The Bitch Queen is back in this thrilling conclusion to K. S. Villoso’s acclaimed epic fantasy series which began with The Wolf of Oren-Yaro.
Where the Ashes Lie
Courage is overrated, or so cowards like me say.
Courage implies choice.
Magister Arro used to lecture me about the nature of things: how a tree must remain a tree, for instance—straight and stalwart, branches spreading to the sky, roots reaching down below. Build a fence around a sapling and the tree will break it as it grows—swallow it, even, wire and wood sinking into the trunk like it was quicksand. “And so,” my father said once, interrupting such a lecture with a sweep of his arm, “a wolf must remain a wolf, no matter what. Never forget this, Talyien.”
Presumptuous, pious, arrogant Oren-yaro. No wonder we were hated and feared. Hated more than feared, if you learned to read between the empty smiles and polite gestures. I once took pride in the fear I wielded, cloaking myself in my father’s rhetoric like a child wrapping herself in a blanket to ward away the cold. But if I remained a wolf, I was now a lone wolf, one yearning to break free as hunters tore after her with spears and arrows. No pack to be part of, no cave to hide in, no moon to howl at . . . it wasn’t courage that kept me running. They had branded my son a fugitive, and a trial was hanging over my head like an executioner’s axe; to stop would be to entertain a fate worse than death.
It made me wonder what my father thought of me, holding me as an infant. Did he see a girl-child, no more than a babe that carried his eyes and his smile? Did he count my small, delicate fingers one by one, or stroke my hair with his thumb while a part of him swore to change his ways? The servants used to say that the old man doted on me. Without a mother in the picture, I was irrevocably Yeshin’s, and they said he guarded me with the same ferocity he murdered his enemies with. He didn’t like the nursemaids leaving me alone in my crib—I was a bad sleeper, and he insisted they carry me in a sling at all times. And if I woke up in the middle of the night, he would tear down from his quarters to snatch me from my wet nurse’s arms and sing me back to sleep himself.
Tall tales, people say. This could not be the same Warlord Yeshin of the War of the Wolves, the same man who once drove his horse into an unguarded Ikessar hamlet, fifty men behind him, and cleared the way to the village square with his spear. By the time he was done, his horse was red from the neck down. But I could believe it. I could remember his smooth voice, the way his chest rumbled as he pulled my blankets up to my chin and sang me to sleep. On summer nights, he would use a paper fan to chase the warm breeze away, long and furious enough that his arm must’ve stung from the effort. I was his, and nothing in the world could change that. I never doubted what he would do to protect me.
A girl’s naivety. Even before I learned of my father’s dealings with Yuebek, a part of me always knew that the truth could be as complex as a shaft of light through a cut gem. Turn it, view it from another angle, and it shifts. Sometimes it is telling, a burst of clarity on a dark streak, brightness to chase away shadows.
Sometimes it is blinding.
* * *
A wolf must remain a wolf.
You are courage, my father used to tell me. You are strength. I carried his words deep within my bones, seeds that would sprout into the person I would become. Would I have survived the circumstances of my son’s birth had I not been Yeshin’s daughter? For the entirety of my labour, all I wanted to do was close my eyes between the tremors and blood, and die. Instead, my father’s voice—the one that seemed to echo inside my head years after his death—told me not to be ridiculous. Women dealt with this pain all the time. Would his daughter be defeated so easily?
But it wasn’t really a choice, you understand. And so it couldn’t have been courage.
You can’t argue with a voice like that without looking like a madwoman. Reasons were excuses to Yeshin. Did it matter that I had been unattended in a damp, dark cave while my remaining guardsmen fought rebels on the road below? The Ikessars had insisted that it would be a good omen if I gave birth in the Dragon Palace; for some irritating reason, the council agreed. I was forced to pack up late in my term and waddle on the road after my husband, who had been living there for a few months to attend to his duties as Minister of Agriculture.
