Long ago, in a kingdom nestled east of the sea in the foothills of the mountains, King Vladimir stood alone on the balcony off of his chambers. As the morning sun began its ascent over Chernov Palace, he marveled at the beauty of the lands that comprised Lenskaya, his kingdom. The terrain included a fertile valley with bountiful crops and a shoreline with access to ample catches. His people were prosperous.
But concern monopolized Vladimir’s thoughts. King Yuri, in the northern kingdom of Rostislav, coveted Lenskaya’s riches. The man was ferocious and not averse to hiring mercenaries to rob the kingdom of its assets. Vladimir’s own army was well trained, his soldiers fierce and loyal, but the number of men he commanded was no match for the threats that lurked beyond Lenskaya’s borders. He needed an ally that also sought to resist Yuri’s advances—a kingdom with a skilled, fully equipped army.
Vladimir looked toward the mountain east of Lenskaya. The kingdom of Slavansk occupied the valley just beyond its crest. The two sovereignties had peacefully coexisted for hundreds of years. Citizens from both kingdoms frequently traveled across the mountain to trade goods and services. The route was well established, with tradesmen safely making the journey for centuries.
Recently, the mountain passage had become perilous. Thieves attacked and looted merchant caravans. Only yesterday, a messenger arrived with news of a brutal strike that killed several men. It was a matter of time before the robbers became more brazen and pillaged outlying settlements in both kingdoms.
Vladimir thought of Slavansk’s queen, Roksana, and he was struck with a pang of fear for her safety. He’d known her since they were children. As the only heir to Slavansk’s throne, she was crowned queen at an early age, when her parents died from the plague. That day, Vladimir made a pledge to himself—to stand behind Roksana and defend her against all threats, no matter the cost to himself. Although he hadn’t admitted it to his brother Pavel, Vladimir was deeply in love with Roksana and had been for many years.
During the morning briefing with Pavel, Vladimir voiced his concerns. “The trade route to Slavansk is becoming more dangerous. This recent attack is the third assault within a fortnight. It’s in our best interest to guard the mountain passageway.”
“Agreed,” Pavel replied. “But adequately patrolling the route would put great demands on our army and weaken our defense against Yuri.”
“I’m certain Queen Roksana has the same concerns,” Vladimir said.
“Perhaps it’s time to take our alliance with Slavansk to the next level,” Pavel suggested.
Vladimir studied his brother. “How so?”
“By joining our kingdoms through marriage.”
Vladimir’s heart pounded at the thought of being Roksana’s husband—a dream he’d never dared visualize. But now, their betrothal made sense. Merging the kingdoms through a royal union would strengthen them both against their common enemies. Since their inhabitants were descendants of the Rus’ people, their heritages and cultures were similar.
As he pondered the idea, Vladimir suddenly frowned and met his brother’s gaze with a pained nod. “Is it your desire to marry Roksana?”
“Not me, Vlad.” Pavel laughed and clapped his brother’s shoulder. “I’m suggesting that you marry Roksana. You are the king. An equal match for her highness. She is young enough to bear your children, and the bond between our kingdoms will be stronger when the son of Vladimir and Roksana takes the throne to rule both Slavansk and Lenskaya.”
Vladimir breathed deeply. “Do you think she’d agree to marry me?”
“There’s only one way to find out. You must journey to Slavansk with a proposal.”
The Khovansky family had ruled the kingdom of Slavansk for generations with firmness and tenacity, as Roksana did now. She was proud of her reputation as a fair and honest ruler. Lately, however, she wondered if these traits cast her as weak. Ruffians were getting bolder. Only two days had passed since they raided a convoy of Slavansk traders as it passed over the mountain to Lenskaya. Since then, her council members reported rumors of fear among the people and a growing reluctance to leave the kingdom’s boundaries.
“I’m concerned about the attacks on our trade route,” Roksana said to her chief advisor, Tatiana, as they sat at the desk in her palace’s council chamber. “Our people are wary, and I understand why. But their lives will become bleak if we halt our interactions with Lenskaya. Wheat farmers and woodcutters need buyers for their products. And we rely on the salted fish and fruits supplied by our neighbor.”
“My queen, another may share your unease,” Tatiana said, handing Roksana a sealed parchment. “A messenger delivered this today from King Vladimir.”
Roksana broke the seal and opened the correspondence. “He plans to visit and requests I hold a private council with him. He doesn’t state the subject of our meeting, but I’m certain he wishes to discuss the hold-ups on the mountain passage.” Roksana’s eyes clouded with anxiety as she peered at Tatiana. “I pray his entourage makes the crossing without harm.”
“Don’t worry, my queen.” Tatiana grasped her hand. “The royal guards will ensure his safety. When does he arrive?”
Tatiana nodded and stood. “I’ll make the arrangements.”
Roksana reached for the pitcher on her desk and poured two glasses of ale. She handed one to Tatiana. “You know I trust Vladimir with my life.”
“You love him,” Tatiana said, grinning. “I see it when you speak of him.”
Roksana sighed, blushing. “I can’t hide anything from you and your magic. But it’s Pavel who concerns me. He seems more driven lately, as though he’s vying for additional power.”
“He’s taken a mistress named Karina,” Tatiana replied. “She’s reputed to be a powerful influencer. Some say she’s a witch.”
Roksana sipped her ale. “Then when we meet with them tomorrow, it would be prudent for you to use everything at your disposal to ensure our guests aren’t hiding secrets.”
Vladimir’s safe arrival at Khovansky Palace flooded Roksana with relief. However, she was eager to be done with the pomp and ceremony of his reception and get down to business. When the time was appropriate, Roksana immediately extracted the king away from the crowd.
