Jourd’Althea, 21st Decima
The shades were drawn in the top room of the Spire. Originally, there had been no shades, just a huge pane of glass stretching around the circular room, from where Athering’s current Queen could survey the entire nation; could be the first to see encroaching enemies.
Zardria had let her aunt have the more luxurious Queen’s living quarters and had stayed in her heir-apparent’s rooms, just two floors down, but this room she’d claimed for herself. Her aunt had no need of it, anyway, as this was the traditional Queen’s thinking room, where Athering’s leader would make all the great decisions that affected the world around her. Zanny was a puppet, a figure-head: she made no such decisions.
Well, she makes a few, said Zardria’s human side, in control now that Hecate was full once again. The Empreena had barely survived the Midwinter Banquet, and had secluded herself afterwards, before, during, and after the four days when Hecate was dark. She’d not had much to do: her agent in the kitchens had apparently met an unfortunate accident in her service and so Zardria had not had the means to use her Muerta’s Tears as planned. It was regrettable – she’d have to train a new kitchen agent and it was getting harder to find good help these days.
Making a mental note to find someone new for the job, she thought of Miranda, her drifter. The girl was still in the stables and none too happy about it. Zardria didn’t care – she was getting scores of information, whether or not Miranda chose to reveal it. No, the girl should stay where she was – this business could wait. Her opportunity to kill Caelum and frame Yarrow for it had left with the banquet. She’d have to find another way to put Yarrow out of the picture.
As long as Yarrow was compos mentis and alive, no one would accept Zardria’s rule. Much as she hated the truth of it, she knew her sister had to go or the threat of rebellion would always be present. A pity. Even Zardria could admit she’d be losing her best bellica, and perhaps her first regiment. At least there was Anala, who was almost as good as Yarrow. Better, in some respects. I just wish she’d talk from time to time. The silence is unnerving.
The Empreena sighed. So many people, so many problems. Ruling would be tougher. Mayhap easier once Zanny is gone. When was the soonest she could arrange for her aunt to meet Muerta? The Birthright Ceremony was one month away. Can I survive her insufferable stupidity that long?
Her eyes fell to the letter on her desk. It was the third in her recent correspondence with Lord Exsil Vis of Mt. Voco. She’d received his thoughtful reminder of her end of their bargain at Midwinter, and had sent a biting response.
My hands are tied until you swear Mt. Voco’s fealty to Athering, as you well know. Time is running out; so I suggest you get on it. Let me know if you require an escort.
Now she’d received his reply: I require no escort. You must send a messenger – alone, to show good faith – with the treaty, signed by you, and I will cooperate. I have no desire to set foot unprotected in a land that despises me so….
Not only would he not cooperate, he dared to insult the skill of her military forces! Zardria’s blood boiled in futility. The Battle of Voco had shown that while Athering’s forces trumped those of the island in quantity, Mt. Voco outstripped them with quality. The Battle had been Athering’s greatest military defeat in centuries.
So, now came the problem of finding a messenger. A bellica, preferably, or a majora. But my best bellica is not loyal to me…and if this is a trap I’d prefer not to send Yarrow. I want the pleasure of destroying her myself. As well, if Yarrow were killed with her current reputation, she’d be upheld in death as the people’s martyr. That wouldn’t do. She’d become an even bigger figure for their liberation. No, Yarrow must be destroyed utterly.
Besides, sending someone so emotional might just conflagrate things again. Yarrow undoubtedly harboured years of pent-up hate towards Lord Exsil Vis, not only for killing their mother, but also for that nasty card he’d played in the Battle. Zardria was rather angry about that as well.
Isidora Baker. She’d met the woman a few times, during the years when she was not so unilaterally hated. Los anos de aurum. Isidora had a way about her that made you feel she knew your every hope, desire, fear, and judged you not one pence for them. The feeling of being completely naked and accepted simultaneously extended to everyone, including Zardria. She and Isidora had never been friends, and for years Zardria had thought she’d hated the woman. She’d not discovered the truth about her feelings until recently, and had cursed her blindness. It had cost Isidora her life.
Had she sent an escort with the Queen Lynne, it might have not been boarded, and Isidora not captured. Had she acted when the news came, there might have been a chance to rescue Isidora before Lord Exsil Vis readied his people for the upcoming battle. Had she done any of those things, and more, Isidora might yet live.
