Monthly Archives: May 2014
You did it! You made it all the way through the novel! Way to see it through to the end!
These posts will stay up indefinitely, so if you got a little behind or want to go back and re-read your favorite steamy section, feel free to drop in any time. I did receive a bit of feedback that publishing a couple of chapters every day was too much, so if I decide to serialize the next novel, I will consider changing the frequency. What do you think about new chapters once a week? Or twice a week?
Also, if you have a burning desire to own a copy of By the Queen’s Command of your very own, it is available electronically on Amazon/Kindle here. It is also available on Smashwords here. At this time, it is not available for purchase in hard copy form, but it may be in the future if there is enough interest. Be sure to let me know in the comments if you’d like to see it in that format.
Finally, if you’re inclined toward the darker side of fiction, consider checking out two short stories by Gayle Yukon, Little Head and Too Good to be True (links are at the bottom of this post). Gayle’s stuff is firmly in the dark erotica and horror genres – definitely NSFW, 18+ and not for the faint-of-heart.
Thank you for coming along on this little adventure with me!
Brenna lit a single candle on her altar, murmuring a few words of prayer and protection and asking for the Goddess’ blessing before packing her things into her medicine bag and picking up her staff. She felt confident that she could prove that the tea was poisoned and that Machieve was the culprit behind it, but would her proof be enough to dissuade his attempt to overthrow Alamara? Machieve appeared to have garnered enough support amongst the nobles to stage a coup, it seemed, and Brenna worried that her little presentation this evening would not be well received, throwing the kingdom into war.
The Grand Court had already begun when Brenna arrived, and Baron Machieve was addressing the nobles. “Friends, King Alfonse is dead and although we mourn for him, we must think about the future of the kingdom. Now, more than ever, we must finish the work my dear niece, Sonnette, started so many years ago. We must unite the kingdom once and for all!”
There was a smattering of applause as the crowd murmured amongst themselves. Alamara raised her hand, signaling for silence. “Baron Machieve, I keep hearing about the great dissent throughout the kingdom, but only you and Father Leonard have approached me with these concerns. Who amongst the populace feels that they are not free to worship as they choose? Who amongst the populace feels that their needs are not heard and met, besides you and Father Leonard, of course.”
A snicker rippled through crowd, but Baron Machieve seemed unfazed. “Why, Your Majesty, many of these good nobles present represent those who feel disenfranchised.” There were a few nods of agreement among those who supported the Baron.
“And you feel that, as a follower of the Old Ways, I am unable to deal fairly and justly with those in the kingdom who do not share my beliefs?”
“I merely suggest that King Alfonse, in his wisdom, consented to a merger, if you will, of the Old Ways and the One God when he agreed to marry Sonnette, and that even after she passed, His Majesty saw the benefit of not sitting the throne alone. You, too, have shown yourself to be a wise and benevolent ruler, and I wish nothing more than to see you succeed and prosper, of course.”
“And in your opinion, you are the most worthy to sit the throne with me?”
“I humbly suggest that I am the most qualified, Your Majesty.” The crowd erupted into a cacophony of chatter, with everyone seeming to talk at once.
“Your Majesty, I am of a different opinion.” Brenna’s voice rang out strong and clear from the back of the hall, and the chatter died away as all assembled turned to look at her. There were gasps and whispers as she made her way up the aisle to the front of the hall, leaning heavily on her staff and noting with relief that both Garan and Briance were standing to the right of the Queen. A small table stood just in front of the dais, as she had requested, and she stopped before it, facing the crowd as she began to remove items from her medicine bag.
Baron Machieve’s face was full of rage, but Brenna cut him off before he could speak. “My lords and ladies, I have proof that Baron Machieve poisoned King Alfonse and is attempting to poison Queen Alamara as well.” The room erupted in disbelief, but Alamara raised her hand for silence and Brenna continued as she removed a small bottle from her bag. “I have here a sample of the special, imported tea that Baron Machieve gave to King Alfonse every day leading up to his death and is currently giving to Queen Alamara. Many of you have witnessed as much, have you not? Unfortunately, the tea is made from a plant called Mothere, which contains tiny parasites which, when ingested, eventually kill their host.”
There were cries and shouts amongst those assembled, but it was Machieve’s words that cut through the din. “That is preposterous! His Majesty died of the Wasting Sickness. You said so yourself!”
“Indeed, I thought at first that he had. But that was before I saw this!” She poured a small amount of the tea onto a saucer and picked it up, hefting the lens into her arms and angling it so that those nearest the table could see through it. The gasps and cries of those who could see was soon supplemented by others jostling for a look. Even Father Leonard peered into the lens, backing away in shock and staring at Machieve in wide-eyed disbelief.
