Queen of Coin and Whispers – Helen Corcoran

The sheep were undeniably dead. As I examined what the wolves had left behind, and tried not to panic, new footsteps stamped through the frozen grass. I rose, stiff with cold, as a servant hurried a rider towards me. The royal sigil was stitched onto his coat, but I focused on his sleeve: no purple armband for mourning. A rider would race here in late winter for only one reason. The King wasn’t dead, but he was dying. Uncle had been clinging to life for months. The reports had varied – bleeding, vomiting, recovery, bleeding, vomiting – but still he had lived, complained, and made life unbearable for everyone. And now – My aunt had given me enough warning, at least. I’d worried that she wouldn’t. ‘Your Highness.’ The servant bowed and the rider sank to his knees, sweating, and held out a letter. I cracked the seal, tucked the smaller hidden note into my glove, and scanned the expected words. …no longer eating, can’t keep water down, preparations are underway… I’d waited years for this. I’d expected to feel delight, maybe even relief.

My uncle was dying. The throne would finally be mine. Panic bristled in my throat again. I lowered the note. Father, please give me the courage to do this well. ‘You’ve made a difficult journey,’ I told the rider. ‘Please take the time to regain your strength here.’ ‘The pleasure is mine, Your Highness.’ The rider trembled, as if the shadow of my uncle’s impending death had hounded him north. He’d probably expected to meet me in a drawing room, not in a field examining slaughtered sheep.

They left me, and I staggered towards a tree and leaned against the trunk. The bark pressed against my coat, reassuringly familiar. The air scraped my nose and throat as I took deep, shaky breaths. I fished the second note out of my glove. Matthias had written two words in a version of our childhood code: No delays. No delays. Our phrase for when Uncle’s death was imminent and I was to get down here now. Matthias hated that I went north every winter when Uncle could no longer stand the sight of me. I was one of the few nobles who did. ‘It’s ridiculous,’ he’d fume.

‘You’re up there, freezing and alone, while the Court gets drunk and eats too much.’ ‘I’m with my people,’ I always replied. ‘You’re the heir. Your people are the entire country, not just your estate tenants.’ We’d argued before I’d left Court in late summer. Matthias had suspected – correctly – that Uncle’s health was beyond help and I should stay, while I didn’t want to resemble a princess hovering over the crown like a scavenger bird. The throne would be mine whether or not I stayed in Arkaala. I broke into a run, swearing under my breath, and hurried back towards the manor. We’d have to travel quickly. Uncle must have declined suddenly, or Matthias would have sent more warning to prepare for the trip.

I should have listened to him. As I approached, the doors leading to the gardens burst open. Mother rushed down the steps. ‘Lia!’ The house staff were probably huddled at every window facing us. They’d all heard her improper glee. I stopped. Stayed silent. Everyone at the windows would slink away; only the bravest would eavesdrop. The sun was still pale, the gardens still bright with winter roses. Everything looked the same as when I’d woken up.

But nothing would be the same after this. ‘Lia, you will be Queen.’ If only Mother’s joy was entirely for me. She’d locked horns with Uncle long before marrying my father, their disagreements blooming into steady loathing. At least social propriety would get her into mourning dress. Uncle’s death would give her back a decade, where Father’s had threaded silver in her brown hair, deepened the wrinkles around her mouth. I slipped by her and up the steps. ‘We need to discuss –’ ‘We leave for Arkaala as soon as possible,’ I said. ‘There is little to discuss until we see Uncle.’ There was, in fact, plenty to discuss before I saw him.

There was much to do and decide. But Uncle wasn’t dead yet. He still deserved my respect, even if he’d done little to earn it, and I couldn’t act otherwise if I wanted to win over his allies as Queen. I was being unfair to Mother, to both of us – we’d dreamed of this moment for so long. I’d spent years frustrated by Uncle’s inept rule, knowing I could do better but powerless until I inherited. We were so close. But I could never publicly rejoice at his demise, and I wouldn’t allow Mother to relish hers. She sputtered as I went through the doors. I strode down the hall, already imagining the Court bowing and curtseying. A hard bud slowly unfurled inside me, releasing not just relief but anticipation.

I’d waited years, biding my time, treading the stormy waves of family hatred to reach the other side mostly unscathed. Now, I was Queen, a wolf in my own right. I held the chess pieces. It was time to use them. In a moment of decency, Uncle was dying as winter finally lost its grip. Travel would be as swift as the time of year would allow. As the carriage thundered along the road, the grief finally hit. My chest ached as if someone had dumped cold water over me. I’d spent ten years in my family’s estate – too cold in winter, too warm in summer – learning how to be Queen. I’d grown up commanding imaginary armies against Matthias, my oldest friend.

