Vanali found herself in the last place she ever wanted to be. Here, she had beheaded a king, her uncle, probably. She was too scared to ask Therese if that was the case. There were so many ghosts in this place; she wondered how everyone else acted so calm, as though they couldn't see them.
"They can't see them," she muttered angrily to herself. "Ghosts aren't real, now stop with the crazy."
With winter over, and plans in motion for staging a revolution in Cirelle, Vanali had left Anselia to be in her own country. They had argued long hours about where she should go – she and Therese and Sol – and they had finally decided she should go to the last place she would be expected. The capital of Nicor country. Cirelle had less interest in the city than in the lands and mines that Nicor had owned, so the city was basically abandoned, except for the crows and the ghosts.
Over the winter Vanali heard much about the rebels in Cirelle, that they were growing strong, raising great numbers. She felt herself growing strong with their belief in her. She had no idea why these people had so much faith in her, why they would want her to be queen at all. Maybe they were like her, and all they really wanted was for the Magistrate to go away. She had heard stories of ridiculously high taxes on the people, with no services in return. Stories of criminals receiving punishments much harsher than the crimes deserved. She thought of Robin Hood, of the French Revolution, and she wondered why anyone in power would be so foolishly greedy when it inevitably led to downfall.
"When we topple the Magistrate though, there will be no guillotines. No Terror," she said to herself as she stared at the gutted spire of the King's old chapel.
"What is a guillotine?" Therese asked.
"An instrument of death," Vanali replied. "There's no need for me to explain exactly what it does."
"Very well," Therese said. "We should be going to the meeting now."
Vanali nodded and followed Therese to the stables, which had been set up to accommodate war meetings. Gill was already there, waiting for her, along with Marten and Will, who were there as representatives of the rebellion. When Vanali had first met Marten and Will and learned what their role in Elaine's kidnapping had been, she had felt a little envious of Elaine, for being removed from the war with so little guilt on her on part. Once she got to know them a little better she felt jealous of Elaine, for having made better friends than she when they were most needed. Vanali had Therese now, but Therese had come too late during the war to stop the madness.
"What's the news today?" Vanali asked.
"Elaine and Nate are on their way – they should be here within the next few days," Marten said.
"Good. Gill, what of your people?" she asked
The King of Anselia had grown weaker as the winter had progressed. He was old and sick, and no one had really expected him to live as long as he had. Vanali spent much time with Sol talking about his father, and she could see how conflicted he felt about him. On the one hand he was frustrated with his father for not acting, and for preventing anyone else from acting. With his father out of the way Sol would be free to act as he chose, to help where he saw fit, but of course, he had no desire to lose his father. Despite his weaknesses, Sol loved his father.
When the King died at the end of the winter, all that talk no longer mattered. Sol had to deal with the funeral, and the coronation that would follow. Vanali had been there for the funeral, and she had stood beside Sol in his grief, and afterwards, in private, she had let him hold her hand for comfort. She herself felt that she had little comfort to offer, but he thanked her for sitting with him and being silent.
"It is only because I don't know what to say," is what she would have said, if she felt free to be herself. Instead, being queen, she said nothing.
She left before the coronation, eager to be on her way back to Cirelle, eager to put into action plans to bring down the Magistrate. That was all she lived for now; once that was done she would no longer have to worry about ghosts and past mistakes. She just had to hold out until it was done.
"The King is sending two regiments to help; they should be here tomorrow," Gill said. It had taken some time for Sol to get everything sorted, but finally, things were happening.
"Anything else?" Vanali asked. Everyone started to speak at once.
After the meeting she spent some time walking around the city, looking at everything, making sure she would remember.
"You really shouldn't be out walking alone; it isn't safe."
Vanali turned to Gill as he joined her. "But I'm never alone," she told him. "There's always someone nearby. You, here, the archers in hiding, there and there," she pointed out the two guards who always shadowed her, careful not to point to their actual location in case someone was watching. "All these crows make it difficult to sneak about anyway."
"Was there something you wanted?" she asked.
"I have something for you," Gill answered, and he put a letter into her hands. "It came with the last messenger. From the King."
"Thank you," Vanali said. "Will you walk with me back to my room?"
Her room was set up in a house with a burnt out roof, a tarp strung up where the second floor used to be to keep out the rain. From the outside, the city looked the same as it had since the end of the war – no one had touched it or tried to rebuild.
Vanali thanked Gill for seeing her back and went inside to read Sol's letter. He had sent her several letters since she had left Anselia some weeks ago, but they were not about the rebellion or war. He wrote to her of his coronation, and of funny things that happened to him. In this letter, he wrote of the crocuses that were coming out in the garden, and of a bird that had made her nest outside his window. Vanali wasn't sure if she should enjoy his letters as much as she did. She felt she should be concentrated on the cause, on the fight, but she still loved to read his letters, and to forget for a moment that she was waiting in a city she had destroyed to start another war in her own country.
The soldiers from Anselia arrived the next morning, and Nate and Elaine arrived later that night. As soon as they did, everyone met and they decided on a course of action. It wasn't difficult – they had been planning this for months now – it was only a matter of assigning tasks. Still, it was late when everyone retired for the night, and Vanali was shy about asking Nate and Elaine to her room. She hadn't known them very well before the war, and she could see they had both changed greatly since then, but she wanted to talk with them before they went away again. She hoped, somehow, they would make her feel normal again.
"Would you mind?" she asked. Nate smiled and nodded, and Elaine grinned widely.
