Chapter 29

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Tano's mind went back to the fires that had spread all over the capital city. He had seen them, even from the mountainous military base several kilometers away. Today was a quiet and peaceful day, but the smoldering signs of war were as vivid in his eyes now as they had been several weeks ago. He leaned against the chain link fence separating the base from the arid wilderness, hugging himself for protection against his imagined danger.

He remembered that day as vividly as when it had happened. The fire was consuming his own home and his own family now. It was the last time he'd seen his mother. And the crystalline monster that had murdered her... The thing's sharp, prismatic hand loomed over his face as if to crush his skull.

Tano screamed and landed flat on his back with a gasp. A deafening pulse echoed through his skull as his heart skipped around his ribcage. Within seconds, Joanna was hovering over him with a concerned, almost maternal expression. Tano clenched his teeth before his infuriation could burst through his sealed lips. Angleyans had killed his real mother. What right did this one have to take her place?

"Bad dream?" she asked.

"I wasn't sleeping."

"Sometimes the worst nightmares come when we're still awake." Joanna looked down at the city, whose fires had been doused weeks ago. "You've seen war firsthand haven't you?"

Tano nodded.

"Come on. We need to go," Joanna said.

"Where?"

"You'll see."

Tano had grown used to windowless cars and leary armed guards. Today, though, something felt particularly off. Instead of normal soldiers, he was surrounded by women wearing badges with gold phoenixes on their gilded armor. When the car stopped, they took him by the arm in perfect unison and silence. The Angleyans who had guarded him were always professional, but never as robotic as they were today. Even as the afternoon sun blinded his darkness-acclimated eyes, the women didn't slow down. Instead, they lifted him off his feet and dragged him like a ragdoll. By the time he was able to open his eyes, he saw a sea of colors he had never imagined before.

Row after row of immaculately trimmed flowers flanked the most symmetrical green trees Tano had ever seen. The stone paths on which he walked looked smooth enough to sleep on. The water flying over the half dozen fountains on either side of him covered the entire area with a cooling mist to abate the stinging summer sun. Even the walls, far from being plain, rough stone, were ornately carved and perfectly layered with granite blocks that were as much mosaics as they were building material.

"Where are we?" he asked.

"The Royal Palace." Joanna said.

Tano couldn't remember when exactly she had joined their procession.

"The main hall was destroyed in the attack but the enemy has been driven off and the Royal Consort's residence is still intact."

Tano's heart sank. He stared at Joanna for a few more seconds, waiting for the laughter that followed whenever she cracked a morbid joke. None came from the stone faced woman.

"No... you told me no one would touch me. You swore!" One of the guards slapped him on the cheek to silence him.

Joanna paused and her eyes went wide. "Oh no no! That's not what's happening. I promise. It's just the main building got bombed in the attack. The Queen doesn't have any intention of touching or doing anything like that to you. Promise."

Tano glanced at Joanna with wary, sharpened eyes. She looked sincere, but what did that matter in this nest of vipers?

Once the procession arrived at the improvised throne room, Tano found himself underwhelmed. He had expected a tall, imposing figure sitting on an even taller gold throne. Instead, he saw a short and thin woman sitting at eye level with him on a shiny but ordinary looking chair. She looked at him with bright, violet eyes and smiled.

"You must be the Dannic child," she said in a soft whisper. "Or rather, their Amazonian prisoner."

Tano nodded.

"Don't feel obligated to be polite. I know you aren't exactly fond of me, after all the things my people have done to yours."

"The Dans have done worse. What difference is it to me?"

Victoria grinned and raised an eyebrow. "Hmm, you do realize it's a great crime to lie to a Queen don't you?"

The accusation jolted Tano and he backed away slightly. He caught himself and planted his feet, maintaining eye contact with the Queen with straightened posture.

"You really have seen Dannic and Angleyan soldiers alike committing all kinds of crimes. I can tell as much just from how you carry yourself around my guards," the Queen said.

"I'm sorry if my body language offends."

"Nonsense. You're not sorry. You're struggling to even look me in the eye. And in your shoes, I don't think I'd be any different. If anything, I should be the one sorry about the sad state of your people. And I really mean that."

"I... beg your pardon?"

"We don't have to be friends. Temporary partners is a better way of thinking about it. You see, I don't like the state of my country at all. I'm sick of constantly commanding a nation that gleefully starts wars over the most trivial matters. This war against the Dannic Federation is just another such silly spat, and my people don't care that people are dying from it, as long as they're people that don't come from this very Island. To them the outside world is just a story of savage, inferior wilderness where lesser peoples roam. As long as they live on this insulated island, millions of colonials dying in a war they started is less important than the money flowing through the capital city markets."

"May I... ask a question?"

"Please. And just so we're clear, I order you not to censor yourself. I don't believe in punishing someone for words alone."

"If you find any of this... this carnage as hateful or ugly as I do, why haven't you acted before? Even from far away, I've known that you have sat on the throne for years. Why did you spend those years of power doing nothing? Are you not your people's Queen? Could you not have restrained them if you found their greed and bloodlust so horrible?" With each word coming out his mouth, Tano could feel himself shaking with frustration. And fear. Even with the Angleyan Queen's verbal consent, he could already feel the rage building up in her bright, purple eyes, bearing down on him like hot rays of summer sunlight. But it was done. The least he could do was hope for an answer before the insulted monarch had him flogged or killed.

To his great surprise, the Queen's only response was a weary sigh and slumped shoulders. "When I was a child, I used to wonder about that myself. My mother and sister both agreed the wanton murder and theft of land from the Mainland Natives, your people, was unacceptable and unsustainable. Every governing council meeting I was allowed to sit in, they passionately said as much. And yet, nothing changed. When I was crowned I had every intention of succeeding where my spineless mother failed. And yet... it was then that I learned the truth.

"No Queen rules alone. I can't build all of the roads, buildings, and ships this country needs just to feed itself. I can't defend this country from any foreign aggressors by myself. Nor does my crown give me any special strength to act in a way ordinary women can't. My power only exists because my people believe it does. And my people, like all humans, will only believe what they want. My power is only as strong as the people's belief, and people of every nation and race will refuse to believe they are the guilty party in any conflict. At least, not without seeing something with their own eyes. Whatever else I can't do, I still am this nation's Queen. They'll notice if I decide I'm going to ignore race when it comes to who I surround myself with."

"Seeing me," Tano said.

"If this goes according to plan, child, we'll both be much happier than we are now with the state of this country. I'm not letting this war distract me from our true enemies. After all, I highly doubt the Dans would have made it this far if they didn't have help from the inside."

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