Home > War Storm (Red Queen #4)(13)

War Storm (Red Queen #4)(13)
Author: Victoria Aveyard

“You don’t need to go back,” Mother whispers.

I’ve never heard her beg. It is a foreign sound.

My voice sticks. “What?”

“Please, my dearest one.” She switches deftly back to Lakelander, favoring our native tongue. Her eyes sharpen, darker in the shadows of the narrow room. They are deep wells I could fall into and never climb out of. “The alliance can survive without you holding it together.”

She doesn’t let go of my face, her thumbs running over my cheekbones. For a long moment, I linger. I see the hope bloom in her eyes, and I squeeze my lids shut. Slowly, I put my hands over her own and pull them away.

“We know that isn’t true at all,” I tell my mother, forcing myself to look back at her face.

She clenches her jaw, hardening. A queen is never accustomed to denial. “Don’t tell me what I do or do not know.”

But I am a queen too.

“Have the gods told you otherwise?” I ask. “Do you speak for them?” A blasphemy. You can hear the gods in your heart, but only priests can spread their words.

Even the queen of the Lakelands is subject to such bonds. She glances away, ashamed, before turning to Tiora. My sister says nothing, and looks grimmer than ever. Quite a feat.

“Do you speak for the crown?” I press on, putting distance between us. Mother must understand. “Is this what will help our country?”

Again, silence. Mother won’t answer. Instead she steels herself, shifting into her royal persona before my eyes. She seems to harden and grow taller. I almost expect her to turn to stone. She won’t lie to you.

“Or do you speak for yourself, Mother? As a grieving woman? You just lost Father, and you don’t want to lose me—”

“I cannot deny that I want you here,” she says firmly, and I recognize the voice of a sovereign. The one she uses in court rulings. “Safe. Protected from monsters like him.”

“I can handle Maven. I have been, for months now. You know that.” Like her, I look to Tiora for some kind of support. Her face doesn’t change, maintaining neutrality. Observant, quiet, and calculating, as a queen in waiting should be.

“Oh, I read your letters, yes.” Mother waves a hand, dismissive. Have her fingers always been so thin, so wrinkled, so old? I’m struck by the sight. So much gray, I muse, watching her as she paces. Her hair gleams in the dim light. So much more gray than I remember.

“I receive both your official correspondence and the secret reports you send, Iris,” Mother says. “Neither fills me with confidence. And seeing him now . . .” She heaves a ragged sigh, thinking. The queen crosses to the opposite window, tracing the swirls of diamondglass. “That boy is all sharp edges and emptiness. There is no soul to him. He killed his own father, tried to do the same to the exiled brother. Whatever his demon mother did has cursed the king of Norta to a life of torment. I won’t curse you to the same. I won’t let you waste your life at his side. It’s only a matter of time before his court devours him, or he devours it.”

I share that fear with her, but it’s no use lamenting choices already made. Doors already opened. Paths already taken. “If only you’d told me this sooner,” I scoff. “I could have let him die when those Reds attacked our wedding. Then Father would still be alive.”

“Yes,” Mother murmurs. She studies the window like a fine painting, so she doesn’t have to look at her daughters.

“And then, if he were dead . . .” I lower my voice, trying to sound as strong as she does. Like Mother, like Tiora. A queen born. Slowly, I move to my mother’s side, put my hands on her narrow shoulders. She’s always been thinner than me. “We would be fighting a war on two fronts. Against a new king in Norta and the Red rebellion that seems to boil all over the world.” In my own country, I curse in my head. The Red rebellion began within our borders, under our noses. We let their rot spread.

Mother’s eyelashes flutter, dark against brown cheeks. Her hand covers mine. “But I’d have you both. We’d still be together.”

“For how long?” my sister asks.

Tiora is taller than us, and surveys us down the length of her arched nose. She folds her arms, rustling the blue-and-black silk. In the cloistered, small temple, she seems statuesque, towering next to the gods themselves.

“Who’s to say that path doesn’t end in more death?” she says. “In all our bodies at the bottom of the bay? You think the Scarlet Guard would let us live if they overthrew our kingdom? I don’t.”

“Neither do I,” I mumble, laying my forehead against our mother’s shoulder. “Mother?”

Her body stiffens beneath my touch, muscles coiling tight. “It can be done,” she says flatly. “This knot can be untangled. You can still stay with us. But it must be your choice, monamora.”

My love.

If I could ask one thing of Mother, it would be to choose for me. To do as she has done for me so many thousand times. Wear this, eat that, say what I tell you. I begrudged her wisdom then, how she or my father would take the responsibility from me. Now I wish I could cast it away. Put my fate in the hands of the people I trust. If only I were still a child, and this were all a bad dream.

I look over my shoulder, searching for my sister. She frowns at me, heartsick, and offers no escape.

“I would stay if I could.” I try to sound like a queen, but the words tremble. “You know that. And you know, deep down, that what you ask is impossible. A betrayal of your crown. What is it you used to tell us?”

Tiora answers as Mother winces. “Duty first. Honor always.”

The memory warms my insides. What lies ahead isn’t easy, but it’s what I must do. I have purpose in that, at the very least.

“My duty is to protect the Lakelands as well as you do,” I tell them. “My marriage to Maven may not win the war, but it gives us a chance. It puts a wall between us and the wolves at the door. As for my honor—I have none until Father is avenged.”

“Agreed,” Tiora snarls.

“Agreed,” Mother whispers, her voice a shadow.

I stare over her shoulder, at the face of the smiling god. I draw strength from her smirk, her confidence. She assures me. “Maven, his kingdom, they’re a shield, but a sword too. We have to use him, even though he’s a danger to us all.”

Mother scoffs. “Especially you.”

“Yes, especially me.”

“I never should have agreed,” she hisses. “It was your father’s idea.”

“I know, and it was a good one. I don’t blame him.” I don’t blame him. How many nights did I spend alone in Whitefire Palace, awake and telling myself I felt no remorse? No anger at having been sold like a pet or an acre of land? It was a lie then, and a lie now. But my anger at such things died with my father.

“When all this is over—” Mother says.

Tiora cuts her off. “If we win—”

“When we win,” Mother says, spinning on her heel. Her eyes flash, catching a spangle of light. In the center of the temple chamber, the curling fountain slows its motions, the steady fall of water easing in its journey. “When your father is bathed by the blood of his killers, when the Scarlet Guard is exterminated like so many overgrown rats”—the water stops, suspended by her fervor—“there will be little reason to leave you in Norta. And even less to leave an unstable, unfit king on the throne in Archeon. Especially one who is so foolish with the blood of his own people, and ours.”

“Agreed,” my sister and I whisper in unison.

With even motion, Mother turns her head to the frozen fountain, shaping the liquid to her liking. It arcs in the air, like a glass complexity. Light plays off the water, splitting into prisms of every color. Mother doesn’t flinch, unblinking against the flash of sun. “The Lakelands will wash clean those godless nations. Conquer Norta. And the Rift too. They gnaw at each other already, sacrificing their own for such petty rivalries. It won’t be long until their strength is spent. There will be no escape from the fury of the line of Cygnet.”

I have always been proud of my mother, even when I was a child. She is a great woman, duty and honor personified. Clear-eyed, unyielding. A mother to her entire kingdom as well as her children. I realize now I didn’t know the half of it. The resolve beneath her still surface, as strong as any storm. And what a storm it will be.

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