At last the wizard arrived, not in a rush of wind or a pillar of flame but on foot. He strode from his disrupted coronation, straight-backed, fists clenched. The crowed parted around him, already imagining the air sparking with electricity, envisioning thunderclouds roiling in his pale blue eyes. Women clutched their children, uttering prayers to the old gods, for only the old gods could protect them from the eldritch forces that had allowed the wizard to depose the White King and usurp his throne. He came to a halt with the palace far behind him, glaring toward the guttering sun as it hovered above the desolate terrain.
Out of the west came the old woman, who had once called him beloved, walking with the aid of a cane fashioned from hardy wytchwood root. Her once alabaster skin had blistered and darkened over the course of her days in the wasteland. The sun was vengeful in that ruined pace, and it would not forget that she and the wizard had ended all life there when the White King still reigned. In those days she had been known as the seer.
Children gawked at the visitor to the kingdom. They asked who the woman was, making their mothers turn to fathers who had attention for nothing other than the wizard and his burgeoning wrath.
He stood, gazing upon her stooped frame, with nothing to do but wait. Her steps came slower than he recalled, and though he had walked quite a distance from the place where the crown still rested on a velvet cushion, awaiting his brow, she came from farther at a much slower pace. The wytchwood cane rose and fell, summoning clouds of dust with every step. Even at a distance, the crowd shuddered to see that the gathering evening caused her milky eyes to glow from the shadows of her face. The setting sun over her shoulder made a hobgoblin of her, one that managed to direct its blind stare upon the wizard.
The wind shifted, carrying dry heat into the city. Tomorrow, when the coronation was complete, men across the city would take oaths that they smelled the stale decay of the kingdom’s long-dead enemies on the breeze. After the wizard’s deeds, the land had rejected even the bodies of the dead. Aside from the old woman, no one had entered the wastelands in half a decade and returned alive.
She stopped outside of bowshot without gesture. She stood in the bad air, the tassels of her worn shawl fluttering, her tangles of gray hair too burdensome to be moved. She made no utterance, did not hail the crowd nor their almost-king. It was as if she had wandered back to the city on accident, and now stared at her former home, trying to resurrect a memory.
At last, his patience spent, the wizard marched forward, fists still clenched, back still arrow-straight. With every step towards the old woman, the people trembled. Mothers covered the eyes of their children for fear of terrible magicks about to be wrought. Husbands forced themselves not to look away for fear of looking weak in the eyes of their countrymen and wives. It was terrible that the old woman would ruin this day of all days, the day of the wizard’s coronation.
The past year had been an era of uninterrupted prosperity. Crops along the eastern border grew again in abundance. Merchants from the south brought goods without fear of raiders pillaging their wagons. Even the assassin known as the Black Dagger had ceased his previously relentless attacks on nobles across the city, allowing the gentry to enjoy their newfound prosperity without fear of an obsidian dagger across their throats and then plunged into their hearts as they slept.
“I have wandered long!” the old woman cried before the wizard had taken his sixth step. At the sound of her voice, he halted. With his back to all in the crowd, none could see the way he set his jaw. She had waited him out. She had stolen the upper hand with her first words, just like always.
A murmur rippled through the crowd. People repeated what she had said for those who had not heard, but in truth there were few who hadn’t. She had long ago perfected the art of addressing a crowd, enunciation and projection. She had taught him.
Wary of the archers who had clustered on rooftops and also stood at the edge of the crowd, she did not step forward as she spoke. She had no need. Her time in the wastelands had done nothing to diminish her voice. It rang as clear as the temple bells, and was as likely to be misunderstood.
“In my travels I found a spring of fresh, blue water!” she said to the crowd and waited for the murmurs to die away. The wizard stood, fists clenched, forced to wait and listen like the common folk.
“As I drank, the old gods whispered into my mind! They showed my blind eyes a vision!”
“A vision!” a woman in the crowd gasped, almost theatrically. The wizard considered for a moment whether the old woman might have allies positioned in the crowd, men and women with instructions to carry her message and empower it. He knew she did not. If she had returned before this exact moment, word would have reached his ears in short order.
“Silence!” the wizard called. His voice boomed across the wastelands, and it also carried well enough into the crowd behind him to draw the color from the faces of his people. The old woman showed no sign of concern. She never had, no matter his ire.
When the world came to be still again except for the fetid wind that accompanied her, he finished his journey to face her. Here they would speak, apart from the crowd.
“What is the meaning of this?” he hissed.
“I have had a vision,” she replied pleasantly.
“Nonsense!” he insisted. “You are no seer and never have been.”
“And you are no wizard,” she said in the same, amiable tone.
For a moment, he fell silent, and if at any moment she allowed a hint—even a trace—of fear to enter her eyes, it was then. She waited to see whether he would strike her down now, in front of the kingdom, kill her with his bare hands or the small blade she had taught him to always keep secreted on his person. There would be no magical bolts of fire or ice or lightning, just as there had been nothing but carefully administered poison in the waters of the enemy kingdom. Water flowed west, out of the kingdom, toward the great sea, and with it went the toxins that had ruined their lands and decimated the foreign populace. Not magic. Just cunning.
She smiled. He made no move against her. The wizard would not reveal himself so publicly.
