Youth – First Place
“My time’s run out,” Queen Isdron says. The dying woman is ashen, her voice steel. “Tomorrow you will be Queen.”
Although this frozen statue has raised me since childhood, her looming death doesn’t inspire grief in me. She’s a hard woman, feared throughout her land of ice. She summoned me here tonight with a final message. At dawn, the Prophets will perform the Death Ceremony. They will cut Queen Isdron’s hair to strip away her power.
“Come,” Queen Isdron commands.
I lean down so my lips almost brush her clammy forehead. She extends a hand smelling of rot and digs fingernails into my neck. They’ll leave crescent-shaped bruises to match the ones on my forearms and back from days past. My face remains impassive, just as Queen Isdron taught me.
“I made you strong,” she whispers. “I transformed a weak Veikur Skinner’s daughter into a Queen. You can’t fail.”
I nod. Sick as she is, the terror evoked by the sight of her is only slightly less potent than usual. Her hand drops heavy to the fur blanket covering her muscular body. I have been dismissed. Hooded Prophets escort me from the room.
Vinnukona awaits me in my chamber. Like all Veikurs, her head is shaved to deter her from rising above the strong. As the Prophets have proclaimed, hair is power.
Her face hints concern as she bows. Only Vinnukona can understand my feelings at this long awaited moment. Although nothing but a Veikur servant, she has always been reliable. She was there to stave off homesickness and to soothe me when I awoke from a nightmare. When I cried, Queen Isdron punished Vinnukona for defending me.
But Vinnukona is beneath me. Any hint of affection I show towards her is a sign of weakness. So, I ignore her. I stroke Blade, hanging at my hip, and stare out the window at the snow-covered city soon to be mine. From here, the hundreds of Veikur dying from cold and starvation in the streets are concealed.
I dream of my Veikur family for the first time in months. I dream of the night the Prophets summoned me.
Mama had just come home, hands coloured red from a day spent skinning animals. Sakla, my sister, snuggled up behind me on a pile of scrap furs. Through a crack in the door I could see snow falling, falling, falling.
Then, I couldn’t see snow anymore because the crack in the door was filled with darkness. The door opened and Prophets seeped over the threshold. I knew they’d come for me. Mama started screaming, but she was too tired, too weak. Sakla fought so hard, her shrieks for me bled. It was no use. The Prophets took me by the arms and said, “You are to be Queen, we have foreseen it.”
I bolt upright, clawing air. Vinnukona is at my side in an instant.
“Nothing,” I snap.
My mind is a traitor, showing me the faces of the scum I came from. Queen Isdron worked hard to raise me above my shameful past.
“Are you sure?” Vinnukona presses. She cares too much.
The weeks following the summoning had been painful. I even cried tears for my family. Queen Isdron spent much time curing me of the notion that I needed people. Now I know better. The Veikur are weak because of their dependence on others.
Dawn is hours away. There’s a rap at the door. Vinnukona answers it, returning with a parchment scroll. As she passes, she tenderly smooths a strand of hair sticking to my forehead. I smack her hand away.
Vinnukona’s mouth tightens. “I’m not the one you resent,” she says. “Shed this facade that Queen Isdron has created around you.”
“It’s no facade,” I say, mirroring Queen Isdron’s indifference. “This is who I am.”
Vinnukona exhales. “Surely you’re not that infected by Queen Isdron’s poison. Where’s the girl who swore never to become like her?”
I turn on her. “That girl was weak.”
“That girl could have revived this city with her bare hands.”
Ice fills my stomach, sharp and lethal. “How dare you question me! I should send you to Gilt-Prison with the rest of your Veikur family.” I spit the word Veikur.
Vinnukona hardly flinches at my threat. She has a way of looking at me that sprouts seeds of shame in my conscience. “You forget you were a Veikur once.”
I stiffen. “I’m a Queen.”
Vinnukona’s next words are quiet. “Hatred does not equal strength.”