“This is absurd! You can’t possibly believe her!” Seeing the expressions of those around him, he continued. “You have no proof that what is in that bottle is my tea.”
“Perhaps not, but here is a way to test it. Priestess, I should like to look at this cup of tea the Baron has just brought Her Majesty this evening.” Brenna turned to see Briance stepping from the dais and moving toward her, a brimming teacup in his hand. She did as he asked and once again, the crowd saw the tiny, horrible creatures. Many began to physically move away from the Baron.
A shadow crossed Machieve’s face and Brenna knew that she had him. “You are an herbalist and apothecary. You could have easily poisoned the cup, or anyone else for that matter,” he said.
A disturbance at the side of the room interrupted Brenna’s reply, and she turned to see Yvette making her way toward the front. The girl looked as though she hadn’t changed clothes or slept since they’d returned to the castle the night before, and her sunken eyes and ashen skin made her look like a walking corpse. She came to stand beside Brenna, facing Machieve accusingly. “I swear before the One God and all those assembled that I have been making this tea and delivering it to Her Majesty just as the Baron instructed. If you go to his rooms, you will find a tin of it in his cabinet. I can show you where, if you’d like.”
The room exploded in shouts and calls. Alamara sent a squad of guards to go to Machieve’s rooms, while another squad advanced toward him, ready to seize him lest he try to escape. Machieve looked around wildly, but his supporters would not rally to him, most of them trying to distance themselves from him so as not to be found guilty by association. Even Father Leonard, once his biggest supporter, turned against him, calling for justice and an end to the treachery. Realizing he was truly alone and his cause was lost, he launched himself forward, a small dagger clenched in his hand.
Time slowed to a crawl as people screamed, pushed and tried to flee the hall. Garan surged toward them, leaping in front of Alamara to shield her and drawing his sword. Briance drew his weapon as well, moving to intercept Machieve as Yvette screamed and recoiled backward. Brenna stepped in front of her, raising her staff and thrusting the end of it as hard as she could into Machieve’s stomach. He buckled and groaned, collapsing to the floor as Briance and the guards fell upon him, disarming him and holding him fast.
Machieve raised his head, a look of fury upon his face. He glared at Alamara, who had risen and was standing before him. “Baron Machieve, despite your efforts to the contrary, I am the sole ruler of this realm, named by His Majesty, King Alfonse, upon his deathbed. As such, I hereby find you guilty of high treason, an offense which is punishable by death. However,” she continued as everyone in the room froze, anxious to hear her words, “there has been enough death in the kingdom to last for quite some time and my spiritual path teaches me to be merciful. I hereby sentence you to imprisonment in the dungeon until such time as I decide upon a suitable punishment for your crimes.”
The guards hauled Machieve to his feet, but he shrugged them off, making no move to escape and trying to muster his last shreds of dignity. He faced Alamara with a look of contempt but she returned his gaze evenly, no fear showing in her eyes. He leaned close, whispering through clenched teeth, “I will have my revenge.” As the guards led him away from the hall, he repeated the phrase, growing louder each time until with a final shout he was led from the room.
Brenna moved to Yvette’s side. She had fallen as she tried to back away from Machieve and was lying in a heap on the steps of the dais. Brenna quickly scanned her and realized with relief that she had merely fainted from illness and shock. She looked to Garan for assistance but he was already moving forward, scooping the fragile girl up in his arms and striding from the hall. Brenna murmured a hasty, “By your leave, Your Majesty,” and hurried after them as Alamara nodded her assent, Briance stepping in to stand guard in Garan’s place.
They entered Brenna’s rooms and Garan gently set Yvette on the couch while Brenna moved to her cabinets to make up another batch of the medicine to expel the worms. She worried that they had gotten too firm a purchase in Yvette to be removed, but she was determined to try to save her. The irony of trying to save someone who had once tried to kill her was not lost on Brenna, but as Alamara had said, her spiritual path taught her to be merciful and she was indebted to Yvette for leading Garan to her rescue. She would do everything in her power to save the girl’s life.
Yvette’s eyes fluttered open and she coughed weakly as Brenna approached. “Drink this, dear,” Brenna said, raising her head gently and holding a small cup to her lips. Yvette took a small sip, grimaced and shook her head, but finally drained the cup at Brenna’s urging. She settled back onto the couch and closed her eyes as Brenna took her hand, sending pulses of healing energy through her.
“Am I going to die?” Yvette whispered.
“Not today,” Brenna replied.
“But I will die.”
“All creatures return to the Goddess in Her time, but Goddess willing, you will live to see your grandchildren.”
“Grandchildren. I never thought of that.” A tiny, peaceful smile touched Yvette’s face and she slept.