"I'll bet it'll be nicer than wherever they would take us," she said, and she followed Vanali back to her room. Vanali asked Therese to get some tea and whatever food she could find for Nate and Elaine, and then they all sat down together on the ground. Elaine looked around at the surroundings and frowned. "Not as nice as I was expecting…" she said with a sigh. Nate shook his head at her.
"Sorry. We don't want to be conspicuous," Vanali explained. "And all my riches are at the castle. Not that I want them. That's not what this is about."
Elaine smiled reassuringly at her. Vanali was amazed at how much Elaine smiled. Even when she was reading Sol's letters, Vanali was sure she couldn't smile. "Relax. I was just joking," Elaine told her.
"Ah. Of course," Vanali said. She lapsed into an awkward silence, wondering why she had wanted these two with her anyway.
It was Nate who broke the silence. "I hear you were in Anselia fairly recently," he said. "Did you… Did you happen to see two Nicor children living there?"
"Ah yes. Polly and Rien, right? I heard they were yours."
"Yeah. Well, I mean, not biologically, of course…" Nate trailed off, blushing. Vanali caught Elaine smiling gently at him, and she understood why Elaine could smile so much. Her heart constricted with an awful jealousy, for Elaine's good fortune, and she tried to push it away. She reminded herself that no one had forced her to make the choices she had made; she had to be willing to live with the consequences.
"Thank you," Vanali said. Nate looked confused, and she remembered that wasn't what she had meant to say. "I mean, your children, they looked very well when I left. Sol quite likes them; he'll take good care of them."
"I thought he would," Nate said. "He'll make a good king."
"Yes, he will," Vanali agreed. "I won't be queen," she blurted out.
"When this is over, I'm not going to become queen again. I've made too many mistakes. Too many have died for my stupidity – how can I be queen? I will be a figurehead for the revolution if that is what they need, but I will not rule."
"If you're not queen, then who will be?" Elaine asked.
Vanali frowned at her. What did she mean by that? Did she have someone in mind to be queen after Vanali?
Elaine seemed to sense her suspicion, and she explained, "Someone will rule Cirelle. If not you, then do you have someone who will make a responsible ruler? Will you step down for another dictator to take over?"
"I don't… I hadn't thought of that."
"Because, the way you are now, I think you would do just fine, at least for a little while," Elaine said. "You can lead this revolution, and when the Magistrate is gone, then you can help to set up Cirelle as a democracy if you like. But there has to be some infrastructure, some power to help set it up in the first place. You at least, know what a democracy can be, and you won't try to keep the power for yourself. You can then peacefully hand over the country to an elected power. I mean, if you hadn't already thought of this stuff, then that's one way you could do it at least."
Vanali stared thoughtfully at Elaine for a while, mulling over what she had said. Her words changed Vanali's plans.
"Why do you think of all these things?" Nate asked Elaine.
"I was a poli-sci student at university," Elaine told him. "I love politics. Not to actually be involved in them, but the theory stuff. Where politics actually work."
"I did not know that about you."
"Well what about you? Weren't you a university student? I have no idea what you did before either?"
"I was a civil engineer."
"No kidding. So, could you make a waffle machine? Because I've been really craving a waffle lately, and every time I have breakfast I just keep wishing someone would invent the waffle machine in this world already."
"Um… no. Not really. I have no idea how waffle machines are constructed," Nate answered.
"It would be hard to build one with the technology form here," Vanali cut in. "I used to like to tinker with mechanical things, radios, vcr's and the like. You'd have to make everything from scratch here."
"So… Not very likely I'm ever going to get waffles again?" Elaine asked sadly.
"Well, you could just ask a blacksmith to make you a waffle iron and make them over the fire," Vanali pointed out.
Elaine grinned at her. "How did I not think of that? You, my friend, are a genius. Solving the people's problems, like a real queen."
"I don't think that's a problem a queen should have to deal with," Nate said flatly. "You're being ridiculous again."
"Haha! You've missed me, admit it!" Elaine prodded him. He just smiled and shook his head. Vanali suddenly felt like she would burst into tears. Seeing these two, being around people who were just so… normal. So much like life back on Earth, where there were no revolutionary problems, not in her world, where you could just spend your days goofing around, talking, working sure, but even then, she would never have to be queen, responsible for so many lives and deaths.
"I was going to kill myself, after destroying the Magistrate," Vanali said quietly. She hadn't really meant to say it, but she was still weak sometimes, and she would say things before she had time to stop herself. Elaine and Nate both stopped smiling and stared at her, though Nate was still half-smiling Vanali noticed. His scars made him always happy, she thought. Nothing like her scars. "I thought it would be the way to make things right, after all I did." She turned to smile at Elaine. "But you, you ruined my plans! Now I have to live, damn it, and do all this work getting the country back in order!" She laughed, and when Elaine started to speak, she held up her hand to stop her. "No wait, I'm not being crazy again, I promise. And I didn't tell you that to get pity or anything. I actually didn't really mean to say that. What I really wanted to say was thank you. Really."
Elaine nodded. "What are friends for?"
"Are we friends?" Vanali asked.
"Sure, if you want to be," Elaine said, at the same time Nate said, "Of course we are!"
Nate looked at Elaine, and then at Vanali, and he blushed. Vanali started to laugh, a good laugh, one that came from bubbles in her stomach and warmed her bones, not the brittle, spiteful laugh she had grown used to of late. She had forgotten how good it felt to laugh properly.
When Elaine and Nate had left Vanali went to Therese and took the old maid's hand in hers. Therese looked up at her with tears in her eyes. "I know I should scold you for planning to commit suicide," Therese said, "but I'm just so happy to hear you laughing again."
Vanali knelt down and put her head on Therese's lap. "I'm sorry," she said softly. "You're going to have to put up with me for a while longer yet."