2. Scheme

Choenyi stares at the young girl whose head is bowed in respect towards her. The Grand Queen Dowager—yes, that is what Choenyi is now that General Srisai had officially been crowned yesterday right after the Azmi King’s beheading and the Azmi Crown Princess’s demotion to a Lesser Princess—sees so much of her younger self in Saeron. Intelligence. Innocence. Beauty. Ambition. That last thing scares Choenyi. Ambition is something good to have, yes, but for Choenyi, that ambition may very well spell doom especially coming from a girl whose whole clan had been annihilated under the orders of Choenyi’s grandfather.

“Leave us,” she commands the girl who had been raised with her. And once Saeron is escorted outside her chambers, Choenyi faces the Chieftain of the Five Nara Clans, her hidden contempt revealed on her face. “A-kong,”—she addresses her grandfather in Nara dialect—“how can you do this to me? You act as if I have nothing to worry about! How can you invite another enemy into the palace?”

Odegei shuts his eyes as his granddaughter shrill complaints hurt his ears, only opening them when she waits for his explanation. “Anak,” he calls her child even though she is not one anymore, “all brides of the Royal Family come from the Nara clans. I could not just refuse the new Queen when she requested one for her son.”

Choenyi turns away from him, hiding the way her nostrils flares at the mention of Severin’s bride. She cannot admit that the sudden announcement of Severin’s marriage had not surprised her. She just hadn’t expected it to be so soon. “That’s right… I forgot you were so chummy with the Evakians.” Her snide remark does not help the pain in her heart. She feels guilty speaking to her grandfather like this, but she tells herself that he more than deserves her ire. “Do you plan to help drive your own granddaughter to her death?”

Anak, do not speak like this,” her grandfather implores her, reaching for her hand, but she moves it away. He sighs and begins to fan himself with his peacock feather fan. “I did not send any of our troops because the Evakians outnumber the Azmi six to one. I could not cast our lot with the losing side. I arranged for you to be returned to me after the Evakians had won.” He slides his fan closed, and rage shows itself on his face. “Obviously, Vikan Srisai did not keep his promise.”

Choenyi, having lived her whole life in political struggle, understands her grandfather’s reasoning, but she stubbornly holds onto her anger, directing it at him. Her late husband’s brother, the younger brother she promised to protect, is dead, and had her grandfather waited before using her as a political pawn at the age of eight, it would be her who’d be marrying Severin, not Saeron. As a child, Choenyi had given Saeron everything to appease the bereaved child and to pacify her hatred towards the other Nara clans, but Choenyi cannot tolerate Saeron taking the only man she has ever loved. Just the thought of Saeron being the center of Severin’s attention drives Choenyi insane. “And selecting the daughter of the tribe you annihilated as the future Crown Princess Consort helps me how?” She raises an eyebrow at Odegei, challenging him to give her an answer that would calm her fury. “Anyone can see her resentment towards the Nara clans for how her family was slaughtered! As soon as she spreads her legs for Severin and secures her place by bearing an heir, she’ll turn around and exact her revenge on the Five Clans!”

“And that is precisely where you come in.” Odegei’s crafty smirk silences his granddaughter. His fan is opened again, and he is once again fanning himself. “Anak, do you really believe that your grandfather would just leave you to a pack of wolves? I’ve done my research. The Crown Prince, I hear, is quite taken with you. Am I right to assume that you may return his feelings since you are more riled up about his marriage than with my conduct during the revolution?” He continues when Choenyi refuses to answer his suspicions, her cheeks beginning to turn a faint shade of pink. “Anak, you are my beloved granddaughter, and I will not do anything to put you at a disadvantage. I am giving Saeron to appease the Queen and to show our support for the new regime, but I have my hopes on an heir being born of Yehenara blood and not of that wretched Gudanara mud. It will be like shooting two hawks with one arrow.” He strokes his long white beard and chuckles.