The next morning, Garan opened all the curtains in Brenna’s room to let in as much light as possible, and they carefully lifted the couch and turned it to face the windows. Brenna covered Yvette with a light blanket and they moved toward the door, embracing for a long moment. A million words were spoken between them in an instant with only a touch, and then Garan moved away to return to the queen’s side and Brenna took up vigil beside her patient, watching and worrying.
Alamara breezed into the conservatory, escorted by Garan, Briance and her usual entourage of servants and attendants. Brenna noted happily that the older knight once again accompanied the queen and she could see the growing fondness between them. Although the need for constant vigilance and protection had passed, both seemed to enjoy each other’s company, and Briance had become an almost permanent fixture at the queen’s side, even more so than Garan.
Brenna stood as the queen entered, Yvette rising to stand as well. Several days had passed since Brenna’s dramatic revelation in the Grand Hall and Yvette’s strength and color was slowly returning. Brenna felt confident that she would soon be completely well, and she thanked the Goddess daily for being able to help facilitate the healing. Not only had Yvette’s health improved, but her demeanor had changed as well. She was quiet, shy and almost awkward now, unsure about the turn of events and wondering what punishment she would suffer for her part in the failed coup attempt. As Alamara approached them, Brenna bowed low but Yvette dropped to her knees in front of the queen, dropping her eyes.
“Let me look at you, dear,” Alamara said, taking Yvette’s hands in hers. Yvette raised her head to look at the queen and Alamara exclaimed with joy. “You look so much better than you did the last time I saw you! Brenna, you have worked a miracle!”
“Thank you, Your Majesty, but I am merely the channel,” Brenna replied.
Alamara urged Yvette to stand and they moved to a small group of chairs near the window. “You are too modest,” she chided, smiling at Briance as he took up his now customary place slightly behind and to the right of her chair. Yvette picked at her skirts nervously, trying to remain calm and composed as she awaited her fate, but Alamara noticed and reached over to pat her hand. “I’m glad we could talk here in the Conservatory. I have always loved this room and it is much less formal and intimidating than the Grand Hall, don’t you think?”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” Yvette replied, glancing at Alamara and seeing no hint of malice or disapproval on her face. She allowed herself to relax a tiny bit and stilled her hands.
“Yvette, I haven’t had a chance to tell you before this, but I am sorry about Victice’s passing. I know how hard it is to lose someone you love.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty. And I am truly sorry to you and to Priestess Brenna and to everyone for the awful things he did … we did … I didn’t know … his madness …” She broke off, stifling tears. Alamara nodded and said nothing, waiting for her to compose herself. “I have been so foolish, so blind,” she sniffled, finally.
“Our pasts are often full of regret and missed opportunities, dear, but I believe if we are truly contrite and we work to make amends to those we have wronged, the Goddess smiles upon us. That has certainly been the case in my life.”
“Please forgive me, Your Majesty. I am truly, deeply sorry.”
“I forgive you, Yvette.”
At Alamara’s words, Yvette looked up with a start, her tear-streaked face searching the queen’s expression. Finding nothing but sincerity, she turned to Brenna, the fear in her eyes fading to a tiny spark of hope. “Priestess, will you forgive me as well? I have wronged you terribly.”
“Of course, Yvette. I forgive you.” Brenna smiled to see the spark of hope growing in the young woman.
Yvette looked from Alamara to Brenna, her smile growing wider. “Oh, thank you! The blessings of the Goddess on both of you!”
Alamara beamed at her and Brenna. “Have you given any thought to your future, dear?” she said.
Yvette looked confused. “My future? Uh … no … I hadn’t even … I mean, I didn’t think …”
“Would you be interested in staying in Locallen? I am told we are in need of capable attendants here at the castle, and you do know how to make a good cup of tea.”
Yvette let out a little cry of surprise and clasped her hands together in joy. “Me? An attendant to the queen? Oh, yes! Thank you, Your Majesty!” The look of relief and happiness on her face caused Alamara to laugh with joy as well.
“It is settled, then.” She extended her hand to Yvette, who kissed it reverently and rose to leave, turning back at the last moment to clasp Brenna’s hand as well.
“Thank you, Priestess.” She said with such sincerity that Brenna smiled with joy as well. And with that, she hurried from the room.
“Well then, dear, that leaves you. Have you given any thought to your future?” Alamara asked.
“My future? No, Your … my friend, to be perfectly honest, I haven’t had a chance, although it would seem that my work here is done.”
“Well, I am in need of a personal physician and spiritual advisor, especially given the current state of the kingdom, it would seem. And you would be an admirable counter-balance to Father Leonard and his followers of the One God. Would you consider staying here, at the castle, with me?”
