Elena the Ice Queen

“Hey, uyapiir…have you seen something like this before?”

“Just a second, Saamir.”

Brightly colored birds, summer visitors from Draserune and Istrianor, swooped in and out of the gardens. Reziva, seat of the Southern Arm princedom, was tinged by its proximity to the desert kingdoms for a few weeks out of the year before the harshness of the Ice Realm’s climate reared its ugly head again. Elena Kolenikova insisted on visiting her closest friend, Prince Velimir Milanovik, the minute a jewel-toned bird showed its plumage anywhere within sight of her realm.

Finishing a letter with flourish, Elena set aside her pen and turned to her husband. Saamir Almad, emperor of the Seven United Realms of Northern Cerulis, shaded his eyes so he could watch their three children and Velimir’s two sons fight with wooden swords near the obsidian fountain in the center of the gardens. 

Reziva’s palace was modeled after the queen’s castle in Suvid, though warmer summers meant that the architecture was much airier, almost like Elena’s palace on the coast. A dainty sky bridge connecting the eastern and western wings of the castle extended directly over the center of the courtyard, shading the fountain and some of the walking paths, depending on the time of day.

“What were you saying, uyapiir?” Elena asked. 

Her accent on the Iotorathi word for “darling” or “sweetheart” was still a touch too harsh. She wished she hadn’t resisted learning the language for the majority of her youth, thinking that the prevalence of the common tongue would force most other languages to die out. Iotorath was the cosmopolitan center of the empire—if any native tongue were to resist the slide into irrelevance, it was Iotorathi.

“Svana,” Saamir called warningly to their eldest daughter. “If you hit your brother in the face again, I’m taking your sword.”

Elena smirked as Svana grimaced at her father. Their daughter did, however, handle her wooden blade a bit more carefully after that.

Mihri,” Saamir cursed, his accent warm and precise. “And to think she can be so prissy when we’re at home. Now she’s out here swinging a blade.”

“She likes to outdo Daniil and Ilik.”

“Quite. Is the letter ready for Emerson?”

“Yes. He’s been asking after Syllian, but I’m not sure what to tell him. You were wondering if I’d seen something before?”

“Oh.” Saamir shuffled through some papers sitting on a portable wooden table next to his chair. “Yes, I found this proposal from one of my noblemen. It’s to establish a senate in lieu of a high council, so all the nobility across the empire can be represented. I was wondering if this was some new trend in political theory or something.”

“You haven’t heard about that writer?” Elena asked. “He’s been publishing a book every year about conceptual models for new forms of government. I think he’s from Stormfall. He’s called Arbane. Or Arbell. Something like that.”

“Hmm.” Saamir skimmed the proposal, his jade-green eyes narrowed. “The base of power would be broadened, certainly, if I allowed every noble family to be represented. More issues would come to light.”

“Especially from the Snowlands. They’ve never even had a member on your high council.”

“Indeed. I always figured they weren’t interested. The culture is so different up there…”

Elena reached over to hold his hand, closing her eyes, basking in the sunlight. “Is there some reason for a change? Are people unhappy?”

“Well…my father wasn’t exactly the best emperor we’ve ever had. He expanded our holdings quite significantly and then did very little with it besides rake in more wealth. I know the common people in Aeglivar and Ucconia don’t see many benefits from Empire annexation.”

“You should address that.”

“Would this do it, though?”

“I’m not sure. It might help. Aeglivarian and Ucconian nobles would be able to bring the issues in their districts directly to the table. Right now, they don’t have any outlet at all.”

Saamir read the proposal again thoughtfully. “This doesn’t say that the structure of the emperor’s throne or succession would change.”

“I never read the book, but I don’t remember hearing that the writer’s ideas were very radical. It sounds like an incremental change.”

“Incremental is good. It gives time to see if it works, I suppose.”

Elena opened her eyes to meet his gaze. “And it would give more people a voice.”

“Yeah. I’m not sure how this proposal got buried. It looks like he submitted it a few months ago.”

“Who knows. There will always be opponents—most likely some of the nobles who thrived under your father’s lack of accountability.”

“Oh, yes.” Saamir laughed. “And plenty of them will say that I took a radical as my empress. You should hear the way they talk about your mother’s politics.”

“She thought the monarchy should be benevolent,” Elena said, “and I wholeheartedly agree. If we’re going to say that noble blood somehow sets us above the people we rule, then the least we can do is be generous with that luck.”

“It’s an approach that seems to prevent coups, conveniently enough.”

“Well, from the common people, anyway. I have a few nobles who would love to exploit their peasants until they die, and they’re never happy with me.”

“You know something?” Saamir said. “My father and I never had a single discussion about the role of morality in leadership. Not once.”

“I think my mother exhausted all the philosophy out of him. He could never get her to shut up.”

“Did she discuss it with you?”

“Morality? Oh, dozens of times. My father, as well.”

Saamir shook his head. “All I know, I learned on my own. And it seems logical to me that people in power have a responsibility to protect those who can’t protect themselves. We have a moral obligation to prevent exploitation.”

“That’s why I married you, Saamir.”

He tossed her a sharp grin. “You’re making fun of me.”

“I’m not! I agree with you as fully as one can possibly agree with anyone. But you’re the one who said your nobles think I’m a radical.”

“I’ve always found your idealism incredibly attractive.”

She beamed at him. “So? What will you do?”

“Oh, I’m bringing this to the table. Absolutely. I’m just not sure how it will turn out.”

“It may be hotly contested. But you have to fight for what you believe in.”

“I know your views on compromise.”

“I say it because it’s true. People who act in bad faith will always use compromise as an excuse to cut down everything you want to achieve. Luckily, you’re not just a king, you’re an emperor. And your father was downright terrifying when he wanted to be. You have a lot of unused power in your hands, my love. Enough to counter anyone who feels their own power is threatened by the improvement of some peasant below him.”

Saamir gazed at their children for a long time without reply. Covertly, Elena admired him, as she often did when he wasn’t looking.

“Let’s be a bit idealistic, then,” he said. “The Empire could use a change of pace.”

“The entire North could use it. Let things go without progress for long enough, and the realms will start to fester.” Elena smiled cheerfully. “That reminds me, have I told you about the plan I’m drafting for basic income and free education?”

“No,” Saamir said, “but it sure sounds like you’re trying to offend my nobles.”

“Oh, to their very core, uyapiir.”

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