand. “Swallow, and it will all be over.”

Swallow, damn you. I have not much time
.

She pressed feebly against his grip, trying to rise. Her hands flapped on the ends of their wrists, but at last, he felt her throat convulse as she swallowed the bead, and the spell it had been fashioned to hold. He released her, and she fell back down on the pillow, her eyes wide, frightened, and accusing. At the sound of footsteps which signaled the return of the empress’s ladies, Kacha stepped away. Her first waiting lady rounded the edge of the screen, even as her empress’s eyes rolled up, and their lids drooped closed.

“No!” The woman screamed, grasping her mistress’s hand and pressing it against her breast. “Ofka, summon the doctors! She is in a stupor!”

Within moments, a flock of doctors and ladies surrounded the bed. Kacha stepped backward, letting them near her. Two of the court sorcerers hurried in to join the throng, and only then did Kacha allow himself a moment’s concern.

Yamuna, this had best be swift, or these fools will be able to hold her life until Medeoan does her work
.

Kacha might find in his bride naive in many ways, but he held her magical skill in great respect. It was that skill that made her dangerous. If her suspicions were ever roused such that she would choose to use it against him, the plans laid for her and for Isavalta would be at grave risk.

Be swift, Yamuna. Be sure
.

With all eyes and minds directed toward the revival of the empress, Kacha walked out of her apartments, unobserved, and strode quietly down the hall to look in on the emperor.

Medeoan, High Princess of Eternal Isavalta, stood beside the mossy pool, several hours by canal from the palace of Vyshtavos, clad only in her shift, trying not to shiver.

You’ll be warm enough soon
, she told herself, as she watched Prathad, foremost among her waiting ladies, set the consecratory bowl down beside the pool. Beside it lay the cloth Mother had used to wipe Medeoan clean the day she was born, and next to that burned the stub of the candle Father had lit when she first drew breath.

Medeoan turned. Vladka, second among her ladies, held out the pillow upon which lay the girdle Medeoan had spent the last two days and nights weaving. The girdle’s plait had been made up of silken threads twined with her hair, as well as her parents’, and the blood and breath of all three of them tied together in the seven tassels that hung from its belt. She spat on the ends before she tied it around her waist.

Her parents were dying. The physics and the sorcerers turned their faces and said that Grandfather Death spoke to them, that he stood by the heads of their beds. Medeoan cursed them all. Her parents were not ready for death. She was not ready to surrender them. Not yet.

Prathad held out the silver knife with the golden hilt. It had been made over five hundred years ago by the first court sorcerer of Isavalta, when Isavalta was still merely one province among the northern countries. It was used only by the members of the royal family who were also born to magic.

Medeoan’s was the first hand in four generations to hold it.

“Why are we born so?” she’d once asked Avanasy.

“None knows,” he’d answered, shaking his head. “Perhaps because we are needed.”

Medeoan shut her mind against memories of Avanasy. Avanasy was a traitor. He was banished. He was nothing. If no other sorcerer could help, he could not have done anything had he been here. It was foolish to long after him. This was her work. She was the one who was needed.

Medeoan waved her hand. Prathad and Vladka stepped back. Medeoan stooped until the knife’s tip was a bare finger’s width above the ground. Schooling her mind, as Avanasy had taught her (no, no, don’t think of him now), she reached down inside herself and reached outside to the world around. She touched the magic, pulling it in, drawing it out, and she walked in a circle around the bowl. The air grew heavy and hot around her. The weaving had begun. She continued the tracery around the candle, the bowl and the cloth, linking them all together with her pattern.

Medeoan knelt before the bowl, the cloth and the candle, holding palm and knife over them. “I have gone into the deep country. I have stood beside the mossy pool. I have drawn the clean water. I have claimed the consecration cloth, the consecration candle and the consecration bowl. I have claimed the blood of my beloved parents and the blood of my own self.” She pressed the knife blade against her palm. “I have drawn the transparent line, and in the open country I make a great cry. Over cloth, over water, over candle, over blood, I charm my beloved parents.” Hot. Hot. The air was on fire. Sweat beaded on her brow and trickled down her spine. So hot, hot with fever, burning, as her parents burned in their bed.
Good. Good. Let me summon the fever. Bring it to me
.

“I banish from you the fearful devil. I drive away the stormy whirlwind. I take you away from the one-eyed wood-goblin, from the alien house-goblin, from the evil water-sprite, from the outlaw witch and her sister, from twitchy-eyed mermaids, from the thrice-cursed Baba Yaga, from the dragon, the Vixen, and all their works. I wave away Yvanka’s children and the screeching raven. I protect you from the flood, the fire, the frost, the quaking ground, from the twelve fevers that clutch and burn, from the black magician, from the warlock, from the savage shaman, from the blind cunning-man.”