Brenna noticed that Garan had moved to stand behind her and she reached up to touch the hand he had placed on her shoulder. She was torn between her desire to stay here with him and her duty to return to the Abbey. “I would be honored to be your personal physician and spiritual advisor,” she said, “but before I can accept your generous offer, I must return to Streestown Abbey. Not only must I seek release from my duties from Mother Yoshiko, I have a promise to keep.” She thought of Lorianne and their conversation on the eve of her journey, another lifetime ago, it seemed.
“I understand, my friend, but I will miss your terribly while you are gone, and as summer is drawing to a close, it is best that you start out right away, before the weather turns. As it is, you will have to winter over at the Abbey before you can make the journey back to us. Are you sure you are strong enough to make the trip? Your imprisonment at Victice’s hand …”
“I am recovered enough to travel,” Brenna said, “and with your leave I will start out first thing in the morning. The sooner I am away, the sooner I can return.” She stood to go, her mind awhirl with preparations and plans for the journey, but Alamara’s voice stopped her.
“You will need a guide and an escort for the trip, my friend. Sir Garan,” she turned her gaze to the knight, who moved to her side and dropped to one knee before her, “you have served me well and faithfully, both in the past and in the present. Alfonse was wise to entrust my safety to you. Now, however, I release you from your duty as my personal guard and charge you to accompany the Priestess Brenna Samuels as she travels to Streestown Abbey and back here to Locallen. I feel confident that she will be in good hands, with you at her side.” Alamara flashed a knowing smile at Brenna.
“Of course, Your Majesty, but there are those who might still seek to do you harm.”
Alamara glanced up at Briance and smiled. “Sir Briance has been kind enough to fill in for you in the past. Perhaps I can call upon his good graces yet again.”
“It would be my pleasure, Your Majesty,” Briance said.
“It is settled then.” Alamara rose to leave and Garan rose too, coming to stand next to Brenna and joining her in a low bow before the Queen. Alamara pulled Brenna all at once into a fierce embrace, and Brenna hugged her friend back tightly. “No, no tears,” she said, dabbing at her eyes. “There will be time enough for that in the morning.” Taking Briance’s arm, she left the room, leaving Garan and Brenna alone.
They turned to face each other and Brenna moved into Garan’s arms. She tilted her head up to look into his eyes and saw the bemused smile that she had come to love and know so well. “What is it?” she asked.
“Your witchery has ensnared me again,” he murmured, leaning down to kiss her.
“I’ve done no such thing. Her Majesty set you to the task of guarding me. I had nothing to do with it.”
“Of course not. Are you ready for another adventure?”
As long as we are together, I am ready for anything.”
Garan pulled off his cloak, wrapping Brenna in it and she clung to him, desperate to hold him as closely as she could. After a long minute, she remembered the urgency of her still uncompleted task. She pulled away slightly, but he spoke first. “When we found your things beside the well, I didn’t know what to think, and when the Abbey said you’d left two days before …”
“My things? You have my pack?”
“Yes, and your staff. I’m surprised you made it as far as you did, too. What is that heavy lens for?”
“The Queen is being poisoned. I hope to use that lens to prove it.” She quickly recounted what she’d learned at the Abbey and what she suspected about Machieve and the tea he had fed Alfonse and Alamara. When she was finished, she struggled to stand, Garan supporting her. “We must return to the castle at once. Time is of the essence.”
“Especially now. I’m sure Father Leonard is already halfway back to the castle to report to everyone who will listen about all this. It may force Machieve’s hand or force him to do something desperate.”
“Alamara! Oh Garan, she is in danger!”
“I left her under the watchful eye of Briance, whom I would trust with my own life. He will keep her safe until we return, or he will die in the attempt. The bigger problem is how to get there. You are in no condition to travel quickly.”
There was a small cough, and they looked up to see Yvette standing in the doorway again. “Viccy has a wagon. You could take that.”
“A wagon would be perfect. Can you take me to it?” Garan was already moving toward the doorway, supporting Brenna with one arm.
“Sure.” Yvette turned and headed out to the courtyard again, turning to go around the side of the house to a small stable and barn.
It was still raining, but the thunder and lightning storm had moved on. Garan helped Brenna to sit on a small bench and hurried to catch up with Yvette as Brenna looked over the scene once more. There were dead and wounded soldiers littering the ground and a few moving among them, helping their comrades or scavenging armor and weapons from the fallen. Brenna could see Victice still lying at the base of her funeral pyre and she mouthed a little prayer of crossing for him, more out of obligation than any real sense of pity or mercy for him.