Screaming into a piece of cloth stuffed into my mouth, my hands clasping the wet dirt under me, I counted the dripping of water from the walls between my groans. The pain that spread from my spine down to my thighs and around my belly did its fair job of drowning out my fears. I didn’t really have time to wonder if my guards were winning. If they were, it wasn’t as if they could help at all. The bastards couldn’t even keep my handmaids and the midwife alive during the ambush. If they lost—well, perhaps the rebels could hurry up and put me out of my misery.
“There’s still a dozen up in the woods!” Agos called as he came stomping into the cave. He was covered in more blood than I was and yet at the sight of me, terror flared in his eyes. His face paled. “Gods, Princess, is it time yet?”
I spat the cloth out. “No, I just like to pull my undergarments down and lie on my back for no reason.”
He stared at me for a heartbeat.
“Of course it’s time, you son of a—” A tremor seized me. I bit back into the cloth before it passed and screamed into it until my ears rang. I’d never had a mining pick jammed into my tailbone before, but I imagined that this might be exactly what it felt like. Agos took a step forward and I threw the damp cloth at his face.
Perhaps I looked worse than I felt, because he didn’t even protest. “Is there anything I can do?”
“What the hell can you do?” I hissed. Another tremor sent my fingers digging into the ground so deep, I could feel the soil under my fingernails. The contractions were coming in faster, each one tightening my insides more than the last with a force that left me breathless. “—back out there and finish those bastards!” I managed to cry out as I felt the child inside of me turn. “Now!”
He shuffled his feet. “I’ll . . . I think . . . I’m sure the men have it covered. I have to stay here and protect you. Are you . . . do you know how to . . . did the midwife tell you anything?”
“Gods, Agos, just stop talking!”
Something clenched inside of me and I found myself sitting up. The sounds that clawed their way up my throat felt different, sharper, more urgent. Sweat pooled around my throat and dripped down my chest with each tremor, which now ended with a pressure that threatened to rip me apart.
“I think,” Agos said, not realizing how dangerously close I was to stabbing him in the gut, “that you have to start pushing.”
I responded with a groan.
You are a wolf of Oren-yaro, I thought. This is nothing to you. Or so I contended, even as all of my parts felt like they were being pulled at the seams. The contractions were no longer giving me time to breathe or think—the entire bottom half of my body burned as if it was on fire. I began to push in an attempt to stall the pain and instead found the pressure barrelling its way out of me, wet and sharp and tearing. For a moment, maybe more, I was convinced it was my guts sliding their way out of my body. The stink of slime, blood, and rancid sweat filled the air.
I couldn’t really see what was happening between the darkness of the cave and the haze of pain, but I caught sight of Agos breaking from his stupor and stepping forward. I didn’t have the energy to push him away—my only focus was on the child that slipped out of me so fast that I almost didn’t realize it at first. Agos caught the child. “It’s a boy,” he managed, before handing him over to me. There was an odd expression on his face.
My attention drifted to the child in my arms and then that was it—nothing else mattered, not Agos or the screaming outside or the pain of my ripped parts. Even the contractions that followed as I laboured to push the afterbirth felt weightless. My shaking fingers traced a line across the infant’s forehead and down to his smooth cheeks. The blinking, wrinkled face was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen in my life. The smell of my son’s damp hair and the sound of his soft breathing restored me to my senses. I felt the fog recede from my thoughts. I remembered there were still bandits outside and reached down to wrench the dagger out of my belt.
My son had yet to cry. I always thought that infants came out bawling—instead, he just stared back at me, as if wondering if the dishevelled woman before him could really be his mother. I noticed his eyes looked like mine. Like my father’s. My heart tightened. I didn’t know how I was supposed to feel about that.
“Someone’s coming up the path,” Agos said. He drew his sword.
My hand tightened around both the dagger and my son. I wasn’t going to let them take us without a fight.
Agos’s stance relaxed as the shadows of my guardsmen appeared at the entrance. They bowed. “We’ve cleared the road, Beloved Princess.”
I allowed myself to breathe. “Are they all dead?”
“Some,” one continued. “The rest ran off. We’ll have to send a party after them.”
“Not until the princess is in Shirrokaru,” Agos broke in. “Our priority is getting them back to safety.”
