Till Death

Disclaimer: Nope, nope, nope.

Summary: At her coronation that shouldn't ever have happened, Estellise Sidos Heurassein smashes tradition and protocol to pieces underneath black banners that mourn their fallen king.

AN: This was written because at four in the morning, my brain insisted that I had to get out of bed and kill off Ioder. Super.

In just a couple of minutes, the crown would sit heavy and cold atop her head. It wasn't hers, wasn't meant to be hers, but it was there regardless. There was a time when Estelle had thought she'd wanted it, when she hadn't seen another option, before she'd known that she'd wanted something else.

How ironic, then, that she stood here now.

Two months had it been since Ioder took the throne; two days had it been since he'd succumbed to some unknown ailment, a faceless killer than had left him stricken with fever and then later, the hemorrhaging.

There'd been no time.

It came on too quickly and left his body ravaged. There was barely any time to send a messenger out much less to summon a healer who might have done something and within the night the young emperor perished, his final dying breath taken upon the throne he'd barely gotten to warm.

There was no one else, they said.

There was too much to do, they said.

The Empire needed someone to rule now more than ever, and to try and find another viable candidate at this point, they said, would take far too long. It would been the height of folly. This was her job, they'd said, thinking of kings while she mourned her dear friend, red-eyed and unashamed to cry in front of them. Flynn wasn't ashamed either; not to ignore his own station and her lack of and tug her close while he delivered the news, not while he mourned his own friend, the emperor who trusted him to do right and not easy.

It had been two days and never before had there been a more somber coronation.

Estelle had insisted upon the banners, black as crows and heavy as thunderclouds. This was no celebration, she thought as she eyed Ioder's bereaved betrothed. There would be no dancing, no merriment to take away the sting, at least from her. This was no celebration and she would not make it so.

This was the funeral, the wake, and the lowered casket all at once.

Yuri was there, darker-than-usual clothing matching Karol and Raven's perfectly. He'd been extremely upset to hear the news, fluctuating from sympathy and an indignant rage on her behalf by turn and hadn't looked away from her once during this fiasco, this necessity that Estelle had thought herself free of, and she took strength from him to stand tall and remember that she hadn't cried once since she'd first heard the news, not since the initial shock and mourning had shaken her tears loose.

She'd been so free for once.

Happy from her own making for once.

And here now stood Estellise Sidos Heurassein on a too-high pedestal in a dress of blue and gold but sashed with black, her own edit that no one had dared try and refuse her.

She looked beautiful, the dressmaker sad, but what good was beauty?

What good was beauty to a bird who couldn't fly, who would spend the rest of her life fighting for power and respect from men who hadn't shed a tear for their king, who thought of the country but left the people barren in his stead? Who ignored grief in favor of squabbling over rank and policy?

Just behind her, Flynn stood at attention in full dress regalia, his hands clasped at the small of his back, the glittering sword at his belt.

Oh, how he'd cried when it was just the two of them. After the council had filed out of her home like tin men and Estelle wouldn't have been surprised if they'd set it alight instead. How he'd cried, the pride of the knights, worn and put-upon and stricken with grief and for three hours they'd sat close together on her kitchen floor, silent and lost and afraid.

Estelle could not be prouder of him if she tried, and she envied his look of practiced stoicism when she knew her own was stark white and petrified. If a human was to be sent to slaughter, Estelle thought, this must be what it felt like.

This wasn't her place; she wasn't meant for this. Ioder had been so strong, and determined, and loved. He'd been good. What sort of nest was she walking into, one of hornets or one of lions? She wasn't suited for this and she knew it, and everyone else who knew her knew it too.

But what was she to do? She was the only other option and the council had been right about one thing: they needed someone on that throne, and she supposed that it was a step up that one of the major reasons cited would be that the people who be in panic and who would be able to calm them? The selfish part of Estelle had wanted to break down and beg, to fall to her knees and plead not me, please, not me, don't make me do this, but in the end she'd made the choice herself.

It hadn't even been a choice.

This was the part where she was to step forward, to kneel and swear fealty to her own kingdom, to wear that crown that wasn't hers.

It was time, everyone knew that too. It was time and Estelle knew what everyone was thinking because she was thinking it too. How long would she last? How long would it be before she let herself submit to whatever it was rulers always seemed to succumb to, the good one to illness and injury and the bad ones to a lust for power that left everything in ruin?