Something rattled and clattered out of sight, and then a horse-drawn wagon rounded the corner of the house, with Garan at the reins and Yvette seated in the back. He leaped down as it came to a stop, lifting Brenna gently into the back of the wagon with Yvette. Then, he climbed back up to drive, urging the horse into a brisk trot which sent them bumping and jostling across the yard toward the main road and the castle. Brenna pulled Garan’s cloak tightly around her, then noticed Yvette huddled miserably in the corner, trying to suppress her coughing. Brenna motioned for the girl to come nearer then spread the cloak over the two of them. Yvette gratefully leaned against Brenna and closed her eyes, glad to be out of the rain somewhat as Brenna gently took her hand to send some healing energy into her. She closed her own eyes as well and tried to doze as the wagon jounced along.
It was well after dark when they arrived at the castle, and Garan stopped the wagon at the stables, helping Brenna through a servants’ entrance and up the stairs so as not to attract undue notice. They urged Yvette to come with them but she declined, assuring them that she would be fine and slipping away before they could protest. As Garan helped Brenna into Alamara’s rooms, the Queen sprang up from her seat on the couch and rushed toward them, Briance at her side. “Oh, thank the Goddess, Brenna! You’re safe! Blessed Mother, what has happened to you?”
Alamara called for broth and bread for Brenna to eat as she recounted her tale, with Garan picking up the story where she was blank. Alamara sat in stunned silence at first, but as she listened a firm resolve settled over her features. When the tale was finished, she simply said, “We suspected the Baron’s machinations, but I would never had expected this from Victice. What madness the love of power brings. What is your plan, Brenna?”
“First, have you had any more of the tea?” When Alamara shook her head, Brenna sighed with relief. “I will need to mix up some medicine for you to help expel any worms which may have gotten purchase inside you. You already look so much better than I feared you would.” Brenna smiled at her friend and Alamara smiled back. “Next, I need to look at a sample of the tea under the lens. With any luck, it will magnify the creatures enough that we can see them. Then, we will have our proof.”
“I have half a mind to bring the Baron before me now and to confront him with this treachery. Treason is a capital offense,” Alamara said.
“Your Majesty, if I may interject, I think your priestess offers wise counsel. If the Baron can be exposed as a traitor, especially with irrefutable proof of regicide, his supporters will vanish and your rule will be unchallenged,” Briance said quietly.
“You’re right, of course, Briance. And thanks to you, I have many supporters who will rally to my cause.” Brenna noticed the look of affection between them and saw that Garan had seen it as well.
“By your leave, Your Majesty, I would like to put your priestess to bed,” Garan said. He helped Brenna stand and she shook her head as Alamara chuckled.
“Yes, if it is alright with you, I will take my leave,” Brenna agreed, “but I have too much work to do before I will sleep. If Yvette or the Baron brings you tea in the morning, will you have it sent to my room, please?” Seeing Alamara’s nod, she turned to Garan. “Where are my things?”
“In your rooms, if the guards are to be trusted.”
“Excellent well. Good night, my friends.” Brenna rose to go and stumbled with fatigue. Garan was at her elbow in an instant, steadying her. He shot Alamara and Briance a knowing glance, then helped Brenna down the hall to her rooms.
Brenna was happy to see her pack and staff on the table when she entered the room, and hurried to unwrap the lens, worried about its condition. She sighed with relief to see that it was unscathed and started toward her apothecary cabinet, rummaging through tins and bottles, and pulling down her tools. Garan moved behind her, grasping her shoulders gently and turning her to face him. She started to protest, but he stopped her with a gentle kiss and she sagged against him, letting him lead her away from her work table and toward the bedchamber. He began unlacing her filthy, damp gown and shoes and then scooped her up in his arms, carrying her into the bath and filling the tub as she made half-hearted protests. Finally, she conceded that a bath would be good and consented to settle into the warm, soapy water. With a mischievous twinkle in his eye, Garan stripped and climbed into the tub with her, pulling her to lean back against his chest. He bathed her gently, taking care to wash the blood from her hair, his touch tender and careful, especially around her wounds. When she was clean, Garan wrapped her in a towel and carried her back to the bed, and she was asleep almost before he climbed in next to her.
The day dawned clear and bright, with no trace of the storm that had lashed the landscape the day before. Brenna awoke with her head on Garan’s chest and his strong arms around her, feeling stiff and sore but much improved from the day before. She longed to languish in bed with Garan all day, but knew that she had much work to do to save Alamara, so she gently disengaged herself from Garan’s embrace and sat up, much relieved to find that the splitting headache she’d endured for several days had subsided to a dull ache. Garan awoke as well and noted that she was more steady on her feet and more clear-eyed than the day before.
Brenna set about her work almost at once, brewing up a mixture to start Alamara’s healing. Garan promised to deliver it to the Queen and to convey Brenna’s instructions that she should spend as much time in the bright sunlight as she could manage with her schedule. He left her to her work with a nonchalant kiss, but his concern for her was obvious. She reassured him that she would be working in her rooms for most of the day and promised to not go adventuring off by herself, and he left just as a servant entered the room carrying a steaming teacup in her hands.