The guard swallowed, noticing the infant for the first time. Wordlessly, he fell to his knees. The others followed suit, leaving only Agos standing. “The blood of the Oren-yaro is strong,” the guards said in unison. “Warlord Yeshin will be pleased.”
I grew nauseated at their words. I always knew the child I carried was Yeshin’s grandchild. That he was heir to the Dragonthrone, the first Dragonlord that would ever carry the blood of two royal clans—the Ikessar and the Orenar. But now that I was looking at this child in my arms, he was only my son, only my boy with those eyes and dear gods, that mouth, that smile . . .
It filled me with terror. The word heir was damned, a word that doomed him to a life of servitude and chains. I felt an urge to get up and run off with him, to scream at them to find someone else. I didn’t want the burden of Warlord Yeshin to loom over my child like storm clouds, threatening to burst with enough floodwater to wash him away. I closed my eyes and willed away the urge to shelter him, to protect him from the worst of my father’s legacy. What was there to protect? Didn’t Yeshin have the largest army in all of Jin-Sayeng?
Yet I had the sense that for me, it was already too late. I was made in Yeshin’s image, the nature of things careening down with me like a shadow—ever-present, impossible to deny. With or without the mold, my funeral bells had begun.
* * *
A lone wolf. An apt description. What else do you call Yeshin’s child as she sits in silence in her own domain, seven days undisturbed, unattended save for a handful of servants who ensured she was kept fed and clean like a kennelled dog? Seven days home, and no one who could’ve called themselves family or friend had spoken to me. I heard of comings and goings of various officials and royals over the last few days, but they presented themselves either to Ozo or to my husband, Rayyel.
I struggled to remember I was once queen.
Because you couldn’t see it even if you tried. Since my return, the servants handed me my meals, replaced my sheets, laid out fresh clothes, and accompanied me to the bathhouse without ever once looking me in the eye. An almost impressive feat, had I been in the mood to be impressed. But I wasn’t. These were people who had known me my whole life, who had served my father when I was little and once seemed to have cared for me in their own way.
I found it hard to believe that they respected Ozo enough for them to forget the way things used to be. He must’ve made threats on their lives, their families. I could see it in their empty faces and dead eyes. Polite, but walled in, unreachable. I tried to speak to them honestly, to call those I knew by name. I was met with abject silence. As the days wore on, I started to see less of them. Lately, my meals were left on a tray outside the door, and the servants stopped coming.
To be seen, but not heard; to know that they uttered your name between hissed breaths and gritted teeth, and if you disappeared into thin air they would carry on as if your substance could be sustained by their falsehoods. Perhaps you are prepared to take such things from your enemies, but from your own? From the people who claimed to care for you, even love you, who once assured you they would never turn on you come hell or high water? They had lives to live, and for that they were willing to bury me at first light.
I couldn’t even muster anger. All of that left with Agos the night he turned on Rayyel—my husband’s life in exchange for mine and my son’s, an equation so simple for him he didn’t even see he was being used like the rest of us. It was difficult to become angry with a dead man, especially one whose insolence had saved your son. Agos had handed Thanh over to Kaggawa as a hostage just before the Zarojo soldiers could kill him. A treachery deflecting other treacheries—there was an irony in that somewhere. Be damned if I could be bothered to look, though. The double-headed spear of grief and fear had rendered me incapable of much else. Certainly not the rage that would’ve once vaulted me over the window and straight to wherever Ozo had cloistered himself, to demand he hand back everything.
What had he taken, anyway, that I hadn’t thrown away myself ?
I stared at the walls of my chambers, trying to silence my thoughts, to remind myself I’d made it this far. There was still a chance for me to regain my crown and sit on the throne as was once promised. I was no longer that young, naive queen who left this castle a year ago. Beaten gold is still gold. Thinned, it remains unyielding. So fashion it into a chain. Strangle your enemies. I was Yeshin’s daughter. Tainted as I was by the weight of those words, I could take everything that was good about that and show the land that despite all the cracks, despite all the mistakes I’ve made, despite that my own father didn’t think me worthy, I had what it took to be a capable ruler. If I could be queen again, I would show them. I could rise from these ashes and be the leader they had yearned for all these years.