“Vladimir, I look forward to our meeting,” she said, taking his arm and walking to the council chamber. “Tatiana is joining us. Will Pavel be present as well?”
“He will, although—” Vladimir hesitated and turned to face her. “I’d like to talk to you privately at some point.”
In the council chamber, after they exchanged the usual pleasantries, Vladimir spoke first. “I came today because I’m concerned about the mountain passage connecting our kingdoms. As you know, the marauders are becoming more aggressive.”
“Yes. The increased number of attacks disturbs us,” Roksana replied. “They’re disrupting commerce between our people.”
“I’m prepared to utilize my army to guarantee safe passage,” Vladimir said, “but the soldiers I allocate to the trade route may not be enough. There is another concern I must also address.”
Roksana raised her brows and glanced at Tatiana, who stood by the wall behind Vladimir. “Which is?”
“King Yuri. I fear he’s planning to invade Lenskaya. Roksana, I assume he poses a threat to Slavansk as well?”
She studied the king, noting the lines of fatigue that creased his face. Roksana knew that, like her, the death of both his parents thrust Vladimir into his leadership role at an early age. Although he was a strong and equitable ruler, she wondered if he was driven by passion or obligation. Roksana had accepted the crown as her legacy, but the lust to rule didn’t burn in her veins. It was her duty.
“I’ve heard rumors of his desire to accumulate wealth and power,” she replied. “However, he covets the coastal lands of the sea, doesn’t he? It’s Lenskaya locked in his crosshairs, not Slavansk.”
“True,” Vladimir said flatly. “But what happens to Slavansk if Yuri takes Lenskaya as his own? Both of our kingdoms are at risk from this scheming tyrant as well as the outlaws in the mountains. I come today with a proposal.”
“I’m interested to hear your bid, Vladimir.” Roksana shifted her eyes toward Tatiana, who gave a slight nod in return.
“Our kingdoms may be able to fend off our enemies independently. But to do so, each of us would need to split our army between guarding the mountain pass and fighting off Yuri. There’s a strong possibility that neither Slavansk nor Lenskaya alone has adequate resources to protect our domains on both fronts. Therefore, I propose an alliance between us. One that unites our kingdoms.”
“A union between our kingdoms,” Roksana repeated with interest. “Are you advocating a confederacy?”
Roksana studied Vladimir’s face as he paused and grasped her hand. She’d known him her entire life. Vladimir consistently approached her with courtesy and respect, but he was reserved, operating from behind a wall that masked his emotions. Although he hid his true feelings from her, she knew he cared about her. But today, Roksana saw something in his expression she hadn’t noticed before—compassion maybe, or vulnerability—and it ignited her curiosity. She smiled, a tentative upturn of her lips, as she waited for him to continue.
“Roksana, I suggest a different type of union. One between you and me. Our kingdoms are allies, and you and I have been friends since childhood. I admire you… I always have. Our ruling styles are very compatible, and—” He stopped, and a blush colored his cheeks. “Neither of us is betrothed.”
“What do you envision, then?” Roksana asked. Her stomach twisted into a knot.
“Roksana, I’m asking you to marry me.” He raised her hand to his lips and kissed her fingers. Then he raised his eyes and gazed into hers. Pavel appeared at Vladimir’s side and handed him a small box. Vladimir presented it to Roksana. Tucked inside was an engagement ring—a large, pink, heart-shaped sapphire. Roksana inhaled. It was stunning. She couldn’t imagine any other ring could be more beautiful. But marriage? To Vladimir? His proposal was completely unexpected; it left her speechless.
“Our marriage would unify our kingdoms,” he continued, still grasping her hand. “We would rule jointly as husband and wife. And our children would inherit our thrones.”
But do you love me? she thought. “This is very sudden,” Roksana replied, her heart racing. “I’m sure you’re tired from your journey and would welcome a rest.” She paused and glanced at Tatiana, who tilted her head in affirmation. “Shall we meet privately in the garden, just you and I, for afternoon refreshments?”
“Of course, Roksana. I look forward to seeing you then.”
Tatiana led the king and his entourage to their guest quarters, then returned to the council chamber where Roksana waited for her.
“What did you sense, Tatiana? Is his heart true?”
“My queen, Vladimir feels intense affection for you. He loves you, and happiness would result from marriage to him. The problem is Pavel. Your uneasiness toward him is warranted.”
“Why is that?”
“The quest for power rules his heart. He plans to dethrone his brother and take his place as king. And he’s confident that he’ll accomplish this.”
“Could you detect his plan?”
“No,” Tatiana replied. “But I have a strategy to uncover it.”
Roksana leaned closer to her advisor. “As much as I desire to know what Pavel is planning, I’m reluctant to deceive Vladimir. He’s a good man, and I want to accept his proposal.” She sighed and stood. “But if his brother poses a threat to his throne, both Vladimir and I need to know. For our own safety, as well as the security of our kingdoms.”
Tatiana rose from her chair and took Roksana’s hand in hers. “I’ll be discreet. Once I’ve determined his plan, I’ll return to you immediately and we can advise the king.”
“Thank you,” Roksana said as she pulled her advisor into an embrace. “Go then and do your magic.”
As Roksana watched, Tatiana shifted into a ball of glowing light and drifted out of the council room.
To be continued.
Check out Part 1 of “The Kings’ Deception.” A Fairy Tale. Vladimir made a pledge to himself—to stand behind Roksana and defend her against all threats, no matter the cost to himself.Tweet
Written by Allorianna Matsourani