“Her Majesty asked me to bring this to you, my lady,” she said, placing the cup on Brenna’s table.
“Thank you,” she said and began to set up the lens to do her experiments. Soon, she hoped, the truth would be known.
Around mid-afternoon, Alamara entered her room with Garan in tow. Brenna hardly looked up from her work, peering into the lens and scribbling notes into a small notebook. Her breakfast and lunch sat practically untouched nearby. Alamara cleared her throat, causing Brenna to look up in irritation, but then she smiled apologetically. “Forgive me, Your Majesty. I didn’t hear you come in.”
“It’s alright, dear, given the circumstances. What have you found?”
“Well, my suspicions have been confirmed about the tea. Take a look for yourself.”
Alamara peered into the lens and then recoiled with a gasp of horror. “Blessed Mother, are those things inside of me?” She put her hands to her chest, backing away from the table.
“I certainly hope not. Have you been drinking the medicine I made for you this morning?”
“Yes, and it is quite unpleasant, but now that I see what we’re dealing with, I’ll stop complaining about the taste.”
Brenna smiled at her friend and took her hand, sending a wave of healing energy into her and scanning to see if she could feel anything amiss. She was greatly relieved to sense nothing unusual. “Have you been outside in the sunshine today, like I asked?”
“Yes, and it was very funny to watch the ladies and gentlemen of the court squinting in the sunlight while I was holding audiences. I think we should all enjoy the outdoors on a more regular basis, don’t you think?” She grew serious then, frowning with worry. “Brenna, it’s all the talk this morning, how Victice went mad and tried to kill you. Everyone knows you are back at the castle, but most of them think you were at the harvest festival. The Baron has grown impatient, though. He confronted me this morning when he brought me the tea, insisting that I give him and his supporters an answer regarding the future of the kingdom and my intent to rule. I put him off until this evening and have called for a grand court tonight, at his request, to make my announcement. Will your proof be ready by then?”
“Yes, I will be ready,” she said, sounding more confident than she felt.
“Briance has gone to rally my supporters, to make sure there is a goodly showing of them tonight as well. Whatever happens, we will have the truth tonight and an end to Machieve’s machinations and political intrigue, either by his downfall or by war.” Alamara spoke with resolve and Brenna could see the grim determination in her eyes. The Queen left then, and Brenna marveled once again at how she had blossomed into the capable, confident monarch she had become.
Cold. Deep, bone-chilling cold that seeped into every fiber of her being. She had never been so cold, or in so much pain. She hurt everywhere, the worst of it in her head, her shoulder, her hip, her wrists and ankles. She tried to blink to clear her vision but found she could only open one eye, and when she did the world spun and heaved, causing her to retch violently. She was lying on her side in the dark, it seemed, but when she tried to move her limbs and sit up, she found that her wrists and ankles were bound. Lifting her head brought on another wave of retching and when it was finished, she lay still, her thoughts filled with despair and her misery complete. She tried in vain to remember what had happened, but could only recall leaving the Abbey en route to Locallen, nothing more. She had obviously been waylaid by someone, but whom? And where was her pack with its precious cargo?
There was the sound of metal scraping against stone and then the click of boots walking toward her. Someone grabbed her arm, hauling her upright and causing her to cry out, another wave of retching wracking through her body. When she had finished, a rough hand grasped her chin, tilting her face upwards, which sent another pulse of pain and nausea through her. She blinked, trying to focus the one eye that would open and gasped when she realized that it was Victice who held her captive.
“You’re still alive. Even better,” he said, his eyes glittering in the dark. Cold fear gripped Brenna again as she realized that she was completely helpless before him, bound hand and foot and without a weapon.
“Where am I? Why have you done this?”
“You are evil and must be stopped. I have seen it with my own eyes.”
“What? What are you talking about? Victice, untie me.”
“No, you will stay as you are. You are cunning but you will not fool me. I will put an end to your trickery.”
Even in the dim light, Brenna could see the madness in his eyes. “How long have you held me captive?”
“Three days. Don’t worry, though, you’ll be dead soon enough. I’ve sent for Father Leonard, but he hasn’t arrived yet, so I will have to fetch him myself.”
Three days? A tiny hope sprang to life inside Brenna. Garan would be looking for her! “They will come for me, Victice.”
“You will be dead before they even realize you are missing. Everyone knows you’ve gone to the harvest festival at that heathen Abbey, and won’t be back for a week. No matter, though. When Father Leonard comes, I will break the glamor you’ve cast upon him and he will see that I am indeed fit to be king.”
“What are you talking about? I’ve cast no glamor upon anyone.”
