Light streamed in through the stained glass windows of the throne room, illuminating the corners of the vast chamber and pushing back the shadows. Queen Saoirse of Hidaland believed the light was a metaphor, that perhaps she was bringing a new reality to the striven land. I might just as easily be shadow, we are not but how we are perceived.
The queen sat atop her gilded throne perfecting her best ‘I am but a woman, what would I know of politics?’ look. It was one that served her well, the Baron’s Alliance had been quick to assume she was weak and needed the affairs of state explained to her. Playing along was useful as it was all the more shocking when she demonstrated she knew more than the lords beseeching her to pass a law or repeal a tax. Saoirse had never attended court during her brother’s reign, being quite out of favour as the result of her marriage, but she had heard from Lord Nassau and others that he had been treated much the same.
They think they’re jackals on the hunt, the blood lapping at their tongues already. My brother was ill and stupid but I am still of half his stature in their eyes and all because I was born without a cock. “Tell me, Lord Merrion,” she interrupted the noble who had come to demand that she reduce the levies on cattle. “For the good of the realm,” he had said, neglecting to mention that his estates were heavily geared towards the rearing of cattle. “You permitted foreigners, a princess no less, into my city during wartime and gave them safe harbour in your own manor without consulting the crown. Why?” she demanded to know and allowed herself a thin smile as he squirmed under her gaze.
“Who stays in my own house is hardly a matter for the crown, they are no threat nor do they hail from lands hostile to the state,” he responded carefully before hastily adding, “your majesty.”
“But I think it is a matter for the crown, Lord Merrion, you see the Balusakans and our enemies would both pay dearly to acquire your guests and I am of a mind to give them up, for the good of the realm, I’m sure you understand,” the queen’s agent, the mage Oriana had reported to her that very morning after being held at knifepoint by one of Merrion’s agents in the middle of the night. His guests had fled the city but it seemed Lord Merrion had not been made aware of that just yet.
Saoirse watched him squirm for a moment, enjoying his discomfort as he considered what he might say before interrupting him with a dismissive flick of her hand, “I would hope that were I ever to be your guest you might keep better watch of me. They have already departed the city but I wonder, what exactly, you had planned for them.”
He wanted to sell them, of course, but to whom? Not to me certainly, that was his first mistake. “The crown appreciates your commitment to relieving the stresses placed upon this office and I have concluded that you must be rewarded.”
Merrion physically blanched at the news, “to be rewarded by the crown was a great honour, of course, your majesty, yet no such reward is necessary. I offer my most humble apologies to both your majesty and your office. Nothing of this sort shall happen again, I assure you.”
“On that we are in accord. As you well know,” she announced tartly, “Lord Dawson was recently dispatched to the front and is in need of new ideas to help turn the tide, I believe you are just the man. I also presume that you will not require one to make this a royal command?”
He stared at her for a moment, slackjawed, before, shaking his head like a dog caught in the rain, “no, your majesty. It is merely my duty to serve the nation in wartime.” He bowed and left the chamber, urgent whispering took hold amongst the assembled nobles and more than one look of consternation was directed towards the throne. She took note of those most aghast and those who seemed utterly unfazed, most notably Lady Gardiner, who had remained after the coronation much to her surprise and concern. They would speak and soon, she swore to herself.
Leaning towards Lord Nassau who stood beside the throne she whispered, “see to it that Lord Merrion is sent to a particularly volatile theatre. If the enemy cannot take care of him, see to the arrangements.”
“Certainly, your majesty, but you cannot simply send all your problems to the front and this little display will have made you no friends here.”
“No, but my husband is seeing to that. Lord Merrion will no longer need his manor, perhaps you are on the search for a larger home?” she enquired.
“The rains this season are particularly severe, and the roads to the south are not at all reliable. It is a sad thing that Lord Merrion must make the journey so late in the season,” he replied. Reward those who are loyal to you and they will surprise you, my brother never learned that, nor thought he needed to.
Whoever said “it’s good to be king” clearly never was. Being monarch entailed long hours of sitting on an uncomfortable chair listening to tedious entitled little men drone on about whatever miniscule matter presented itself before the court. She was not sure whether she preferred that to the shouting matches when the Barons took to winning arguments by yelling louder than everyone else.
Through it all, she could show no discomfort or unease, and was expected to be an expert on all matters presented before her for consideration no matter how niche the topic. Sitting alone in her chambers, the queen drank deeply from her wine and ventured over to the balcony, enjoying the cool breeze. After a moment there came a knock and she turned to the face the door. It is never wise for a monarch to have their back to the room, even with those they love. Especially with those they love.
“Prince Farlan,” she said with the first genuinely warm smile on her lips she could recall as her husband entered, “to what does your queen owe the pleasure?”
“Can a doting husband not simply wish to see his beautiful wife?” he asked, holding her close and kissing. He smelled of wine and worse.
