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Queen of Queens

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They were on the long road to Rachia when Thayet put down her dagger and said, "Enough."

Buri didn't even look up, intent on the campfire. "Thayet…" She sighed, and glanced back at the children. They watched her, solemn. Buri lowered her voice. "What can we even do anymore? Where can we even go?"

"I want to leave Sarain," Thayet said.

"Then let's go, already!" Buri hissed.

Thayet made a sharp, dismissive gesture. "I have a duty here, Buri!" she hissed back. "I can't just leave!"

Buri stood. "Then maybe you need to figure out what your duty is," she said icily, "and get to it." She strode away, towards their mule.

"Maybe I do," Thayet murmured, staring into the fire with angry dark eyes.

***

The assassination attempt at Rachia caught Thayet more off guard than she expected. Somehow, it had never quite occurred to her that her father's enemies would actually try to kill her; she had been raised to see the many ways she would make a useful pawn instead. A pawn had to be alive, or so she'd thought.

The sisters at the Mother of Waters refused to help her, though they took the refugees in. That was the least they could do, Thayet thought viciously. The least.

Buri returned emptyhanded. "No idea who sent that assassin, Thayet," she said quietly. "But we're leaving. Rachia's not safe."

Thayet was silent.

"Thayet?" Buri startled when Thayet's hand clamped down on her arm.

"Buri," Thayet commanded, in a tone entirely unlike any she had ever used before, "Get me a sword."

***

It was a slog. A long, bloody slog.

Thayet withdrew to the mountains for the better part of two years, moving from clan to clan, listening to the K'miri elders and propitiating the old gods of the mountains. She trained with their warriors and rode along on their hunts. She sat with the women and learned the secret ways of Sarain that the womenfolk, the keepers of the old paths, knew.

She became their hard-eyed, half-lowlander princess, their secret savior, and she united them by their own superstitions and rumors.

And then word came from distant lands, rumors of great and sovereign queens elsewhere, and Thayet's attention turned inexorably south.

When she rode for Kuqa, her father's old capital, it was at the head of all the K'miri clans, as their first Great Queen in seven hundred years.

***

Thayet stood in Fortress Wilima, the traditional home of the Warlord of Sarain for as far back as she could recall, and tried not to think.

These halls had echoed with life, she recalled. The far door had been barely able to conceal the raucous laughter every weekend night, when the servants would gather for dice and cards. The lower hall led to the fortress' chapel, a typically Saren multipurpose room that could honor any god. That corner concealed a hidden staircase, that led to a secret courtyard accessible only through that passage. She had played there often as a child. It had been her secret sanctuary.

The halls were dead now, empty and silent. Only Buri and Thayet walked them. She had seen to that herself.

Lightly, Thayet touched the hidden panel in the corner. The door swung open on silent hinges, and Thayet slipped down the passage and out into the hidden garden.

It was a mess of dead blossoms and plants gone to seed, which Thayet supposed she ought to have expected, what with it being almost winter. She looked about the garden, idly retrieving an old wooden ball from behind an overgrown bush. Its blue paint was still unfaded, and Thayet idly recalled that it had been her favorite ball, once. She had cried for days when she'd lost it.

Her father, she recalled with a strange pang, had replaced it immediately, when he got back from his campaign and learned of the loss.

Footsteps behind her made her turn. "We need to lock the passages," Thayet said over her shoulder to Buri.

Buri raised an eyebrow.

"The door didn't squeak," Thayet said, pocketing the ball.