The knocking from the window broke my thoughts. I pretended to ignore it, but the sound persisted. With a sigh, I made my way to the end of the room and undid the latch. Khine stepped in, his hair damp from the drizzle. Water dripped from his boots.
A correction—no one I would consider family or friend had come to talk to me. Lamang was neither. After everything that had happened the past few days, I wasn’t sure how to examine my feelings for him under this new light. His presence continued to give me an odd mixture of anticipation and repulsion.
“Go away, Lamang,” I muttered, walking towards my bed.
“You’re the one who opened the window,” Khine pointed out.
“Do I have to throw a bucket of cold water on you?”
“I happen to know that you don’t have one handy.”
“I have a chamber pot. It’s full.”
“Now, now. Let’s not be hasty.”
“They could arrest you for this, you know,” I pointed out. “The bastards should just kill me and be done with it.”
“They wouldn’t do that.”
“Who’s they, Khine? Because between Ozo, Ryia, and Yuebek, I can think of about a thousand reasons.”
“They wouldn’t do it now, with the whole nation’s eyes on you. They’d make it look like an accident, at least. Poison in your food, maybe throw scorpions on your face while you slept . . .”
“What are you doing?”
“Trying to scare you into coming with me,” Khine said, holding out his elbow and patting it. He gave a sheepish grin. “Come on. They won’t miss you for an evening.”
“You tell me that every night. We’re not in the empire anymore, Khine.”
“I know we’re not.” Khine’s face grew sombre as he reached for my shoulder. Carefully, he turned me around so that I could face him. “I’m sorry. I know this may be one thing too many, but this . . . this is the last night of the vigil. They’re lighting the pyre at dawn.”
“They won’t let me see him,” I said. “I already asked.”
“They don’t have to know.”
“What will they do if they find you here? They did worse to Agos, and he—” I swallowed back the rush of tears and allowed my eyes to linger on his shoulder. His wounds had healed weeks ago, but the ones I could see near his neck were still pink. “You’re still recovering from your injuries, too.”
“That? It’s nothing a brush with the assassin didn’t fix.”
“You never even told me what happened with her.”
“I survived. That’s all that matters, Tali.” Khine squeezed my shoulder, and a rush of warmth surrounded me. “You’ll regret it if you don’t come,” he whispered, his voice as soothing as it had ever been. He tucked a strand of hair over my ear. “You owe it to him. The man loved you. He died for you.”
My insides knotted at his words. I’d refused to see it that way before, a stubborn denial that I could cause harm with something so simple. Whatever I had with Agos was . . . a mistake. I glanced down, my eyes on the cracks of the floor as I tried to will away the image of Agos’s corpse on his funeral bed, the once strong body covered in arrow wounds. Did I need a better reminder of what my choices brought to the world? Everything I touched turned to ashes. But he was right. As much as I wanted to turn back time, to have Agos untainted by the shadows that followed me, it was already done. Like a river, time could only flow one way. The least I could do was honour it.
I turned to change into warmer clothes before following Khine through the window.
It had been years since I last scrambled on the rooftops of Oka Shto. What had been one of my favourite childhood pastimes did not seem becoming for the wife of a future king. Arro often told me that it wasn’t becoming for the wife of anyone, period. “And I’m supposed to turn you into a queen . . .” he’d often mumble under his breath after catching me chasing cats with Agos.
Without Agos and Arro, Oka Shto Castle felt empty. I fought back another incoming sob and focused on the grey horizon, where the first rays of sunlight crept on the city of Oren-yaro below. We reached the edge of the rooftops, which pressed right up against the mountain cliffs on the northern side.
“Why haven’t you been arrested yet?” I found myself wondering out loud.
Khine gave one of his characteristic smiles. “You’ve so little faith in me. Do I look like a criminal?”
I stared at him.
“If you really must know,” he continued, before I could open my mouth, “it’s your husband. He’s vouched for me and Inzali. We assisted him in the empire, which means Jin-Sayeng should consider us friends. No one argued with him, so I assume they agree.”
“So suddenly you think you’re allowed to sneak around the castle.”