“An heir of Yehenara blood?” Choenyi laughs at his plan. “The Grand Queen Dowager seducing the Crown Prince?” She laughs at the irony, at the fact that she so much wants to go through with it but is unable to. Her laugh sounds like a sob. “And just how do you expect me to do that? I have never been bedded before. Need I remind you that my husband died when I was ten and that Azmi law forbids any queen from remarrying or having any relations with a man? If I go through with this then King Vikan will have all the reason he needs to be rid of me!”

Azmi law forbids it but not Evakian law.” Odegei reaches for Choenyi’s hands once more, and this time, she does not recoil. He pats her hands and sighs. “Anak, your grandfather’s dearest wish is to see you happy. I am hoping that this change will provide the catalyst for your future happiness.”

It is a tense moment as Choenyi mulls over this. She has always known the Chieftain of the Five Nara Clans to be a political mastermind, and this only confirms her belief. Choenyi places her hand over the bosom of her dress where the necklace Severin gave her hides under. She has nothing more to lose. Love to a woman, after all, is a battlefield, a war where she must stake everything to win.

A-kong, I need you to do something for me.”

1. Aftermath

The revolution has ended. The Azmi have lost. It is the Evakians who have won the battle. It wasn’t even a battle, young Soolyi thinks, just a storming of the palace and a massacre of those who wouldn’t support General Vikan Srisai taking over. King Vikan, she mentally corrects herself. It’ll take some time to get used to the switch of power and her future uncle’s new title. For now, Soolyi puts on her black shawl and checks herself once more in the mirror. She wears no makeup, and she wants to be sure the change does not have such a drastic effect on her face.

“Are you sure you want to go watch?” her fiancé asks once again. “It will be brutal.”

“I will go, Karik,” she tells him, fixing her hair one last time. “Out of respect because, under him, our people enjoyed more freedom and less discrimination.” She finally faces away from her reflection and faces her future husband. “And out of loyalty to Choenyi. I will not let her go through this alone.” Her decision is final, and Karik with all his military accomplishments dare not defy her while she’s like this.

The dethroned king’s heavily guarded makeshift quarters are in front of the chamber hall, a ten-minute walk from Karik’s guest villa. There’s a commotion in front of it. Soolyi does not need to see the young lady’s face to tell who is arguing with the guards. Her crown with its four dangling silver threads of diamond-dewed metallic flowers gives away her identity.

“Our apologies, Grand Queen Dowager,” one guard says while the other urged her to return to her pavilion. “But our orders are to keep everyone out until the execution. Please, return to your chambers, Your Highness.”

“Grand Queen Dowager?” eighteen-year-old Choenyi scoffs, her eyes watery but her voice unrelenting. “Does my crown not tell you? His Majesty may have lost his crown yesterday, but under Azmi tradition and even the Evakian customs, General Srisai is not king until the Azmi line of succession has ended! And until His Majesty’s head rolls on the ground and the Crown Princess’s body turns cold, I am Queen Dowager! And even if I were Grand Queen Dowager, I am still the most powerful person in all of Karnuk! My word is law, so step aside and let me through or have you Azmi men turned traitor to Evakian cause?”

Soolyi throws a glance at her fiancé, and Karik goes to diffuse the situation. “I’ll take responsibility,” he says to the guards. “I am Karik Csejte, Evakian lieutenant of the first order. I speak on behalf of my uncle General Vikan Srisai. Let the Queen Dowager through. This will be the last time she’ll be able to see her brother-in-law. We Evakians are not heartless. We will grant this mercy. Now, open the doors.”

The guards, though hesitant, give the lieutenant a curt nod and unlock the doors for the young dowager. Choenyi doesn’t acknowledge either Karik or Soolyi and hurries into the building. Her handmaiden, however, glowers at the two, her sneer lingering on Soolyi, before following after her mistress.

“Would you look at that?” Karik crosses his arms. “No thank you?”

Soolyi almost rolls her eyes, but the solemnity of the situation stops her. “Can you blame her? We did betray her, after all. You, one of her bodyguards, and I, her childhood companion. And then there’s Severin, her love, the son of the man who has usurped the throne. Choenyi will not look kindly to us for a long time. We’d best get used to it.”