The Orchid Throne – Jeffe Kennedy

The oldest records and recollections agree that it all began with the discovery of vurgsten. The records aren’t cohesive across the many kingdoms, or even particularly coherent within the same document, as the immediate results of that discovery quickly shattered lives and governments so few people spent their time writing things down. So exactly how the devastating power of vurgsten was discovered and who first applied it have been obscured, perhaps deliberately so. Most likely whoever identified the power locked inside the rock mined from the depths of the volcanic island of Vurgmun died for the privilege. They could’ve perished in any number of ways—from the ash-laden air of Vurgmun, to toxic fumes emitted by the rock vurgsten itself, to an accidental explosion of the volatile stuff, or at the hands of those who took that knowledge for themselves and used it to defeat magic, forever changing the balance of power. Vurgsten wasn’t new or unknown to the many kingdoms. Theatrical productions used it to create lightning or mimic magical spells and enchantments. Street magicians used it to counterfeit actual magic. Mischievous children used hoarded bits to startle unpleasant relatives, in the time-honored fashion of all children. All more or less harmless. The history-changing impact of vurgsten came from a volatile combination: the creative application of an unusually pure vein of the ore from a chasm on Vurgmun opened by volcanic activity and the ruthless intelligence of one man, Anure Robho. Robho had been a landowner in Aekis, though not born to it. With no elemental blood, no true attachment to the land, he somehow acquired it anyway—and was later granted a minor title for unspecified reasons. It gave him legal rights without the true understanding, the mystical connection and bone-deep commitment to stewardship of the land that blood ties bring. Of course, other landowners, noble or not, have acquired their properties in similar ways, but those people sacrificed their life energies to the land they held, raised their families on it, and created the needed ties according to ritual and the ancient laws of magic.

Anure Robho ran with a set of new thinkers who scoffed at the old ways and called all magic fake superstition. Records in Aekis that survived Robho’s abrupt departure for greater fortunes reveal him as greedy in his decisions and petty in their execution. His lands, captive to his uncaring stewardship, failed to flourish. Setting the pattern for his rule, he ruthlessly extracted their wealth, leaving nothing behind. When and how Robho ascended to the actual throne of the kingdom of Aekis is less clear. All we know is that the records from neighboring Oriel showed the former king gone and Anure Robho crowned in his place. Soon after becoming king of his rapidly declining kingdom, Robho claimed that Ejarat and Sawehl were false gods who’d failed to protect their people, that the court wizards were frauds pretending to have magic that consisted of trickery and sleight of hand, and that the people had revolted against the corrupt king and queen of Aekis and placed him on the throne. From Robho’s later conquests, we can extrapolate his methods. He used well-placed vurgsten charges to assassinate magic workers and break guardian spells. Castle and city walls fell to the destructive explosions no one had before experienced or could predict. Taken by surprise—and perhaps lulled into complacency by their soft lives—court wizards failed to muster the appropriate defensive spells. The people, betrayed and enraged, turned their fury on anyone with magic, executing them for conspiring to trick the people. Priests and priestesses were exiled for fulminating superstitions. And the royal and noble families disappeared. Many went to unmarked graves.

Others went to Vurgmun to mine more of Robho’s unstoppable weapon. One by one, the kingdoms fell to the great and grinding wheel of Robho’s hunger. Those who cooperated were rewarded with power—under Robho’s control—while those who resisted were treated with utmost cruelty before they disappeared. By the time he took the title of His Imperial Majesty Anure, Emperor of All the Lands, only fair Calanthe remained as a free kingdom. Calanthe, island of flowers and pretty pleasures—and possessed of the most ancient heart of magic—offered no overt resistance to Anure’s arrival. Old King Gul met Anure’s ships with garlands, not arrows, and welcomed the upstart to savor the many delights of Calanthe. Though the oppressed and often enslaved folk of the many scattered and forgotten kingdoms decried Calanthe’s self-serving cowardice, King Gul managed to send Anure away again believing he’d won—with only a promise of marriage to his daughter and sole heir—and the false emperor built his citadel at Yekpehr. The defeated kingdoms subsided into servitude, Anure temporarily satisfied to enjoy his power. Until the balance shifted again. Set here by my hand, Ambrose Daluna 16th Year of the Reign of Emperor Anure Year 2037 of Sawehl’s union to Ejarat 1 “Arise, Your Highness. The realm awaits the sun of Your presence.” The ritual words cut through the thick smoke of the nightmare, bringing me awake with a start. A bad omen that I hadn’t come out of the dreams on my own—and a sign that gave the images the power to linger in my mind, stains refusing to be scrubbed clean. The wolf fought its chains, howling in hoarse rage, shedding fire and ash. The sea churned, bloodred and crimson dark, bones tossed in the waves, white as foam.

