The first time through, she was too depressed and afraid to notice anything out of the ordinary. She yielded to her father's demands to send away the Duchess of Ursul. She studied art and played with puppies. She spent time with her cousin, family being her greatest solace. (Later, she would wonder if the viper's appearance was truly by chance.)
Her father mentioned that staying in for the festival was an option, so that's what she did. That's all she did. She was sad, she was lonely, and she was frightened, visiting her mother's grave on the weekends and wondering how the former queen might have handled the many matters of state Elodie was sure she'd fumbled.
The days passed in a blur; nothing felt real.
Looking back, she could remember only the following with any semblance of clarity:
Her accidental engagement to the Duke of Sedna, her only real rebellion against her father's wishes. (What did it matter he was older and foreign? She was expected to marry, and he wished to marry her. Past that, she couldn't bring herself to care.)
The averted battle over the border and paying whatever was needed to make it go away. (Her father pressed his fingers to the bridge of his nose when he heard the price tag, but it was only money. There'd been enough death for Nova, she felt.)
The murder of a prisoner in front of her, blood splattering warm and shocking against her skin. (There'd been enough death. There'd been enough death.)
The intimidating stares of so many nobles and stumbling over her partner's feet. (Banion gave a toast, but the words were so much noise to her ears.)
Sirin's smile, mysterious and knowing. (It hadn't yet been a year.)
Gwenelle's mother's letter, scathing and disappointed. (Didn't she understand the roads weren't safe?)
Her father's face, pale and determined. (And then he was gone, too.)
Everything after that was a haze. Her aunt arrived at some point and promised she would take care of everything, that Elodie needn't worry. She was allowed to mostly shut herself away and shutter her thoughts and feelings. Aunt Lucille took care of the statecraft, far more efficient than Elodie and with far fewer questions than her father. Elodie wasn't really necessary.
When she took ill, she took to her bed with relief. Things would progress fine without her—they might progress better. Surely her aunt, acting as regent, couldn't do any worse than a countryside in ruins, a treasury bankrupt, and a people beaten down in spirit where they weren't dead in droves. Elodie may have been crowned, but she was no queen.
"Perhaps, if there were a hospital—" Charlotte said, hovering over Elodie's sickbed. "Or if, if I knew more, if—"
"It's okay." Elodie clutched Charlotte's hands in hers, fever making her hallucinate Charlotte's wreathed in a soothing green glow. "Maybe it's better this way. I didn't—I couldn't—"
All Elodie could think, when she slipped away, was that she could have done more. She could have done better. She should have done better.
Given the chance . . .
Her eyes slid closed.
Elodie's eyes opened to Headmistress Marvin, eyes soft, hand firm on Elodie's shoulder. "The carriage is waiting outside." She squeezed gently. "Chin up, my girl. You'll do fine."
"No," Elodie said hoarsely, disoriented and disbelieving. "I don't believe I will."
Headmistress Marvin's expression hardened. "None of that. You're your mother's daughter. You'll do fine."
This wasn't the time. Headmistress Marvin wasn't the person to confide in. She was ancient, had overseen the development of several generations of royalty, nobility, and commoners alike, and remained gentle but firm in her absolute impartiality. In a world where accidents occurred every day, her overarching rule seemed to be "don't get attached."
Despite this, Elodie found herself bursting out with, "I'll make a terrible queen."
"You will with that attitude." And with that heartening advice, Headmistress Marvin ushered her to the door. At the last moment, she relented long enough to say, "I knew your mother. She had this utterly depressing saying, but a fatalistic overlook appears to run in the family, so perhaps you'll find it comforting. 'Failure is unavoidable.'" A distant memory caught, held, and Elodie almost heard the words in her own mother's voice as Headmistress Marvin continued, "'But you keep trying.' Now personally, I think the so-called inevitability of failure is just an excuse most people tell themselves to not try, but if Her Majesty could believe it and use it as an impetus to work harder, perhaps that will work for you."
Headmistress Marvin looked very, very doubtful as to this possibility. All the same, this was probably the most comfort she'd ever offered a student. Elodie swallowed, managed a mumbled, "Thank you," and lifted her chin as Headmistress Marvin all but shoved her out the door.
The last time Elodie saw her mother, they'd had a picnic, her mother having eschewed the help of the servants and insisted on bringing the basket and blanket out herself. "Sometimes," her mother had said, eyes beseeching Elodie to understand, "there are no right options. You have to make sacrifices even for the best possible outcome. Sometimes—sometimes, you have to settle for what you can live with."
"I told you," Elodie squeezed her mother's hand in her own, hoping to ease her distress, "I understand. I don't like boarding school, but I can live with it."
Her mother squeezed back. Her eyes remained troubled. "Yes. You can."
Elodie didn't understand how she was given this second chance, but she was determined not to squander it. She would do anything it took to keep her father alive and her country in one piece, so she swallowed her first response to follow her father's advice and instead told Julianna she was welcome. Instead of drowning her sorrow in art and puppies, she threw herself into intrigue and swordwork.
The first indication she had that this process of repeating wasn't perfect was when the necklace arrived. It was familiar. Surely she should know—but what a pretty necklace. She was doing well with her tutors. She deserved it. When Banion informed her what it meant, it was a surprise, but more than that, she felt like she had already known this. How had she known—how had she forgotten?
It was but the first of many. A battle, an engagement, a prisoner cut down in front of her—and every time, she thought, But I knew this. She muddled her way through. Julianna took drastic action to give Elodie her lumen crystal, and her father never looked at her the same, but it was important because she had to save him, she had to keep him from—from what?
When the chocolates came, she had the strangest suspicion of them, but—they were just chocolates. Delicious-looking chocolates. She had other things to do, but surely just one or two—
As she lay dying, she was able to recall, suddenly and with clarity, her last life's dog. What a good dog, she thought wistfully. It looked like playing with puppies had been good for something after all.
She opened her eyes to Headmistress Marvin's office.
And so it went.
She knew each time that there were things she wanted to happen and things she wanted to avoid, but it was difficult to remember what they were or to use skills she vaguely recalled having learned unless she studied them here and now in this immediate life, rather than whatever future she knew only to avoid. This was never more apparent to her than when she tried reaching Togami through the power of song, knowing his love of music and suddenly and vividly recalling sweeping the tournament in another life, bringing men and women to tears with her skill. Her hands were clumsy on her instrument, her voice more a caterwaul than a croon. It was still enough to bring tears, but no one was impressed.
"That," Togami said viciously, "was not music."
He was much better with his sword than she'd been with her lyre.
Sometimes she led her country to ruin. Sometimes to prosperity. Every time, she felt there was something she could do better, something she could improve upon. Once, on her deathbed of ripe, old age, she looked back on her accomplishments, the hospital and printing press she'd funded, the high rates of health and literacy she'd heralded, and was almost satisfied. But lumens were feared, and she was certain there was an outcome that didn't drive Julianna to reclusion and her cousin to hide her gifts.
"You'll do fine," Headmistress Marvin had said that day in her office, over and over again, but Elodie didn't want to do fine. She wanted more. She wanted better.
Elodie had the sense now, that this power was what separated Nova's royalty from the rest of the world's lumens—may even have been what the old capital was destroyed to create. In this, Elodie was very much her mother's daughter. But her mother—her mother had been willing to settle. She'd ensured the life of her daughter—and Elodie was grateful, so very grateful—and was willing to leave it there.
Elodie had the opportunity to do more, and she was going to take it with both hands and never let go. Maybe not this time, maybe not next time, but someday, she would make things right. She would make things perfect.