What part would she play, the pawn or the queen?

Estelle missed her cue and continued to stand as silent and motionless as the body that had been lowered into the ground that very morning. Someone sneezed.

There was a pressure at her back, the press of fingers that urged her forward and she took the step, numb, to stand in front of the head of the council. He was a thin and bearded man who'd been most overjoyed to accept her initial resignation. He held the crowd in his gloved hands like fingerprints would hurt it, Ioder's crown, the crown that shouldn't have ever been hers.

He motioned for Estelle to kneel and she did not.

"What is the meaning of this, milady?" he hissed quietly, scandalized.

Estelle felt hundreds— no, thousands of eyes on her and she reached out to take the crown from him.

The hall was packed and the doors and windows had all been flung open for people to see, for those who'd managed to come on such short notice to see the princess-that-wasn't crowned. It wasn't just the people of Zaphias, there were a fair chunk of those who were clearly guild members, those people who hadn't been hers before this whole thing started and now they were. They would all be hers, people for her to watch over, to look out for, to remember and notice and know.

She fiddled with the shiny twist of metal in her hands.

"The duty of a ruler," she began, her voice shaky and strengthening further from the look of shock and approval that she could see written all over Yuri's face, "Is to take care of her people. To care for them—to protect them, to make sure that voices are heard no matter how small and no matter how frightened."

"Lady Estellise, what are you doing—?!"

Estelle raised her voice over his and continued, "I am one person who will represent thousands. Your words will be my words, your actions my actions. You are the ones who shape this country, this planet, this future, and I'm…I am honored to share it. If I am going to be crowned, it will be by the people or not at all."

Estelle bowed her head to the masses, some seated and some standing but all staring. She looked up to meet those stares.

"It doesn't matter who it is," she said, voice ringing solidly like she'd never heard it before, "Man, woman, child. Choose your representative and it will be so."

The head of the council sputtered against the backdrop of absolute silence as Estelle stepped off of her pedestal, Flynn's footsteps a heartbeat behind hers, and sank to the floor, to kneel before her people in a flutter of whispering fabric and whispering voices.

She closed her eyes and tried to block it out, the scandal, the horror. Because this was new, this was her, and if she was going to be given this power then she was damn well going to use it honestly and as it ought to be used.

If she was going to be here, then she would be here with everything she had and everything she was.

She kept her head bowed low when footsteps approached amidst the hushed go on, thens and nudges of encouragement, and she felt hands reach out to gently take the crown from her.

Estelle couldn't resist looking up and somehow, she couldn't even manage to muster up some surprise at the vision of Yuri, tall and serious, standing over her. His eyes were warm and proud as he looked from her to the gem-encrusted crown that he held, and Estelle felt something in her heart loosen, just a little bit, from its cage.

He was proud of her. He believed in her.

Maybe, maybe she could do this.

"I crown thee, Estellise Sidos Heurassein," he said quietly and reached out to set Ioder's crown gently upon her head, "Estelle. Trust me, you're going to be wonderful." Going against all the protocol that Estelle hadn't already destroyed entirely, Yuri bent down to brush his lips to her hair and Estelle felt something shift like it was sliding into place.

There was something that couldn't have been more perfect in the people choosing Yuri, her Yuri, to make the royal dunce a queen. Something beautiful, ironic, and maybe sad set apart from the rest of the sorrow that covered everything else in this world, that it took this long.

The crown sat heavy and cold on her head and Estelle felt heavy when she stood, even when she felt Flynn's fingers solidly at her back, warmth even then in cold.

Without a word, he walked around her to stand next to Yuri and as if they'd practiced (but they couldn't have, couldn't ever have), the two of them sunk down in a perfectly matched, synchronized bow. More than a knight, more than a guild leader, more than a friend. Estelle choked on her own breath.

The black banners overhead loomed like ghosts in an otherwise bright room, what should have been celebration dampened by death and pain and fear.

Slowly, the people stepped out of their silence and began to clap, to cheer, to bow to her themselves.

Only then, stunned and honored and still so sad, did Estelle begin to cry.

AN2: Thank you for reading! If you have anything at all to say about this, please leave me a review! I'd love to hear what you have to say.