Pain now, running through her sinews. Her hands trembled, and the knife shook. She clamped her hand tighter and clenched her teeth.

Do not cry out. Do not break the weaving of words. This is their pain, you can hold it, they cannot
.

Weak with pain and nearly blind with heat and effort, Medeoan took the knife in both hands and drove it straight into the ground.

“As the earth surrounds the blade of the knife, so shall my protection surround Edemsko and Kseniia.” She panted against the heat and groped for the bowl. Her hands grasped the edges and she struggled to lift it. “As the pool swallows up the water,” she tipped the bowl over the pool’s edge, her hands quivering to hold onto it. “So will Edemsko and Kseniia’s illness be swallowed.” Her fingers slid apart and the bowl thudded to the ground. “As … as … as …”

Hold, hold. You can compass countries if you let yourself. Feel the words as you feel the threads on the loom, and the flames of the fire. The pain is nothing. It will be gone in a moment
.

Avanasy’s voice filled her. Avanasy exiled, traitor, and yet it was his words that rung around her head, that guided her groping hand to the candle, that allowed her to spit on her fingers, and pinch out the flame.

“As the flame is extinguished by my hand and spittle, so is Edemsko and Kseniia’s illness extinguished.”

Medeoan forced herself to her feet. Her ears sang with the effort it took to raise her arms. “This is my word, blessed by Vyshko and Vyshemir, this is my wish, and this is my seal upon it. Be done! Be done! Be DONE!” She screamed the last word with all the force her heart held, and with that scream, the heat, the pain and all the summoned magic rushed through her body from her heart to the soles of her feet, and was gone.

Medeoan collapsed onto the ground. She heard Vladka gasp and start forward, then stop. Perhaps Prathad held her back. She was too numb to look up, too numb to do anything except lie on the cold ground and breathe.

Done, done, done
, her last word echoed in her mind.
I am done, they are done, it is done, all done
.

But done, Granddaughter, too late
.

Medeoan jerked her head up. There, across the pool stood a figure in black robes, its face indistinct, as if shrouded by shadow. It reached one fine, unmarked hand into the pool, and impossibly drew forth a wave of water.

“No,” gasped Medeoan, pushing herself to her knees. “No, Grandfather, I beg you, it cannot be so.”

Grandfather Death stowed the wave in his deep sleeve and turned away.

“No!” Medeoan lunged after him, breaking her own, useless circle, running into the pool without even noticing.

“Highness!” shrieked Prathad. Hands grabbed her, hauling her backward out of the water.

The knife lay on the ground, and the candle burned beside it. Nothing. All for nothing.

“What is it, Highness? What has happened?”

“Ah!” cried Medeoan. “Ah, they are dying. I failed. I failed and they are dying!” She buried her head in her hands. She felt Prathad hold her close, weeping her own hot tears. Distantly, she heard the murmuring of the guards who surrounded her working. Gone. The emperor, the empress, were dying. The high princess had failed.

“Highness,” said Vladka in a tremulous voice. “Highness, if it is as you say, you must return home, and quickly. You have …”

“I have nothing!” Medeoan snapped. She clenched her fists. “What do I have?”

“A husband who waits to hear from you,” said Prathad. “Let us take you to him.”

Kacha. She knotted her fingers in her hair, as if seeking to pull it out by the roots. How could she have forgotten even for a moment? She ached to feel his arms around her. Too late. Too late. But it could not be too late. Everything had worked, she had felt it. One or the other of them must still live. They were not both gone. She had not completely failed.

“Quickly.” She pulled away from her ladies.

They all but threw on her skirt, her sleeves, her bodice, knotting each lace as swiftly as possible, and tossing over all her outer coat, her veil and coronet. Prathad called out for little, pale Anka the page girl, who ran for the guard to form up the escort. Medeoan did not wait for the canopy to be raised over her. She strode down toward the river’s edge where her barge waited. The guard followed in haste, reforming around her with the girl pages who all seemed as white as their kaftans. Let her ladies follow as they could. The captain would have left men behind to escort them. She had to get back to Vyshtavos. She had to know who lived and who died. She had to find Kacha. She had to know how she had failed.

But Vyshtavos and its parklands lay beyond the city of Makashev, and although the captain sent the small barge ahead with a man to cry that the high princess (just princess still, she had not completely failed) was on her way, it did little good. Barges and coracles and rowing boats made a stew of the watercourse. The drawbridges were clogged with carts, and carriages, and old people on foot, and horses, donkeys, mules, dogs, all in the way, all streaming out of the streets between the wooden buildings with their peaked roofs and gilded spires and fat onion domes so that they could watch her pass. The river’s breeze brought down the smell of the summer city, all mud and garbage, smoke and cooking food, and Medeoan felt that with every passing moment her heart must burst for beating so hard as she clutched the rail of her bench and willed the oarsmen to pull faster, and faster yet.

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