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Eliciting a wild cry of satisfaction, she pulled herself back into consciousness, as if rising to the surface of a lake and bursting through into the breathable air. She pushed herself up from the bed, exhausted but exhilarated, unable to stop a wide smile from spreading across her face as centuries of repressed emotions burst forth.

"Queen Anja?" asked Pienya Martoc, who was sat beside her as requested. "Are you well?"

She laughed sharply, touching a hand to her face and finding blood upon her fingers. "I am very well, Pienya," she said, wiping at her nose. Pienya handed her a handkerchief. "Thank you, Pienya. It was evidently a strain on my body."

"Should I summon the doctor?"

"No. No, I will be fine in a moment. You were needed in case I didn't wake. That risk has passed, so all I required now is a little rest."

"My queen, I still don't understand," Pienya said.

"Nor should you expect to," she said, slowly swinging her legs down to the floor. She held her head in her hands for a moment, trying to banish the throbbing headaches that always accompanied such sessions. This time, though, it had been worth it. She laughed again, drawn-out and disbelieving. "It's done. I did it. She lost."

Standing, she crossed to the balcony and pushed open the doors, sucking in the Treydolain air. It seemed fresher than before, as if it had been cleansed. No more hiding, no more mind games or manipulations. With the threat in the north removed, she would be free to move openly at last, without fear of direct reprisal. Soon, it wouldn't matter what happened in the petty little war that was brewing between Guijus and the Liefs.

Pienya had accompanied her onto the balcony. "May I ask a question, Queen Anja?"

That name seemed to twist in her chest like a knife. A remnant of considerations now past and irrelevant. She nodded.

"What was the meditation about? Why did it cause a nosebleed?"

She could see Pienya clutching for meaning and understanding. And, really, if she was to step out of the shadows then this moment may as well be when it happened. "To understand my answer," she said, "you first need to do me one courtesy."

"Of course," Pienya said, bowing her head.

"Queen Anja Tellador. Never call me by that name again. I have no desire to be your or anybody else's queen." Glancing to the side, she could see the shock on Pienya's face. "And my name is not Anja."

"I understand even less," Pienya said, stammering her response.

She dabbed at her face, the handkerchief now a deep crimson. "My real name is Kraisa. You must be the first to call me by it."

The wind blew at her long, heavy dress and brushed her tangled hair across her face. She watched Pienya's mouth open and close wordlessly, like a fish drowning on the riverbank. A gull cried somewhere in the distance and the world seemed to be holding its breath. Kraisa felt a freedom return to her that had been denied for centuries: she'd denied her own identity even to herself, sometimes losing herself so completely in her assumed personas that she feared she would never find her way back out again. Anja had been the longest and most difficult, but the convenience of acquiring royal power had been too useful to ignore and Guijus had been too easily manipulated to not take advantage.

Revealing the truth lifted a weight from her back, even as it was itself a risk. But preparations were advanced and with Aera gone there would be nobody to prevent her from completing the work and beginning the process. This was her time now, just as it always should have been, before the others interfered and disrupted matters all those years ago. It had been a different time, but there was still a chance to go back.

At last, Pienya spoke. "Do you refer to the Headland warlord?"

"Yes and no. That is how the official histories refer to me. You must have heard more fanciful stories, of magic and gods and cataclysms."

"Children's stories," Pienya said quietly.

"The truth, as ever, is somewhere in-between." Kraisa took a deep breath, then turned and looked Pienya in the eyes. "I do not have time for doubt or disbelief or questions," she said, more sternly now, "I require your continued faith and service. Will you give it?"

"Of course," Pienya said quickly, "always."

"There are certain realities you need to understand, Pienya. There has been a lurking power to the north, beyond the mountains. It is no longer a threat to Lagonia. I have made sure of it. The real consequence of this is that Bruckin has no defenders. This conflict can be over before it has truly begun. I need you to travel to the line and lead our forces against the insurgents. Crush them completely."

"They are entrenched. The city is a mountain fortress."

Kraisa removed an oval device from around her neck, where it hung. "There is something else you should see, to fully understand how completely we control this situation." She clicked out the handle, then pressed the device to her palm. The claws emerged, and she separated it in two, then the armoured plates began crawling up her arms, the process shredding the fabric of her dress as it formed. The remains of the pretty facade of her previous life fell in pieces from the balcony, drifting away on the wind like ashes as the armour locked into place, finishing with the headpiece.

She looked down on Pienya, who was suddenly very small in comparison. "I know this is a lot to take in," she said, speaking slowly and non-threateningly. "This should assure you that I am not mad, and that the time of Lagonia being an isolated valley kingdom is at an end."

"How? How has this happened?" Pienya stared at the armour, and put out a hand to touch it, as if to check that her eyes were not deceiving her.

"It has been happening for centuries," Kraisa said. "You have the good fortune of existing at its end."

Pienya put out a hand to steady herself on the balcony rail. "This is all connected to Seldon," she said. "And Kirya disappearing. And Fenris."

"Correct," Kraisa said, the armour adjusting smoothly with her movements, sounding nothing like the clanking of traditional plates. "They have all been in thrall to Aera's influence, one way or another. Though Kirya was all mine, in the end."

Pienya hesitated. "Was she really your daughter?"

"She was," Kraisa said. "Though that was always a means to an end, at least once I knew her character would be of no use to me. She was a convenient tool. A vessel. A conduit."

"I always wanted to be her."

Kraisa grimaced. This sisterly competition had been useful, for a time, but it had grown increasingly wearying in recent years. "Nonsense. You wanted to be more than her. And you are. She had everything, but ultimately meant nothing. You, Pienya Martoc, have risen on your own. You are something special. You are a weapon."

She returned to the bedroom and unlocked a small wooden chest. "I have a gift for you before you go," she said, retrieving the two remaining artifacts from Seldon's journey across the Barrier Mountains. "These will aid you. Use them to end anyone who gets in your way."

As Pienya turned them over in her hands, Kraisa flexed her arms beneath the armour. Let the locals fight amongst themselves; it would be a useful distraction and keep them occupied while she completed matters below ground. By the time anybody recognised what was really happening, she would be long gone.

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