The tower fell into a pile of golden rubble, then to fine sand, the grains sliding against one another with soul-grinding whispered screams. I loathe dreaming, where I have even less control than in the waking world. Calanthe Herself sings sweetly to me of the seas, the plants, and the creatures that walk Her soil. But outside our fragile island, the abandoned lands beyond cry like frightened children in the night. I can’t help them. It’s all I can do to protect Calanthe, and most days I despair of being able to do even that. Still, with no one else to hear them, they call to me in chaotic images, the nightmares dashing me from one dark scenario to the next. No matter how the dreams plague me, I usually wake when the light of the rising sun reddens my eyelids. I keep my eyes closed, pretending to anyone who checks on me that I’m still asleep. Pulling the pieces of my composure together, I listen to the morning song of Calanthe. The birds sitting high in the canopy to catch the first warming rays of the sun show me the sky. The fish swimming in the sea speak of clean water and plentiful food. Even the trees, the flowers, the small insects in the soil all hum to me of their lives. All reassure me of the balance, that Calanthe, at least, is peaceful and vital. Only I and the land I’m tied to exist in that time after sleep and before true waking, in what I call the dreamthink, an almost enchanted bubble where I belong entirely to Calanthe.

The emperor does not own me. The crying lands he’s orphaned are silent. My ladies have not yet woken me to wrenching reality and the trials of the day ahead. Dreams always seem to me a terrible price to pay for the succor of sleep. Neither my naturalists nor my physicians seem to be able to explain the purpose of such dreams. And of course, Anure killed all the wizards, so I have none to tell me if magic can answer those nighttime screams. So without answers, and like the exorbitant tithes I’m forced to send to the emperor, I do pay the price, and nightly. The dreamthink is my reward, my time with Calanthe. A gift arising from waking Ejarat of the earth welcoming the return of Her husband, Sawehl of the sun. In the dreamthink, in Calanthe’s sweet communion, I can believe the old gods are with us still, that they haven’t abandoned us. That I have reason to hope. “Euthalia, wake up. We’re ready,” Tertulyn whispered in my ear. My first lady-in-waiting, doing her duty as always. She couldn’t know she’d woken me from the nightmare instead of the dreamthink.

Or that starting my day this way meant it would be certainly cursed. No one believes in omens or curses anymore. Or hope, for that matter. In this, too, I am alone. Euthalia is a mouthful, but no one calls me that except for Tertulyn so it doesn’t matter. Only Emperor Anure has the rank to address me by my given name, and I avoid conversation with His Imperial Nastiness to the best of my ability. Tertulyn has called me by my name since we were children, but only when no one can overhear, as etiquette demands. As if she’d whispered them into my ear along with my name, the concerns of the realm immediately flooded my mind. The emperor’s emissary should have returned in the night and would want an audience with me—something I’d been dreading, as he never brought good news. Rumors had spread of slave uprisings, possibly even rebellion, as unlikely as that would be, that had the emperor both angry and insecure in his power. The worst possible combination in a man like him. If I believed a rebellion could succeed, I would rejoice in the battle to come. But I had no hope of that. No one could defy Anure’s vast power and ability to destroy the least whimper of resistance, as all those kingless and queenless lands testified, crying their hopelessness to me every night. No, such rumors meant the Imperial Tyrant would only tighten his fist—one that already strangled us nearly to death.

The prospect of worse to come made me inexpressibly weary, and I hadn’t even gotten out of bed yet. Nevertheless, I had to face the day. A realm awaited the sun of my presence, after all. I opened my eyes and pasted a serene smile on my lips. Tertulyn—already wigged, gowned, and decked in fresh flowers—stood a decorous three steps back from my bed, hands folded over her heart. All equally polished and lovely as morning dew, my five junior ladies awaited in a ring around her. They’d all been up since well before dawn to dress themselves before attending me. And yet their eyes sparkled as brightly as the birds that had shown me the sun on the sea, pretty painted lips curved in delighted smiles. Though I was only twenty-six, they made me feel old. If a witch offered me a magic potion to remove the last ten years and restore my youth—and the innocent belief I’d had then, that my life would be a good one—I’d down it without question. Even if it meant my death the next day. No, that was a lie. I would never shirk my duty to Calanthe, not even for such a fantasy. Not without an heir to take my place. No matter how old and tired I felt.

