by Lindsay Smith
I will rule for a thousand years, and none shall defy my reign.
I am the sole queen of these lands. Sole heir to the winter and the forests and the streams, sole arbiter of the echoing city streets of stone. So many would keep me from my throne, my true calling. But I have earned my place. I have shown them all what it means to rule.
It started with my sister. From my first hazy memories I remember her shadow weighing down on me, stifling my every move. “One day one of you must rule,” our father said to us, night after night when we gathered at his feet. “If it must be one of you, then I will be the one to choose.”
How could we learn to be sisters with such a decree? All I wanted was a friend, someone to look up to, someone to whisper to at night to keep the darkness away. But I learned quickly that that was only the surest path to her scorn. She saw me as weak, as foolish, as younger. I would reach out to her to pull me up and she would shove me right back down. I would show her my weakness and she would pry it open wide, ragged and bloody.
I didn’t realize the significance, at first, of what our father wanted us to become. Didn’t know what it meant to be queen, or why it was something worth fighting for. But as I learned from my sister, I learned to covet it, to hunger for it so fiercely that everything else tasted dried out and dull. She wanted to rule so that all would obey her. I wanted to rule so she could not.
The first time she tried to kill me, it was my nurse who gave it away. She woke me up in the dead of night and bundled me into a closet, told me not to make a noise no matter what followed. Then the guards came, swords drawn, visors lowered. They were only boys infatuated with my sister, but at the time everyone seemed impossibly old to me, unstoppably strong. I feared them, but I believed my nurse invincible too.
They taught me, quickly, how wrong I was.
After that, my father sent me to the country for a spell. Armed guards, a fleet of tutors, and an ailing count who watched over me with a gaze like sharpened knives. Sometimes the threats came in letters that the count would burn before he thought I could read them. Sometimes, It was assassins in the night.
Worst of all, though, were the long silences. The heaviness of her inaction dragging me to the bottom, drowning me. I never knew when the next assault would come for me.
Slowly, finally, I could wait no longer.
I found the woman in the country market, slender fingers
grazing over her wares of pewter charms and crystals and bundled flowers. Her
skin was smooth, her hair like silk, and when she looked my way, I saw the kiss
of winter in her eyes.
“You look troubled,” she said, and the words wrapped around me like a soft breeze. “You look far too troubled for someone your age.”
I looked away then, ashamed to be so young. If I was older, if I was cleverer, I wouldn’t have to be sent away. I could prove myself worthy of the crown. I could beat my sister for good, beat her just enough that she’d never need attack me again. How foolish, that I thought winning once would be enough.
“Come closer.” She swept her hand over her goods. “Perhaps I might ease some of your pain.”
I started to meet with her every time I could sneak away from the count’s estate. It wasn’t often, but her lessons in the ways of magic filled me up with a sustenance I didn’t know I craved. I wanted to be her, to share her easy confidence and capability, to bend the world toward me with a subtle call the way she did. Her poultices cleared away blemishes and made water drinkable, but they also could boil blood, shatter bones, freeze a pond. She let me practice these skills as though they were interchangeable. She let me build on them, stringing them together like beads on a necklace, as I practiced on the woods beyond her hut.
The more power I gained, the more I sought. At long last, I understood the hunger in my sister’s belly. For now, I hungered too.
“You have a keen mind for magic,” she told me, when I worked something particularly cruel on a sparrow we found feasting on her garden. “A cruel mind. But I think a girl like you has to be cruel.”
“My sister is cruel. I just wish to survive.”
“Then I hope I’ve equipped you well,” she said. “Be like the wintervine. Feast on cold, on nothingness. For they have given you nothing. Use it to sprout your ice, your thorns.”
I looked at the wintervine where it flourished in the ice, and I felt its loneliness, its stubbornness, its scorn.
At long last I was of age, and my father sent for me once more. The time to choose was drawing near, but, he confided, in some ways he feared us both. His kingdom needed a decisive leader, yes, a sturdy leader, but compassion, too, he said, was called for. He did not see that he’d been the one to rob us of that. He didn’t see the dark seeds he’d planted in both our minds take hold.
My sister began her attempts anew, but this time, I was ready.
The first men she sent to kill me simply disappeared. They became nothing more than char burned into the cobbles of my bedroom floor. The next, though, I made sure she saw, their flayed corpses piled at the palace gates. Cruelty was my reflex, now, and each test made it stronger still.
“You cannot beat me,” she hissed, over a banquet table while our father entertained. “I deserve this. I will earn this.”
She cut her steak with a furious scrape of knife and fork. The noise grated at my soul. When was the last time she had shown kindness? It had been carved out of her, if it had ever been there at all.
Father wanted to make one of us a queen. He wanted someone compassionate. Maybe compassion was still in me; maybe not.
But it would never be in her.
As she swallowed, the lump of meat grew thorns. I could almost feel it myself as I directed it, as it swelled inside her throat, tore its way through her flesh. She gagged and choked, and I imagined she gagged and choked on all the hatred she’d let fester for years and years.
I wanted the coldness, the loneliness I felt to be visible
to everyone. I wanted those thorns.
Frost sprouted from my fingertips and webbed across the banquet table. She scrabbled for a goblet of wine to try to wash the meat down, but everything turned cold. A guard stepped forward—but she deserved no kindness, no comfort. I never felt her embrace, so why should she feel the same? He withered, cold and empty, before he could reach her.
“What is the meaning of this?” my father cried. “Stop this at once!”
But the cold was radiant, alive now, warming me even as it drew warmth away from everything. The dark thorns in my sister’s throat flourished, drinking up the cold, and twined their way across the table to wrap around everyone’s limbs. My breath hung in the air before me as I stood, untouched, unsnared by the darkness and frost.
I had to beat her. I could not let her win.
And if I could feel no warmth, no freedom without her darkness over me, then neither could anyone.
I do not remember what came next, but it did not come for a long time. Icicles hung from the chandeliers; black thorns sprouted from the walls. All was still and glistening and cold. I walked through the hall like a phantom, soundless, for it was how I felt. But I was all that remained of my sister’s hatred. I was her greed given form.
And I will rule for a thousand years. With this cruelty beating inside me, my sister’s words, her greed, her anger—with the coldness she left inside me—I will rule for a thousand more.