The mountain is burning behind me. My eyes burn, even with my face turned away. I have let tears fall all the way down the mountainside. I drag smoke with me down the trail, as though I have snagged the thread of a dirty, fraying garment. Once it was cloth of gold.
Not all the meadows will burn. Not all the homes will burn. There is a little bed of violets by a well, just outside the manor where I grew up. That was the first thing I thought of as mine - I belonged to it and it to me. Perhaps that bed of violets will be spared, or, more likely, overlooked. I don't think my brother intends to be thorough in his destruction.
I will never know the cost, of my banishment, to the people of the mountain, who once were my people. I will never see those violets again.
I will never turn back, to my mountain, to my lands. So I promised: but still my brother sets the mountain aflame. Perhaps, in my brother's place (as so recently I was), I might do the same. A queen is not just a woman, nor the sum of her promises, nor only the two combined. I have been an idea as long as I have been a person.
I promised that I would not tell my story. My grief will not rally others: it will spur on only me. On this side of the pass, I am in another kingdom. Here, I am someone else, and I will never say who I was. But I am alone on the trail, and I tell my story to myself, as though it were someone else’s tale.
My birth was auspicious, and inauspicious. The king and his consort, who were to be my father and mother, had wanted an heir for a very long time. My mother's father came from the old families of the mountain region to the kingdom's east. Some said that my mother had the powers that are rooted in the mountains, and that was why my father never put her aside, and found a new consort to give him an heir. Some said that my mother called on mountain lore at last to conceive a child.
When I asked my tutors if this were true, I never got an answer. I learned that what mattered was that people had been able to say such things. Unrest was spreading in the kingdom, and my birth - in the sixteenth year of my parents' marriage, in the twentieth year of my father's reign - had come too late to calm it.
There was a particular bitterness between my parents and the court's highest spiritual authority, a woman called Kerenya. Kerenya, asked to bless me in my cradle, instead spoke words of poor omen. She said that my life would be governed by the spinning wheel of fortune. I would suffer and prosper by turn. But nothing would last, neither the suffering nor the prosperity.
It was not a good fate, but one that could be borne, and I have borne it. It could have been taken as a warning never to trust the appearances of things; a reminder that merely because something is one way, does not mean it will always be that way; an emphasis of a truth that is true for everyone, which is that nothing lasts. In that court, at that time, it was a disaster.
The omen Kerenya spoke, later called my curse, was like a boot on thin ice. It is impossible to describe the cracks that ran in every direction from that blow. I was sent away.
Retainers loyal to my mother took me to the mountains where the violets grow. Later it was said that I grew up in a hovel. Later, it was said that I did not have guardians, but keepers, who kept me locked up and kept me ignorant of my heritage. That is not true. I had excellent teachers, and the loyalty of the oldest families of the mountain. I always knew that I was to be queen.
When remained as a question. I was sent away because the king and his consort believed that someone would try to harm their heir. But sending me away resolved nothing by itself. Once I was gone, some things were easier than they would have been while welcoming me home. I was an unplayed card in the courts’ games. A girl asleep until awoken.
When I was two years old, my brother was born.
I grew up wary of my brother, as he grew up wary of me. I was the princess of the mountain, a barefoot princess of violets and rumour: he was the prince of the government and shining court, but when he gazed from lit windows, the darkness looked in at him; the shadow of the mountain reached out to him. Neither of us could determine what threat the other would pose. I was forbidden to write to him.
No one ever suggested to me that when I went to court, I should swear loyalty to my brother. I was the elder, and by law the heir. Of course, those who taught and led me had their own reasons for supporting me, against a prince who had grown up closer to the throne. I was the princess of violets, and I would be their queen. I could never have taken the throne if the people of the eastern regions had not thrown their support behind me.
Now that the throne has been taken from me in turn, I wonder if I have betrayed them. Have I made my choice out of physical cowardice - fearing to die - or out of moral cowardice - claiming, but not knowing, that this was what was best for all the kingdom? Or did I choose wisely?
I do not know. I will never know. I am no longer queen, and even when I was, I never had as many answers as I wanted to the questions I asked myself.
My father died when I was fourteen, and my brother was twelve. He was injured while riding, and infection set in.
My tutors - my advisers, and my allies, rather, as I was nearly grown up - had never suggested that I should defer to my brother. But nor had they encouraged me to believe he would make way meekly for me. They stopped talking about when I would receive an invitation to the court, or a request. They began to say that if I were to receive a summons back to court, it would only happen once the crown was safely on my brother's head. If I were to be Queen, then, like one, I must act.
We agreed that I would come to the court on the eve of my sixteenth birthday, and seek an audience with my mother, who was acting as regent. We were very cautious. Some pretext would be found for a delegation of the eastern lords and ladies to petition the throne, and I would travel with them. At sixteen, I would be young to wear the crown, but more importantly, my brother, not yet fourteen, would be far too young.
All went to plan.
