Chapter 24: PetitionsNovember 1, 2018
She had waited long enough.
The family had returned, settling in to rule Argenport, and for the first time in years the city was quiet, healing even. She had the right to demand the same for her people.
The morning of her audience, Svetya dressed in what little finery she had. Then she brushed Mokhnati’s fur until it shone, polished his armor to match, and roused the remnants of the Bear Guard. Today, they marched on the Spire.
She was the Orene of Kosul, and they would hear her.
In the Spire, four chairs sat on a dais in front of the Eternal Throne. The first was a heavy wooden chair covered in furs. Eilyn sat in it, regal and cool, her bodyguard at her side. Next to her, Kaleb held a chair of iron, his weapons within easy reach. Vara sat next to him in a chair inlaid with black marble and purple gems. The last seat was Talir’s, a well-worn leather chair with books and scrolls piled high on either side.
It had been a long day. The four had heard many petitions for aid and judgment, some from influential figures, and others from more eccentric individuals. As the heavy stone doors to the throne room rumbled open again, a guard of the court cleared his throat and announced, “Lady Svetya Katarina Stomhalt-Kurtz, Orene of Kosul!”
Eilyn and Kaleb straightened up in their chairs, sharing a quick glance. Vara nodded and gestured, “Show her in.”
Svetya entered. She had left her retinue at the gates, and now wished Mokhnati was by her side. Heart pounding, she approached the four seats and bowed deeply.
“Honored rulers, thank you for the audience. I am Svetya, Orene of Kosul. I gained the title when my father, the Oren, was slaughtered with the rest of my family as we fled a brutal coup…”
The sun was setting, and large bonfires helped turn the clouds over the courtyard a dark red. In the distance, the spires of Korovyat Palace looked as if they were stained with blood.
Appropriate, Yushkov noted. Looking down, he surveyed the crowds. Men and women huddled around the huge fires, tearing into haunches of roast meat with their bare hands. Yushkov had supplied lavish amounts of beer too, and watched as the crowds broke open another barrel, cheering. They are right to celebrate, he thought with satisfaction. Tonight, Kosul will be reborn.
“The stars align. The time is right, my Oren,” his advisor whispered from behind him. Nodding, Yushkov pushed himself to his feet. He was a large, stocky man, made all the more so by layers of heavy winter clothing. A distant offshoot of the current royal family, he was known as ‘The Hammer of Kosul’ by many. Over the past few months, he had held many rallies like this. Climbing the steps of a rickety podium, he raised a hand to quiet more cheers.
“Citizens of Kosul,” he said, voice booming over the frozen cobbles. “My friends. Too long have we sat by and watched our once proud empire rot. Our borders shrink, whole villages go hungry, and wolves howl at our doors.” The crowd hissed and booed. Yushkov could feel their eyes on him, the heat of the fires, and the bite of the winter air. My life has led to this moment. It has been foretold.
He continued, his deep voice thundering. “We know where the weakness lies. Is it with you, who toil in fields and workshops to keep your families warm?”
“No!” The crowd bellowed.
“Of course not,” Yushkov shouted back. “You are Kosul! Hearty! Strong! Resourceful!” There were whoops and jeers, but he kept talking, throwing a hand out to point at the tall towers of the palace. “The Oren and his family sit up there, draped in furs they did not clean, eating food they did not hunt! They allow strangers into our land, they join new religions, and speak of treaties? These are not the actions of a true power, this is treachery! Kosul needs no allies, Kosul needs no aid, Kosul needs strength!”
“Lead us!” A voice in the crowd called out. Looking down, Yushkov saw the crooked grin of his advisor.
“What was that?” He asked, cupping a large hand to his ear.
“Lead us!” The crowd thundered.
“Then help me, friends! To keep Kosul strong we must tear out this weakness.” Slowly this time, Yushkov extended a thick finger to point the towers of the palace, savoring the moment. “And there lies the source.”
Hands grabbed at Svetya. Startled, she awoke to someone covering her mouth. Her mother stood over her, face close, pale and wide-eyed. The palace is warm, she can’t be shivering from cold, Svetya thought groggily. In the distance, she heard shouting.
Frantically, her mother pulled her hand away and whispered, “Wake the twins. They are coming for Papa, for the Oren. The palace has already fallen. We must hurry.”
Sudden fear made Svetya’s hands go numb, tingling like early frostbite. Sitting up, she stared at her mother, “What do we do?”