“No one said I couldn’t.”
“Your idiocy knows no bounds.”
“You and Inzali should catch up.”
I gave a thin smile as I ventured towards the narrow ledge along the cliff, right where it met the rooftops. I motioned for him to be careful. The ground was always a little crumbly here, especially in the summer. It was late autumn now, at the cusp of winter, and the rain had done its fair job of tearing the trail apart. I couldn’t recall it being so cramped. Dusty roots burst through the soil, brushing the top of my head.
“Agos and I made this path,” I said as we turned a corner, past caked, sandy soil that collapsed with every step. “His idea. They kept a close eye on us in the castle. Made it hard even to breathe sometimes. He thought we needed to escape once in a while.” I paused, one foot in front of the other. It was a steep drop to the left. We had once been small enough that the thrill of freedom eclipsed the danger—small, and young, and fearless.
The ledge led to a small crag that dropped straight down to the main path. I managed a quick landing without making an embarrassment of myself and waited as Khine clambered down behind me. I supposed he didn’t want to miss a footing in the dark—the sort of man who needed to be sure of his next step, even as he hurtled after my recklessness.
“I didn’t realize you and Agos were so close,” Khine said as he came up to join me. “I knew you grew up together, but . . .”
“There were no other children in the castle. He must have found me an annoyance most of the time. I thought of him as an older brother. And then he left for the army, and I became busy with my studies . . . and with Rayyel.”
We fell silent as I wrestled with the memories. I could hear our laughter echoing between the trees, imagined shades of me and Agos as children running up the steps from the city. I swallowed. Tears burned in my chest like water swallowed too fast. I continued to walk, the mountain’s looming shadow behind us. Ahead, Oren-yaro sprawled like a rough blanket draped over the hills. Small pockets of mist drifted between the crevices and down to the valleys to the east. My fingers shook.
“I should’ve never taken things this far,” I whispered. “If I had . . . found a way to push him away, perhaps he wouldn’t have taken it upon himself to try to protect us the way he did. His death is on me. I gave him hope when I shouldn’t have.”
Khine gave a soft sigh of resignation. “You gave him precious memories that he took to the grave.” He cleared his throat. “Tali, you know what I feel about . . . about you and him.”
“Do I, really?”
He smirked. “If you don’t, then I won’t burden you with my problems. But as a man of two minds about this whole situation, I can at least tell you that he wouldn’t have regretted a thing. He loved you. He was only doing what he thought was right. And you? You believed that, too. You cared for him, you found comfort with him. It’s enough. There are no right or wrong answers. We make choices and then we simply . . . live with the cost.”
I fell silent again. We reached the city square, and he gestured to me to begin climbing the butchers’ warehouse near the market. Traversing the rooftops like cats, we made our way towards one of the poorer districts of Oren-yaro. I could see the River Agos gleaming behind the grey light in the distance, and the slums continuing along the southern banks. The buildings were almost on top of each other here, a crisscross of shadows and dilapidated wood: roofs of rusted shingles instead of clay tiles, and stone fences imbued with broken glass on top, to keep people out. Not that they worked, if our presence there was any indication. Khine once said that if you wanted to steal something and get out alive, you didn’t break down the front door.
“Down there,” Khine started when we reached an alley. I struggled to keep my composure again as I recognized the district from when we had arrived, swimming our way from the river. Khine watched me as I sucked in a lungful of muggy air. “We can stop here if you want,” he ventured.
“I’m all right.”
He said nothing, waiting. Knowing I had more to say.
“It’s just that . . . Agos was a captain, a decorated soldier of the Oren-yaro army. His pyre should be in the city square, where he could be honoured by his men and fellow soldiers, not on some dirty street corner. I did that. I tarnished his name. I ruined him.” I gazed down at the small square where a group of people were gathered around a still form lying atop a pile of stacked logs. I suddenly found it very hard to breathe.
“They’re about to light it now,” Khine said. “It’s your last chance to see the body.”