“Don’t lie to me, witch! I will be king!” he roared, his face just inches from hers and spittle spraying from his lips. He stood suddenly then, backing away and pacing before her, glancing at her warily. “Ah, but you are clever. You almost got me there, didn’t you? At least you saved me the trouble of having to burn down your entire filthy Abbey, though. I’ll grant you that. Burning one witch will be much easier than burning an entire compound full of them.”
Burning? Blessed Goddess, he was completely mad! She fought down her rising panic, struggling to think clearly, to stall for time, to find a way to escape. “Victice, where have you taken me?”
He smiled at her then, almost indulgently, but kept pacing. “Here is the proof that the One God smiles upon my endeavor. I come upon you alone, in the dark, just hours from my estate. The One God has delivered you directly into my hands without so much as a struggle. Can you not see how this is my destiny? And when the world is rid of you, when I have ended your unholy influence upon all those under your control, I will ascend the throne triumphant, truly anointed by the One God. None will challenge my right to rule the land.” He strode to the door then, opening it a crack and calling, “Yvette!”
Yvette entered the room, pointedly avoiding making eye contact. Brenna was struck by how tired and worn Yvette looked, her eyes smudged with dark circles and her lips colorless. Brenna knew she had been drinking the tea as well, and was disturbed to see how quickly it seemed to be working on her. “Blessed Goddess, please let Alamara have been successful in avoiding drinking any more of it,” she thought.
“Any word from Father Leonard?”
“No. I don’t think he’s coming, Viccy. What do we do?”
“Trust in me, my love. He will come. I will see to it myself.”
“What am I supposed to do while you’re gone?”
“You wait here for my return and get better. You will need your health when you are my queen.” He kissed her forehead lightly and turned to leave. “And see that you stay away from her,” he added, nodding in Brenna’s direction, “so that she does not cast a glamour upon you as well.”
Victice strode from the room, leaving them alone. Yvette finally looked down at Brenna, her expression a mixture of smug satisfaction and unease at the condition of the captive. She coughed weakly and shifted from one foot to the other, uncomfortable but unwilling to leave.
“Do you need some water or something?” Yvette asked finally.
“A drink of water would be wonderful.” Yvette left the room, and returned almost immediately, a cup of water in her hands. She held it to Brenna’s lips and Brenna drank it down gratefully, surprised at the girl’s kindness. When she’d finished, she looked up at Yvette and said gently, “You’ve been drinking the Baron’s tea, haven’t you?”
Yvette sat back on her heels and crossed her arms defensively, but made no move to leave. “So what if I have? He said I could have some.”
“It is poisonous. He killed King Alfonse with it and now he is trying to kill the Queen as well. And you too, if you are drinking it.”
“You lie!” She spat the words out, but they had no force. Brenna knew she suspected the same thing and pressed on.
“You know it is true, Yvette. You didn’t get sick until you started drinking the tea, did you?” As the realization dawned on Yvette, a look of horror slowly came over her face. “The Baron encouraged you to fix the tea for Her Majesty so that you would be blamed for her death, should anyone discover the treachery. And if you were to die as well, so much the better for him.” Yvette’s expression was growing more and more shocked, and Brenna pressed on. “Think about it, Yvette. He has already killed the king and is trying to kill the Queen. He will stop at nothing to gain the throne. Your life is worthless to him, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was plotting to get rid of Victice as well.”
Yvette sprang to her feet suddenly, backing away from Brenna with a look of terror. “No, you lie! Viccy said not to talk to you, that you would try to trick me and cast a spell over me.”
“That’s not true, Yvette. I am a priestess and a healer. I can help you and Queen Alamara. I have found a way to cure the sickness the tea causes, but I can’t do that if I am Victice’s captive. Help me escape and I will heal you.”
Yvette chewed on her lip, considering. “I can’t do that. Viccy’s men are all over the estate. They will catch you before you reach the hedge row, especially in your condition. And Viccy will know that I’ve helped you. He won’t make me his queen.”
“If you are not healed, you will be dead before you can be queen.”
Yvette gave an odd little squeak then and blinked back tears. She wore the most pitiful expression Brenna had ever seen. “I don’t want to die, but I cannot help you escape. I can do something, though.” She turned and fled through the doorway before Brenna could answer.
Brenna closed her eyes in despair, feeling miserable and helpless. From the pain in her head and her dizziness and nausea, she surmised that suffered a head injury of some kind, which she knew could have serious consequences. She was also blind in one eye and bound hand and foot on a cold, damp, stone floor. Could her situation get any more bleak? There was a rumble of thunder off in the distance which only reflected Brenna’s mood and the ominous situation she found herself in.