“Out through the kitchens. There’s a dirt road for servants and carts. Your father has gone for Zhelan and the carriage. I have the royal relics. You go get the twins.”
Svetya nodded, throwing herself out of bed. Zhelan was her father’s mount, a caring, shaggy brown bear. He was old, but strong enough to pull the whole family in their carriage. The three royal children had grown up with the bear, roughhousing in Zhelan’s watchful shadow as their father governed. Who would want to hurt Papa? Svetya wondered as she ran. The hall to the twin’s room was on the third story, and looked over a hedge-lined lawn. Moonlight from the tall windows framed generations of royal family portraits.
“Halt!” The shout had come from the grounds below. Pressing her hands to the chill glass, Svetya saw her father’s steward, Laslo, standing next to an ornate fountain. He wore a heavy bathrobe and gestured with his silver cane, shouting at the mob that was climbing over the remains of a shattered iron gate. They held torches and brandished many weapons and tools.
Someone barked a harsh command, and Svetya watched the crowd part. A figure strode through them. He was large, heavy with muscle, and had a blunt, cruel face. As he entered the torchlight, Svetya saw blood seeping into his fine clothes, though he appeared unharmed. In one hand, he carried a large hammer.
This has been too easy, Yushkov thought as he stalked towards the old man. The palace guard had been well-armed, but the mob outnumbered them fifteen to one. The steward was shaking, but he held his ground, shouting, “You should not be here. This is an outrage!” Yushkov swung the hammer and felt something snap as the old man went down.
“Look at this,” Yushkov bellowed, holding the groaning man up for the crowd. “A toady to the weak Oren! And what do we do with weakness?” The roar of the crowd was indiscriminate, but the bloodlust in their eyes was clear. With ease, Yushkov shoved the steward’s head beneath the ice-cold water of the fountain. This has all been foretold, he thought as his audience cheered and the old man kicked. Soon… soon I will be the Oren.
As the steward stopped thrashing, Yushkov heard a faint sound. Turning, he saw a young girl with bright blonde hair in a third-story window. She was sobbing, tears running down her face. So, the royal family is awake, he thought. Tonight they will see true Kosul strength.
“But I survived,” Svetya said.
The Spire’s throne room stayed silent as she took a long, shuddering breath. Eilyn’s expression was carefully neutral, but Svetya thought she saw fury in her eyes. Both Vara and Kaleb were frowning, the latter gripping the arms of his throne so tightly that his fingers were bloodless and white. Talir was looking up from her scrolls too, her eyes wide.
“My parents and siblings were slaughtered, run down as we fled. And that is why I am before you today,” Svetya continued, “to ask fo—”
With a crash, the doors to the throne room were thrown open. Drums thundered and rolled, drowning out Svetya’s plea. She whirled around. Kosul mages in fine fur coats stood in front of each door, and before anyone in the room could speak, one of them roared,
“Make way for His Highness, Yushkov Bazavluk Kurtz! Savior of the People and Oren of the Great Kosul Empire.”
“What is this!?” Eilyn said, standing as Yushkov entered. Draped in fine robes, with crimson silk sleeves and gold cuffs, he sat on the back of his own mount; an enormous, battle-scarred bear with ash-grey fur and heavy, jagged teeth. Eyes glittering, Yushkov watched Svetya, reveling in her shock.
Svetya’s heart pounded in her head, and her throat felt dry as she watched the man who ordered her family’s murder turn to face the four seats.
“Honored rulers of Argenport! I a—”
“Who are you? You have no right to be here!” Kaleb shouted, standing as well.
“I have every right!” Yushkov roared over Kaleb. “I am Yushkov, Oren of the Kosul Empire. And as Oren, I come to formally withdraw Kosul from the treaty that once bound our powers.” Yushkov stared haughtily, his mount snarling.
“You what!?” Vara growled, her eyes flaring with anger. Yushkov stared down his nose at her, and then said flatly, “Kosul is stronger alone.”
Turning to address the room, Yushkov threw open his hands, “But for our years of friendship, I bring this parting gift.” Reaching behind him, he tossed a heavy fur down in front of the four seats. It unrolled as it hit the ground, and Svetya saw a familiar, shaggy head.
The pelt was all that remained of her father’s bear.
Shock gave way to fury, and Svetya found her voice, shouting “Zhelan!” as she whirled to glare at the man who wore her father’s crown.