I snatch the scroll from her hands. Three words march across the page in Queen Isdron’s rigid handwriting.
Your last execution.
I straighten my belt and turn my back on Vinnukona.
“Fetch my cloak. I’m going to Gilt-Prison.”
Gilt-Prison is where nightmares spawn. The walls drip defeat and anguish. The first time I stepped inside, it was to cut the hair of a delinquent rich boy. He pleaded as Blade sheared his hair, cutting his power. The echoes of his shrieks haunt my memories.
Queen Isdron awaits me in the shadows. She sits in a wheeled chair pushed by Prophets. Her wine-ringed eyes do not waver from my face.
This is my last test. Never again will her presence turn my knees to slush. My heart quickens. Years of tortuous lessons have led to this moment.
We navigate the catacombs to a cell packed as full as a Veikur shack. The newest additions force skeletal arms through the bars as we approach.
Queen Isdron indicates a curled figure at the back. I unlock the door and stride inside. As bold as the Veikurs had been when separated by bars, they scurry away like rats fleeing winter when I enter. Blade swings from my belt.
I shove the limp Veikur out of the cell into the harsh circle of light. She collapses before Queen Isdron as I draw Blade. The weapon has taken many lives.
The Veikur hunched in the spotlight looks up and the shadows slough from her features. I can see every detail, revealing a familiar face. Gilt-Prison stops breathing.
This mess of bones propping up scraps of skin is my sister, Sakla. The girl who kicked scrawny legs at the Prophets at my summoning. I freeze. If it weren’t for Queen Isdron’s bold presence, I’d have lost my composure.
Ever since that night, I’ve been conditioned to feel repulsed at any mention of my family. But here is my sister, an arm’s length away, and I only have an urge to weep.
She has changed. Scars slash arms and legs, blood crusts over stubble on her scalp, and she’s thinner. But her eyes are alive and I detect the spirited girl from my memories.
I know Queen Isdron is amused beneath that chilly exterior.
The last test. I should’ve known Queen Isdron would never leave without making one last scar on my soul, like those marring Sakla’s limbs.
I stand before the insensible Sakla, numb to the core. The sand in my hourglass is nearly out. I must act.
Am I strong or weak? A Queen or a Veikur? Who am I?
“Have mercy on me,” Sakla says, “The cold took my mother, the Prophets took my sister. Whatever I’ve done, my life’s punishment enough.”
She hugs herself and I see my own broken reflection. That could be me, at the mercy of a ruthless Queen. In a way, she’s part of me. How can I hurt a part of myself?
Vinnukona’s words from earlier disturb my mind.
“Hatred does not equal strength.”
As a Queen there’s only one option. Compliance to Queen Isdron’s rules.
Deep in my roots though, I’m a Veikur, and standing over this lionhearted girl, I can’t remember why that’s such a bad thing.
When the Prophets summoned me, Sakla did not crumble. And over the years, Vinnukona has risked so much for my sake. What have I ever done? Surrendered to the Prophets dictations and groveled before Queen Isdron. Maybe it is not the Veikur who are weak but me. Killing my flesh and blood will not toughen my skin.
Sakla says, “Please.”
Blade falls from my hand. “I cannot do it,” I say.
Queen Isdron’s face is unreadable and an icicle of panic skewers my brain. But I also feel a sense of release. For once I have done the right thing.
Queen Isdron stands from her chair, her infirmity momentarily gone. She plucks Blade from the floor.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
“Giving you a final lesson.” She grabs a handful of my hair before I can back away and wrenches.
“What happens when a Queen displays weakness?”
Queen Isdron raises Blade to my scalp and slices through the first strands of hair.
My screams resonate louder than those of the rich boy who met the same fate. My hair falls past my shoulders and litters the stone.
Queen Isdron murmurs, “You are weak.”
Beyond the walls of Gilt-Prison snow is falling, falling, falling.