The bells tolled. Torchlight filled the streets. Through the blur of my tears, I saw the people walk towards the pyre. The first was unmistakably his wife; two little boys toddled in solemn silence behind her. I recognized the other faces as off-duty soldiers and castle staff. Some threw objects into the fire—small tokens, prayer beads, sealed letters containing their final goodbyes. I almost wished I’d had the foresight to write one myself. Not that I would’ve known what to say. Even now, my own thoughts seemed difficult to gather, drifting between memories of our time together and my revulsion over what my actions had caused.
Agos’s mother threw herself at the foot of the pyre and began to weep hysterically. His wife bent down to pick her up, murmuring something into her hair.
“You’re wrong, you know,” Khine continued. “Honour could be found here, too. Look at all those people. What better than to be remembered? To be missed? As far as they’re concerned, he’s a hero. And maybe they’re not wrong.”
I steeled myself and climbed down the roof. Khine followed a step behind. I pressed a handkerchief above my nose as we joined the back of the line, hoping it was enough of a disguise. We had barely shuffled in place when we heard a commotion from one of the alleys. The crowd parted, revealing guards in full Oren-yaro armour. They marched forward. I stiffened, heart pounding. Khine drew me towards him, his hand cradling the back of my head in an attempt to hide my face even further.
The guards stopped several paces away, ignoring me as they assumed a formation around the pyre. There was a moment of silence as they bowed, faces solemn with respect. Another figure emerged. This one was in Oren-yaro armour, too, but in the green and yellow colours of the Tasho clan, with a warlord’s helmet that towered over the rest of his men.
“Ozo,” I hissed under my breath. I was torn between wanting to flee and lingering out of curiosity. Khine’s arm blocked me from deciding on the former. I peered past his shoulder at the sight unfolding, my breath gathering on the folds of his sleeve.
The general’s movements were slow and deliberate as he made his way to the pyre. He stopped about a foot away, close enough that the heat must’ve been uncomfortable. He removed his helmet and cradled it under his arm. Agos’s mother, Hessa, gave another cry. He made a sharp gesture without even looking at her. One of the guards pulled her aside.
I wondered if this was an elaborate ploy to draw sympathy from the crowd, but Ozo gave no speeches—not a single word fell from his lips. He stood in silence, head slightly bent, eyes downcast. The flames cast dancing shadows on his face, deepening the lines. Eventually, he turned on his heel and, after one quick glance at Agos’s sons, began walking away. The guards followed him out of the square in single file, the cracked cobblestones quaking under their boots.
“Agos was always his favourite,” I said in Zirano. “He never quite forgave me when I sent him away. Now I don’t think he ever will. It must have grated to learn where his best man’s loyalties lay, let alone what he would die for.”
I turned my head as several people came up to console Hessa. “Ignore him,” they whispered. “You raised a good son. The gods have welcomed him to their domain.” They crowded around the old woman until I couldn’t see her anymore.
We finally reached the blaze. By now, the body was shapeless, no more than a lump of charred meat and bones in a sea of fire. It was no longer Agos. Guard, friend, lover . . . whatever he had been was long gone. I remembered that I hadn’t brought anything for the pyre and felt the pang of grief again. I never could really give him anything, could I? Not my heart. I tried, but you cannot will a heart to love any more than you can ask it to stop. The worst part is that he knew. He always knew.
Khine slid a sheathed sword into the flames, his brows knotted together. I recognized the sword Agos had lent him days ago, when we were cornered by the assassin in Old Oren-yaro. Like Ozo, he uttered no words. Eventually, he stepped to the side and gestured. My thoughts drifted back to the pyre, to whatlay within it.
Agos. I wanted to say his name out loud. I felt like if I heard it with my own ears, I could convince myself that a part of him lingered on. That I could call and he would bolt down to be by my side like the dog I treated him no better than. Not wanting to stir the crowd, I took my handkerchief instead, allowing it to touch my lips before I threw it into the flames.
“It’s the queen!” somebody cried.
I froze. Khine drew his arm over me again. He was too slow. Recognition stirred on their faces. It felt like the moment before a thunderstorm—no rain yet, but a humming in the air, thick enough to make your skin crawl.
Agos’s wife reached me first. Her hand struck me with a sound that resonated through the square.