We’d wandered through every stream, climbed every tree, and planned our futures lying on summer grass. Father had died there. Now the estate would continue without me. The poor autumn and winter had made food prices soar. About a third of my tenants couldn’t afford enough to last them through winter. We’d raided the estate’s food stores to keep them alive. Everyone we saw on the road was too thin, and too resigned about it. I’d known Uncle had ignored his duties in favour of the next meal, the next drink, the next entertainment, but it wasn’t the same as seeing it. I worried, even though I tried not to. If I couldn’t keep sheep alive, how could I rule Edar? Bad roads delayed us after several days of rain, so we arrived at Arkaala, the capital, in early afternoon, instead of late at night as planned.

My heart still lifted at the crumbling remnants of Empire architecture, surrounded by layers of winding streets sprawling towards the docks. Then the bells started. We were too late. Uncle was dead. And I was Queen. ‘If dying wasn’t unavoidable,’ Mother said, ‘I’d swear he planned this.’ There would be no handover. No last-moment change of feelings from Uncle, no scraps of advice, no blessing. Just a Court flung into grief. People turned our way as the carriage wound through the streets towards the palace.

There were no cheers, no shouting. The mourning bells drowned everything out, except the panic in my head. As the carriage stopped, Mother said, ‘Perhaps Jienne will be indisposed.’ ‘Her husband is dead,’ I said. ‘She knows we must pay our respects.’ Mother rolled her eyes. ‘Grief won’t make her kind. You’ll see.’ ‘Act sad,’ I hissed, before a footman opened the carriage door. My aunt, now the Dowager Queen Jienne, hadn’t liked me after I was named heir, but was clever enough to stay cautiously civil.

Secretly, I knew Mother was right – Jienne had now lost her power, why would she welcome us? As we followed servants to Uncle’s rooms, I was absurdly grateful for Mother’s black-edged purple armbands – ‘The one item that never goes out of fashion,’ she’d muttered in the carriage, her eyes sad – so whatever our private feelings, at least our grief looked respectable. I didn’t feel respectful. I felt out of my depth: quick steps trying to be measured, sweat, and deep breaths through the nose. Uncle’s chambers reeked of sickness, and stale air, and old blood. It stuck to my tongue, seemed to cling to my skin and clothes. Only long practice kept me from gagging or scratching at my hair. Mother swallowed compulsively, her eyes darting towards the thick window drapes. Only three people attended my dead uncle. If there had been more – a reasonable possibility, given Aunt Jienne’s love, and my hatred, of an audience – they had been swiftly kicked out. The doors closed behind us.

The physician dropped to his knees. ‘Long live the Queen.’ Aunt Jienne rose from the bedside, her skirts rustling. Her dress was the latest fashion – heavily embroidered, tucked at the waist and billowing at the back – but the black-edged purple reminded us that she was the grieving Dowager Queen. She kept her expression neutral as she curtseyed. ‘Dearest Aunt,’ I said and squeezed her hands, ‘we grieve for your husband. We will do our utmost to honour his memory and continue his legacy.’ I will make this country prosperous again and gouge out my uncle’s rot. I will fight all those loyal to him. Aunt Jienne’s smile didn’t reach her eyes.

‘I appreciate your grief, and know you will continue his work and bring further honour to our family.’ Empty words; fulfilled duty. Everyone was happy – ‘Such a pity you didn’t make it in time for his blessing,’ she added, and stepped back. – or perhaps not. The third person strolled forward. I’d changed at our last stop, but my best dress hardly compared to his embroidered red velvet. I matched his charming smile and held out my hands. ‘Lord Vigrante.’ The Head of Government: my uncle’s greatest supporter and greatest manipulator. He radiated charisma and confidence; no wonder Uncle had given him so much freedom.

Lord Vigrante kissed my knuckles. His purple armband didn’t match his red velvet, or golden hair, and his charisma didn’t match the grief in the stifling room. ‘Your Majesty. So unfortunate you’ve returned under such sad, yet glorious circumstances.’ Aunt Jienne stiffened. It took gall to inform a Dowager Queen, paces away from her dead husband, that she was no longer in favour. After a too-long pause, I said, ‘Your feelings are noted, Lord Vigrante. We will speak later. For now, I wish to mourn my uncle.’ I’d wanted to take a few moments to accept the finality of his death, but Jienne would want to mourn, likely alone now that Vigrante had shifted his potential allegiance to me.

Back in the hall, I sucked in deep breaths and shivered. Mother patted my arm, though she looked sadder, more sympathetic, than I’d expected from her behaviour in the carriage. A servant led us first to her rooms and then to the suites that had been reopened for my new status as Queen. It was a relief for another set of doors to close behind me. In the receiving area, Matthias dozed in a chair. He immediately opened his eyes, gestured at the waiting tea service, and stood with a smile. His maroon clothing only highlighted the sickly tint to his thin, pale face; he likely hadn’t eaten or slept much in the last few days. But his demeanour held steady. He was my oldest friend, and would do everything I wanted and more. He bowed with a flourish.

‘Welcome back, Your Majesty.’ I hugged him. For a moment we were children again, sprawled under a tree. Sunlight dappled our skin. We’d picked out shapes in the clouds and decided how we’d fix everything when I was Queen. Now we were here. It was time to begin.

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