THE DEMON KING
MAKHI KIR-TABAN, BORN OF HEAVEN, was a queen from a long line of queens.
And they were all fools, she thought, her pulse quickening as she read the invitation in her hand. If they hadn’t been fools, I wouldn’t be in this predicament right now.
No rage showed on her face. No blood rushed to her smooth cheeks. She was a queen and conducted herself accordingly—back erect, body poised, expression composed. Her fingers did not tremble, though every muscle in her body longed to crush the elegantly lettered paper to dust.
King Nikolai Lantsov, Grand Duke of Udova, sole sovereign of the great nation of Ravka, and Princess Ehri Kir-Taban, Daughter of Heaven, most Ethereal of the Taban Line, would welcome Queen Makhi Kir-Taban to a celebration of matrimony in the royal chapel of Os Alta.
The wedding would take place one month from now. Enough time for Makhi’s servants to pack the appropriate gowns and jewels, to assemble her royal retinue, to ready her contingent of the Tavgharad, the elite soldiers who had guarded her family since the first Taban queen took the throne. Plenty of time to make the journey over land or in the new luxury airship her engineers had constructed.
Plenty of time for a clever queen to start a war.
But right now, Makhi had to perform for the ministers arrayed before her in the council chamber. Her mother had passed only a month ago. The crown could have returned to Makhi’s grandmother, but Leyti Kir-Taban was nearly eighty and was done with the troubles of running a nation. She wanted only to prune her roses and rusticate with a series of wildly handsome lovers, and so she had given Makhi her blessing and retired to the country. Makhi had been crowned scant days after her mother’s funeral. Her reign was a new one, but she intended to ensure it was long. She would usher in an age of prosperity and empire for her people—and that required the support of the royal ministers currently gazing up at her, their faces full of expectation.
“I see no personal message from Ehri,” she said, leaning back on her throne. She rested the invitation in her lap and allowed her brow to furrow. “It is a concern.”
“We should be rejoicing,” said Minister Nagh. He wore the dark green, brass-buttoned coat of the bureaucrat class—as all the ministers did, the two crossed keys of the Shu pinned at their lapels. They looked like a forest of stern trees. “Is this not the result we hoped for? A wedding to seal an alliance between our nations?”
The result you hoped for. You would have us cower behind our mountains forever.
“Yes,” she said with a smile. “It is why we risked our precious Princess Ehri in such a savage land. But she should have written a note to us in her hand, given some sign that all is well.”
Minister Zihun cleared her throat. “Your Most Celestial Highness, Ehri may not actually be happy, but only resigned to this. She has never wanted a public life, let alone a life led away from the only home she has ever known.”
“We are Taban. What we want is what our country needs.”
The minister bowed her head respectfully. “Of course, Your Majesty. Shall we pen your reply?”
“I will do it myself,” said the queen. “As a sign of respect. It’s best we begin this new partnership on the right foot.”
“Very good, Your Majesty,” Nagh said, as if Makhi had executed a particularly fine curtsy.
Somehow the minister’s approval made Makhi prickle even more than his opposition.
She rose and, as one, the ministers took a step back, following protocol. She descended from her throne, and her Tavgharad guards fell into step behind her as she made her way down the long hallway that led to the queen’s sanctuary. The silk train of her gown sighed against the marble floor, as fretful as one of her advisers. Makhi knew exactly how many steps it took to reach the privacy of her rooms from the council chamber. She had made the walk innumerable times with her mother, and her grandmother before that. Now she counted down—fifty-six, fifty-five—trying to release her frustration and think clearly.
She sensed Minister Yerwei behind her, though the sound of his slippered feet was masked by the rhythmic thump of Tavgharad boots. It was like being pursued by a ghost. If she told her guards to slit his throat, they would do it without hesitation. And then when she was tried for murder, as even a queen could be in Shu Han, they would give testimony against her.
When they reached the queen’s sanctuary, Makhi passed beneath a gilded arch and entered a small receiving room of pale green marble. She waved off the waiting servants and turned to the Tavgharad. “Do not disturb us,” she instructed.
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