Making sure my smile matched my ladies’, I sat up. “Good morning, Tertulyn, ladies. Who is our guest today?” The ring of women parted and Tertulyn swept a gloved hand at a young girl wearing the cascading sky-blue wig and gown of a Morning Glory, curtsying with a practiced deep knee bend. I’d kept my father’s custom of inviting a maiden from one of the outlying villages to attend my morning ablutions, though only because my adviser, Lord Dearsley, had insisted. In those dark days following my father’s death, when I’d first taken the orchid ring and throne, the song of Calanthe so startlingly loud in my thoughts, I’d been less sure of myself and my decisions. “The people regard it as the highest honor,” he’d urged. “They hold competitions at festivals to select these girls. Think of it: every town and village, even the tiniest islands, choosing the loveliest girl, the brightest and most talented, all vying for the privilege of sending their Glory to the capital, to the palace itself, to attend the queen! For most of these girls, this will be the one and only time in their lives they will leave whatever humble place birthed them. And You and I understand it’s more than that. You have your connection to Calanthe and Her people.” He paused meaningfully, to allow room for the truths we didn’t speak aloud. “But You know that not everyone feels it. Certainly not those who come from refugee families. You cannot take this away now, Your Highness, especially at this time, with their king so recently relegated to the waves, particularly for no reason.” “I do have a reason,” I’d told him, resolved to meet the uncomfortable subject head-on, no matter that he was a man much older than me.

“I understand that this ‘privilege’ came with … an unsavory price.” Though I’d been only a girl myself—and a thoroughly protected one at that—I’d also never been ignorant. The land herself spoke to me, and the Flower Court gossiped incessantly. The sport of information exchange in the palace might as well be one of those village competitions, the way everyone vied to be the first to know some bit of news. All knew the Morning Glories who’d attended my late father, King Gul, left again with their petals more than a little bruised. And many whispered that more than a few villages celebrated new citizens three-quarters of a year later, Calanthe delighting in the births of more of Her children. Something that had not occurred since I ascended to the throne, for obvious reasons. Disconcerting, I can tell you, to know that though I am the only legitimate child of the late King Gul, my part-blood half-siblings might number in the tens, if not hundreds. Not that it matters, as I am the only child of my mother and thus the only possible heir to the orchid ring and throne. Unless I can find another. When I was but sixteen, that bothered me far less than it does now. “The girls will suffer no bruising at Your hands,” Dearsley had pointed out. “I have no use for them.” “The custom is old,” he’d said, with a meaningful dip of his head to the sea. “You risk making Your people fearful and unhappy.

Calanthe will feel that and respond to it. You are new to having sole responsibility for the land, but this custom is important. Change it at Your peril.” “Even if I don’t draw their virgin blood?” I’d asked sweetly, my sarcasm far more overt in those days. “A queen has other ways.” I knew full well, in my bones, that Calanthe didn’t care about the Morning Glories and the rituals of men like my father. But I keep Calanthe’s secrets and She keeps mine. Dearsley had a point that the superstitions the people observed had weight, whether they affected Calanthe or not. I kept the custom, despite the inconvenience. And I kept up appearances. The Morning Glories were not the only virgins in service to the arcane requirements of the Orchid Throne. “Welcome, Glory,” I said. “You may assist Me from My bed.” An earnest, if awkward young thing—weren’t they all? Though surely I’d never been so innocent —she tripped a little over her lavish hem in her haste to oblige. That’s what came of dressing a simple girl in an elaborate confection of a gown for the space of a few hours.

Ridiculous how the styles had billowed in imitation of my own. Accustomed to such bumbling, one of my ladies snagged her by the elbow, preventing her from careening headlong into me. A fortunate catch, as I would have had to be severe with her over the lapse. I’d already begun the day with bad luck—I didn’t need to add ruining the best day of this young girl’s life. Never mind that attending me shouldn’t be anyone’s best anything. “If I may, Your Highness?” Recovered from her near disaster, though blushing prettily—and as only those who’ve never suffered severe consequences for their errors can—Glory offered a gloved hand to me. I took it with my left, letting her see the famed orchid ring, a treat possibly greater than any other. It hadn’t left my hand since the day my father took it from his and threaded it onto my finger with his dying breath. What would happen to it—and Calanthe—upon my own dying breath didn’t bear considering. I simply had to survive until I found an heir. Promised to Anure, I couldn’t conceive a child without bringing his fury upon me and Calanthe. And I’d die before I’d have a child of his abominable blood mixed with Calanthe’s. A pretty prison I found myself in. I gave Glory a moment while she bent her head over the ring in stunned admiration—who could blame her?—breathing in the fragrance of the living orchid. True Calantheans sense the magic in the gorgeous bloom, even if they don’t know what it is they feel, and the encounter is nearly a religious experience.

Perhaps Calanthe Herself whispers to them. No one has ever said, and I won’t ask. I try not to rush the moment.


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Updated: 10 March 2021 — 18:15

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