“Perhaps after he has bathed,” she murmured, “what happened?”
“I suppose that’s only fair, this city’s reek tends to rub off after a while, even on princes,” moving away he helped to wine and rested his feet on the desk. She did not mind, respect for her office was not important, only respect for her, and Farlan had plenty of that though at times he might not seem to show it. They knew each other better than anyone, he knew all that she had done and she in turn knew what he did for her – the good and the horrid. “The food was delivered, all of it, and the rumours are spreading. They say down on the streets that the Barons are keeping most of it for themselves or selling it to the Balusakans for a pretty profit while their people starve.
“There are other rumours too… the people have barely seen you since your coronation and they say the Barons are keeping you prisoner in the palace.”
She laughed, “I think they’ll find that is my husband who fears too much for my safety, but we can use this, you must see that.”
“I know, I was counting on it in fact.”
“I might have known you would be the one behind it, thank you. Cancel all of my outside appearances citing security, the war and so on, and see to it that these rumours continue to spread.”
“Oh they will, of that I’m sure.”
“Excellent, now go have that bath before I faint,” she kissed him before he went, lingering on his lips for a moment as she considered how fortunate she had been to have him. She had been a princess when they had met, so why do I feel that it is I who do not deserve him?
Another knock came on another door and she opened it to find Oriana waiting for her with Lady Gardiner. The former checked the room, as she always did, though for what the queen could never quite say, before withdrawing with a nod. Once they were alone Saoirse and the aristocrat stared in silence at each other, searching for clues. Strengths and weaknesses. It was a great game of chess and each of them were thinking many moves ahead, or so she hoped. The woman sitting before her might disappoint her still, but the queen had heard many tales which made that outcome unlikely. Tales of dark trysts with lovers who had met grisly ends, an aunt declared quite mad and sent to live in a nunnery, thus rendering her claim to a great swathe of land invalid, and other, still darker stories. Whether they were true was, for the most part, irrelevant, what mattered was that people believed they were.
“Lady Gardiner,” Saoirse murmured at last, “it is most unlike you to grace the court with your presence for so long. I do wonder why.”
Surprisingly young given her reputation, she was a woman of angular proportions and the queen suspected elven blood somewhere in her line. Nothing inherently wrong with such a thing, but if it could be proven, her stature in court would certainly be ruined. I may not even come to need proof, rumours and lies are every bit as powerful a weapon as the truth.
“You have no doubt heard what they say about me,” she replied, and Saoirse noticed the noblewoman afforded her no honorific yet the queen said nothing, that would be to admit she was affronted. She was, but Diama Gardiner need not know that. “I have also heard the stories about you and your brother. I am sure we could, if we wanted to, destroy each other and all each of us hold dear, but why do that when we can help each other instead?”
The queen offered no response for a moment. If she truly knows what happened, I will have to kill her eventually. She must know that, unless she is referring to something else? Something my brother did that I am not aware of? Diama has my attention and she knows it too, she will pay, but not before I know everything she knows.
“What kind of cooperation do you have in mind?” Saoirse asked, keeping all emotion, all weakness, from her voice.
“There are many neighbours to my estates who have ambitions on my lands, regretfully for them I have ambitions as well. See to it that the crown is favourable to me in land and trade disputes and I shall give you all that I know on the other members of the Alliance. There may be… other matters which I shall of course, bring to your attention in due course.”
“And what do you know, precisely?”
“A great many things but as a show of faith, I would have someone investigate Lord Edward’s retreat in the mountains this coming weekend.”
“And what would my agent find there?”
“They can tell you when they find it, believe me, the surprise shall be quite worth it,” rising as she said this, Diama inclined her head to the monarch, her first show of respect throughout their entire meeting. “Think on it, you may choose to do nothing and if so, I shall bother you no further.”
“Oriana,” she called once the noble was gone, and the spy appeared after a moment, “you know the location of the princess and her companions?”
“I do, your majesty.”
“Go after them, join their company if you can but follow if that is not possible.”
“As you say, I will inform my brother to pack,” she replied and turned to leave.
“No, Oriana, your brother has another task. See to it that he is at Lord Edward’s estate in three days, he is to report back to me all that he sees there. Afterwards, your brother is to inform me of everything Lady Gardiner does, sees, and most importantly, knows.”
Oriana’s eyes gave away her emotions, she needed her brother, they had been together against the world for years. Thought it all they had been entirely alone but for each other and now their queen was splitting them apart, that was the price of service, she supposed.
“I wi… we will do as you command, your majesty,” she declared and departed with an abrupt bow.
Saoirse helped herself to another glass of wine before heading for the baths and her husband’s embrace. As she lowered herself into the hot waters Farlan nibbled playfully on her ear and they made love as Oriana, half a city away, cried in her brother’s arms at the thought of being ripped apart from her twin.
Maybe it is good to be king, being queen certainly has its advantages.
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