But I might still hate her. In Isidora’s death, Zardria had seen it was not Isidora she hated but the circumstances which kept them apart. Isidora had already been promised to Caelum when Zardria had met her. That surge of loathing she’d felt had not been for Isidora but for being too late to claim her. Her hate was desire with its back turned.
Somehow she’d never felt the pain. She’d waited for the tears to come, but her face had remained dry these many years. Whether it was she, Zardria, who failed in human feeling or whether her other side, she could not assess. She’d been two creatures so long, she’d forgotten what it was to be fully human…and had never known how it felt to be a woman.
She shook her head to clear it of the mist of memories. Isidora was gone, dead a long while now. While she could hold a grudge against Lord Exsil Vis if she so wished, it wasn’t practical. She still had business with him that pre-dated Isidora. She couldn’t let her emotions rule her in this area.
Locking her mind to the task ahead, she pulled a piece of paper to her and began to pen a first draft of the peace treaty. It would have to be worded very carefully. If nothing else, Lord Exsil Vis was highly intelligent, and would undoubtedly find any loophole, no matter how small, and exploit it. Zardria was sure she outstripped him but caution was called for nonetheless. She didn’t want to be trapped.
As the previous Queen had been.
It was common knowledge that Lord Exsil Vis, her mother’s ex-Consort, had killed her. What wasn’t known was that death had occurred at Zardria’s bidding. Her mother had trusted too easily and too much – that was her problem. Even after the first attempt on her life, she’d been willing to believe the man could change and so had agreed to meet with him to negotiate peace between their nations. Her lack of foresight had cost the nation her life.
Who brings only two bellicas as an escort? An arrogant fool. Ostensibly to show good will, Zameera had gone to meet Lord Exsil Vis with little protection, knowing if he really wanted peace he would not attack her and trusting that if it was a trap, three bellicas, her escort and herself, would be more than enough protection.
Too bad she’d brought along Bellica Eradola as one of them.
That woman had been in Zardria’s employ. It was a good move on the empreena’s part. She’d eliminated both Bellica Catriona and the queen in one stroke, and came out blameless.
Bellica Eradola had come willingly to Zardria’s side, bitter over a past that had given her an undesirable name and a forgotten place in the army – the tenth regiment, the Auxiliary. Zardria had suggested, through the Chamber of Councillors to her mother, that the officers of the Auxiliary corps in the tenth through thirteenth regiments be made the Queen’s bodyguard as a permanent job.
That practice had quickly ended.
Though I intend to bring it back, with a bellica smarter, more skilled, and more trustworthy.
Eradola had been a stupid woman. Led on by delusions of grandeur, she’d believed Zardria’s promises of reward for her part. The first regiment, even. Imagine that!
Her only reward had been a swift trial and merciful death. After her fake escape and her heralding of the kidnapping, she’d thought her part was done. After Zameera’s death, however, an exile from Voco, a “Vocan courtier,” came forward as an eyewitness to the crime. Eradola had been tried as a traitor and hung. She’d forgotten how far Zardria’s claws reached.
I suppose it really was a bad luck name, Zardria thought now as she worded in a non-inheritance clause. She didn’t want Lord Exsil Vis’ children, if he had any, getting any land except the island-fiefdom that family had held for centuries. When Lord Exsil Vis married into an Athering family, which he soon would, it would cause a stir among the courtiers. This would shut them up, and keep her nation safe.
Zardria herself could not have children. She’d given up that aspect of womanhood when she’d become something more than human. She supposed, if she were the type to have regrets about anything, it would be this. But that bargain, together with the one with Exsil Vis, had given her all she wanted. She could not afford to live in a world of “what if”.
She did not think she was fit for pregnancy, anyway. A waste of seven months, in her opinion. She could adopt a baby daughter from a commoner family more than happy enough to give up their child for riches, and a pregnancy story could easily enough be fabricated. Seven months away from Athering would be a nice vacation.
It was all well and good. Infertility forestalled the necessity of consummating the marriage between Consort and Empress, which failed to interest her, anyway. Her relationship with Lord Exsil Vis was purely business, and he more than likely had his own choices for his bedroom. As did she.
Putting the finishing touches on the first draft, she then revised it several times before settling on a final version. Satisfied, she sprinkled sand over the wet ink and called for her attendant.
“Find the Bellica Anala and bring her to me. I have a task for her.”
The girl nodded and left silently.
Zardria sat back and smiled. Just because it was too dangerous to send Yarrow didn’t mean she couldn’t cause a little pain.