Though their faces remained close, she spoke to the crowd. She stared into his eyes from behind the white films covering her own. “The old gods showed me that the time has come for change!”
“Don’t do this,” he said.
“I am not the betrayer,” she said.
Murmurs in the crowd rose and once again fell.
“The old gods have shown me that the time of kings is at an end!”
Gasps. The wizard narrowed his eyes. A vein bulged in his temple. His entire body shook, though only she stood near enough to see it. He could do nothing to stop this outrage. She, too, had a blade secreted upon her person, and it was too likely that hers was nearer at hand. She needed the wytchwood cane as much as he did; she could let go of it and take a life before it hit the ground.
She called out to the kingdom one final time from beyond its borders. “Any man who wears the crown will die within a fortnight! The old gods demand a queen!”
“They will know your lies,” the wizard said.
“Will they also know yours?”
“Every word you spoke is treason,” he said. “Men will torture you for days before you die, and they will call themselves heroes for doing it.”
“Can the gods commit treason in the courts of man?”
“Then you are a false prophet. Your fate is worse.”
“The gods did not send you to usurp the throne. I am their judgment for your crime.”
The wizard stared at the ground between them. So softly she could barely hear, he said, “Your niece.”
“Speak carefully,” she said, though her pleasant expression remained unchanged.
He looked up, and though the set of his jaw remained grim, his eyes danced with cruel delight. “The child your sister left behind. You did not realize I knew of her, but she has never been far from my sight. I knew you would attempt to ruin me someday, and I know the power she has over you.”
A moment of silence filled the space between them. At length she ended it, asking, “I…would ruin you?”
He met her gaze. He meant what he said.
She sighed. To the crowd she appeared to be an old woman, weary, regrouping during a lengthy conversation. When she looked up, though, the he saw the hint of a smile on her lips.
“You will find that my niece is quite far from your sight. This is not my first visit to our old home, and I have not come alone.”
The wizard noticed her eyes, beneath the milky films, dart purposefully to the rooftops, where stood the archers whom he had posted. Her smile manifested. She invited him to call her bluff, to walk into the city with her and see which of them died. He stared, molars grinding. “Why have you returned, Celene?”
“You were a good advisor to the White King while he lived,” she said. “A queen needs a good advisor. Do as I say, beloved. I will not treat you so poorly as you did me.”
“Serve you?” he said, incredulous. “I did not risk everything and slay the White King so that I could continue to serve as an advisor!”
“That’s very ambitious,” she said.
“What are you playing at?” he demanded. His voice rose louder, surely loud enough for the nearest in the crowd to hear. Probably a few of the archers, as well.
“I had a vision,” she said.
He resisted the urge to rub his temples. He sometimes did that when they would quarrel in the past, but the king could show no such weakness. Instead, he stood, unmoving, boring into her with his eyes.
She waited, then spoke again. “The old gods showed me the night you entered the White King’s chambers to usurp his power. You brought no magic with you, just a small blade coated with poison. But when you arrived, you found the king already dead, slashed across the throat and with a black dagger thrust into his heart.”
The wizard’s growled deep in his throat. His pupils had contracted till his eyes appeared to be twin ponds of pale water nestled in white clouds. He said nothing.
“The old gods showed me that you removed the dagger and burned the body with acid that you later claimed had been bolts of lightning you hurled across the chamber. You lit his royal bedsheets aflame to cement your tale. Did the old gods lie?”
“You were there,” he said.
“You never checked your surroundings,” she said. “Anyone could have been there. One of the White King’s concubines, a personal guard, anyone. With the Black Dagger threatening nobles across the city, he was a fool to sleep alone.”
Now fear crept into his eyes. He remembered the black dagger, the surprise he felt upon seeing it, but there was only one way she could have known about it. She had once told him that there were ways into—and out of—every building in the city. Even the White King’s own bedchamber could be unlocked with enough time and forethought. He had thought she was drawing a hyperbolic example.
“All these years,” he whispered.
Her eyes twinkled behind the films. “Did you think I had no mysteries left?”
“They will not believe you,” he said. “They know you escaped to the wastelands in disgrace because you were a fraud.”
“They fear you, child. They loved their White King. They will thank the gods for any excuse to throw you down.”
“You want me to serve, as always.”
“Not as always,” she said. “Upon reflection, you threatened my niece. I do love that child. But, yes, you may serve. I will allow it. Show them your purpose. Kneel before the new queen and hail her in the names of all the gods.”
For years he had practiced sublimating his emotions before her, and now he found himself falling back into the old habit. Showing irritation, frustration, any manner of rebellion or even resistance was a quick way to the grave when you dwelt on the kingdom’s nighttime side. He schooled himself without conscious thought. She had no need to speak her threat. He understood. If he ever slept in the king’s bed, he would not awaken. What had happened once could happen again.
The wizard did not look back at the crowd. He did not dare attempt to signal the archers. Even if they proved loyal, she would flee into the poisoned wastelands where no soldier or bounty hunter would follow, and she would return to exact her revenge with one of her black daggers. Without another moment’s hesitation, he lowered himself to one knee and spoke in a loud, clear voice.
“The gods have spoken! All hail the gods! All hail the queen!”
As one, the people showed their obeisance to the gods, lending their voices to his.