It is a tradition to keep our hair long in times of peace. In war, we cut it short. A ruler’s long hair shows patience and wisdom. We take pride in it, the devotion to our long hair shows our dedication to our people. Short hair represents chaos, it shows the people who are to blame for their suffering. No one in my family has cut their hair in eight centuries.

~ ~ ~

I watched through a crack in the door. The light caught on my father’s long silver hair as he gazed at the bronze hourglass on his table. The warrior king clapped an iron hand on my father’s shoulder and pulled his attention away from the trickling sand. “We must come to an agreement, and I suggest we do it soon,” the man said.

My father smiled. “You mean I must submit to your will? Look at your hair, so short and unrespectable. Our people have lived in harmony for centuries, but I cannot unite our troops in a war we are sure to lose. I have made my decision, now you must make yours.” He turned back to the hourglass and sipped his tea thoughtfully. “And I suggest you do it soon.”

Rubikez chuckled and looked at the door. Though his eyes were a warm brown, a chill ran down my spine. It was as if he could see me. I ducked away from the door as he responded to my father. “Princess Cassia, your daughter. How has she been handling the news about the Empress?” I froze. My mother? She was at the winter safehouse this month; I was supposed to be with her. The impending threat of war has set the whole empire on edge, so as the successors, my mother and I could take no chances. The royal advisor has assured us that my mother would be protected. So what happened?

“The Empress?” I sprung back to the door. My father had turned to meet the king’s eyes. 

“The Empress,” Rubikez repeated. “Oh dear, have you not heard the news? I couldn’t have been the first to find out.” My heart was pounding so loud that the warrior king’s low drawl was almost drowned out. “She was found frozen to death in the snow yesterday evening. My messenger delivered the news as I was traveling to your lovely little town. She says the poor girl must’ve fallen out of her bedroom window.” I stumbled back. Why would she do this? I could barely see through the crack in the door, my vision had gone blurry. My father collapsed into his chair, his face pale. Rubikez stood over him, his face expressionless. “The princess knows nothing of this?” 

My father shook his head. “Why was he there?”

“Your Imperial Majesty, I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“Your messenger. Why was he at the safe house? How did he find out before my own servants and messengers? Before me?”

The king smiled. “It seems you already know.” No. Why? All this for some petty war? What did he hope to gain from this? When my father didn’t respond, Rubikez continued. “Have you changed your mind, Your Imperial Majesty?” He placed his hands on the table and stared directly into my father’s eyes. Stone-faced, my father stood.

“I have not. I will never bow to you, a tyrant, a fool. I am an emperor. I must make decisions that benefit my people, not myself. You have no power over me or my empire. No matter what I sacrifice, what my family sacrifices-” his voice hitched. Tears were streaming down my face as I cried in silent agony. He didn’t continue. I looked through the door again to see my father slumped over his table.

“Father!” I shouted, I think. All I could hear was my heartbeat pounding in my head. He can’t be gone. Not now. Not like this. He’s just sleeping. Sleeping so soundly the world around him stops. Or, at least, I wish it did. Watch, he’ll take a deep breath. Any moment now. But he won’t. He’s sleeping, just like Mother. Just like Mother. I called for the guards. Were they down the hall still? It didn’t matter. I looked up at Rubikez. “What did you do?”

“What makes you think I did anything?”

“I heard the whole conversation. You’d do anything to be as powerful as us, but what makes you think killing him would accomplish that?” 

The guards entered the room. 

“The emperor’s tea was poisoned. Find the miserable servant who did this to him. Pray the empress makes a swift return from her visit to the winter cottage,” Rubikez commanded. The guards carried my father’s body out of the room quickly. “My darling, look at yourself. Close your mouth, you look like a fish out of water. I couldn’t talk sense into your father. He was too set in his backward beliefs. Your mother was sent away to the woods all alone to escape me. Clearly, the planning there was flawed. But you. You’re so young. We rely on the wisdom of youth for our own futures.” He reached for my cheek and I jerked my head away. He caught a bit of my hair and stroked it. “Your hair is so long, so noble. You’ve never known life outside of peace. But now you are to be an empress. The fierce leader of your empire. You have a choice to make, a choice that cost your father his life.” 

The last grain of sand tumbled to the bottom of the hourglass. 

I took a deep breath. “The Empire of Kaudrim will not violate the agreements made in the Treaty of Methes. We will not aid the Kingdom of Emazeh in a war against our allies of the Mipeth Commonwealth. My parents died to prevent a war we would surely lose. My first act as Empress is to ensure the Treaty of Methes stands. My people will see my long hair as a sign of strength, of wisdom. Kaudrim and Mipeth will remain allies. I will not start a war with them. I refuse to start a war with them.”

“Consider the conflict between the Emazeh and Mipeth forgotten,” Rubikez said. What? “It was a simple misunderstanding. We have no quarrel with our southern neighbors any longer.” 

All this bloodshed halted in an instant, but why? My father had given the same answer, and now look at him. What changed? 

“I- Thank you, Your Majesty. This meeting has been far more productive than I originally anticipated. I look forward to the coming years of peace.” I let out a breath I didn’t even know I was holding.

“Princess, ignorance is unflattering on you.” He drew a knife from his side. I stepped back, but he caught my hair in his fist. “You will not be going to war with the Mipeth, that much is true. But you have done nothing but insult my honor from the moment you entered this room. Accusing me of assassination? Refusing to support my country when you know we have done nothing but support yours for generations? Centuries of peace, all to come crashing down in a day.” He held my gaze as he chopped my hair off to just under my chin. “We are at war, Your Imperial Highness. I await your coronation.”