My mother was older in appearance than I had expected, and her face was open to me. Her own network of allies and advisors had told her I was coming. She considered me carefully and questioned me closely, and I saw that she was in the middle of a choice. If she acknowledged me, she would alienate those in the court who had placed their hopes in my brother. He, and they, might foment strife, and she would have to trust that I could manage that situation: it would no longer be in her hands. If she did not acknowledge me, she would have to kill me. Alive, I would be a lure for malcontents. Unless she could offer me the crown, she was not sure that other political players would not offer me more than she could.
I took away many lessons from my mother's choice.
I was given a little space in which to learn. My mother's closest allies, and my eastern supporters, set out to establish a mood of celebration for my coronation. The lost princess had returned. My brother behaved himself, and knelt to me, and when I spoke to him, I thought we might come to understand each other. I planned to find a duty and a purpose for him, lest others lend him theirs.
The sigil of my father's house had always been roses, but for my coronation, the crowd wore what they could of purple, yellow, and white. There were carts on the road whose cargo was nothing but violets picked from the mountain meadows, and though the flowers worn at my coronation were already starting to fade, I looked at them and saw the meadows. I was glad.
Kerenya, who had declared my fate, had died before my father. By then, people spoke of her as a witch, and described her omens as a curse that I had broken. I didn't. I believed that my triumph fulfilled her words, rather than contradicting them. The tribulations were all ahead of me, not behind me.
For the sixteen years of my reign, that philosophy guided me. I did not shy from difficult things; I did not step only where I could not fall. I relied on my allies, courted them, and trusted them: perhaps too much. I offended and estranged others: perhaps the mistakes I made could have been avoided. I will try to set them aside, now. It will be the work of a lifetime to forget everything I could have done.
One of those whom I relied on was my brother. He was also one who grew apart from me.
I pretend to myself that I don't know, or can't guess, when it was that I could have curbed him. He was capable. Whatever I set him to, he managed, whether it was extending a census into the southern regions, building bridges, writing laws for alchemists and physicians, or entertaining foreign emissaries. As his skills grew, I gave him more to do.
I did not marry, and encouraged him to. I hoped that both of us would tutor his children, who would become my heirs, and in that way, the crack that had always threatened to split the kingdom between us would heal for good.
My brother saw it another way.
I entrusted to him work that was not easy, but that was easier than mine; I kept for myself the harshest rulings and hardest tasks. My brother was the face of success, and I was the face of disaster. I thought of these as necessary roles, but my brother believed in them. He believed that his triumphs would be followed by triumphs. The country began to believe him. Why not? It was an attractive thing to believe.
And then he reminded the kingdom of my fate. I had ruled well enough, for sixteen years, but the wheel would turn – and if I were still queen when it turned, he said, the kingdom would fall with me.
It was hard to argue against that when the same turning wheel may have crowned me queen.
I saw a war coming from further away than my brother gave me credit for.
My mother was gone, but I remembered her choices. I remembered that she could have killed me, in order to have peace and a smooth succession, and had chosen not to. I remembered that she had feared to let me live without a purpose.
My brother raised forces in both the north and the south; I fought with forces from the west and east. But it went poorly. A set of circumstances: here a flood, here a fire, here a famine – looked like the fates turning against me, and with them, the fighting turned.
I would not let the war lap up to the gates of my capital city, like an all-engulfing flood. I abdicated. I fled to the mountains, and my brother burned them behind me. I took the pass that would lead me out of the kingdom. I took it alone.
I considered meeting with my brother, as he entered the court in martial array. I considered what he might do with me, and, if I fled, what he might do to anyone who sheltered me. Not out of cruelty, but out of political practicality.
It does not matter what I would have chosen for myself. Those who were loyal to me, when they saw that I would not fight, urged me to flee with one voice. As queen, my life was not my own. But that meant that it was not mine to give away.
And so I fled, and so the mountain burns. The people who raised me as a child, who elevated me as a princess to the throne, fled along with me, each their separate ways.
I hope the violets grow again in the mountains, though they vanish from the court. I hope my brother has peace. Though his triumph will not temper him, I hope something else will. I hope he learns, for others' sake. But that is no longer my concern.
Those who were loyal to me were adamant that I must survive, even if they died. I am grateful, but I cannot yet comprehend their gift. I have left the mountains behind me forever; I left my crown behind on an empty throne. I live, but who is it that lives?
I cannot ask this question of anyone except myself. I will not tell my story. I will not raise my banner on the other side of these mountains, to return. I have promised I will not, and I cannot see what use it would be. I do not wish my brother well. But I hope for the people under his rule, and those who are not yet born, and those who will succeed him, and those who will forget him. As they forget me. As I forget myself.
All I have is the fate I was given as a baby - I have followed it, and it has followed me. If there is truth to omens, my fate will lift me up again, at least for a time. But it will not restore what I have lost, and so, as I descend the mountain, and the wheel, I weep. For a time.