She dozed off and on, not knowing how long she waiting in her prison cell, until a sharp pain in her side woke her. It was Victice again, standing over her and nudging her roughly with the toe of his boot. “Still alive, I see. Don’t die on me just yet,” he said, using a small knife to cut the strap binding her ankles and yanking her to her feet. She reeled against him, her legs refusing to support her weight, but his cruel grip on her arm kept her from falling and he half pulled, half dragged her through the door and up a short flight of stairs to the outside. The day was dark, overcast and stormy, with rain-swollen clouds overhead threatening rain, but Brenna squinted against the light and stumbled along on feet that refused to cooperate. She was still trying to focus her vision when they arrived before a small hill and a knot of soldiers. She started to call out to them for help, when Victice spoke. “You see, Father? Just as I said. I have captured the witch.”
Brenna strained to look around and saw Father Leonard in the crowd, his face slowly changing from annoyed self-importance to shock and then fear. “By the One God, Victice, what have you done?” he demanded, an incredulous look on his face.
“I have captured the witch and will put an end to her entrapment and influence over you and everyone else,” Victice said. “Then you will see that I truly am fit to rule the kingdom, for I am powerful enough to withstand this harbinger of the Old Ways, even when everyone else is too weak to do so.” He pulled Brenna forward again, and she saw to her horror that the small hill they were headed toward was actually a large pile of firewood. She knew then what he intended.
“Father Leonard, by all the gods, help me!” she called, but Father Leonard just stood with his mouth agape, grappling with this evidence of Victice’s madness and afraid to intervene lest he himself bear the brunt of it. Victice hauled her to the top of the wood pile where a single pole stood upright and he lashed Brenna to it tightly despite her struggles.
Victice descended the wood pile, coming to a triumphant stop directly in front of Father Leonard. “Well, Father, what are you waiting for? I’m sure there is some formal ritual or prayer that must be performed before we set her ablaze. Start your incantations!” A flash of lightning followed shortly after by a crack of thunder not too far in the distance punctuated his words and he smiled, the madness glowing in his countenance.
“Yes, Sir Victice, of course … well, you know … there are steps to be taken … important steps … that must be performed in a specific order … in a specific way … before you can undertake something as … as … important … as this …”
“Then begin them at once!”
“Yes … well … these things take time, you see. We cannot just rush into this. The holy texts are very specific about how … these things … are executed. We must be sure not to anger the One God …”
Victice turned to Father Leonard, his face full of cold fury. “I am the embodiment of the One God. I am the One God come to the world. Perform your ritual or face my wrath.”
Father Leonard gasped and shrank away. Victice reached for him, then stayed his hand, a look of utmost contempt on his face. “And you call yourself the spiritual leader of the populace,” Victice spat, turning away. “Light the fire,” he commanded and a few of the soldiers moved toward the edges of the pile, working flint and steel to ignite the wood.
As tiny flickers of flame caught around the edges of the pile, Brenna closed her eyes and fought to still her mind. She called out to the Goddess with every fiber of her being, knowing that she would soon die and wanting to cross into the Summerland with dignity. She asked for protection and blessings upon the priestesses of the Abbey, both at Streestown and Charcond, and for Alamara, whom she loved like a sister. Finally, she focused on Garan and their love for one another. With her heart and mind filled with peace, she began to chant the ancient songs of crossing.
A deafening crash of thunder and lightning shook the ground and lit up the sky directly overhead. The soldiers and Father Leonard huddled together, thoroughly frightened, while Victice threw his head back and flung his outstretched arms toward the heavens, roaring with triumph. The sky opened then, and torrents of rain poured down, soaking everyone and licking at the flames crawling slowly up the wood pile toward Brenna’s feet and legs. The thunder and lightning continued its assault as everyone ran for cover except Victice, who stood near the strongest flames, shaking his fist at the sky and laughing maniacally.
“No!” It was a single word, shouted from across the yard, but it seemed to freeze time and space. Brenna opened her eyes to see Garan rushing toward her. He was clad in armor and surrounded by armed men, and as she watched they clashed headlong into Victice’s soldiers, engaging furiously in battle. Garan blocked a charge by one attacker, spinning away and shoving the man toward another as he continued forward, his eyes locked on Brenna.
Victice turned in time to see Garan rushing toward the pyre and moved to intercept him, his sword drawn and a look of fury on his face. Brenna watched helplessly as they hacked and slashed, both intent on killing the other. The rain had extinguished all of the flames except for one, which was directly in front of her and growing rapidly despite the storm. She turned her gaze back to Garan, changing her chant to one of protection for him, determined that her last thoughts would be of the love they shared and her last sight would be of his face, when another explosion of thunder and lightning shook the ground, blinding and deafening her temporarily. When her senses returned, she saw Victice lying on the ground, a smoldering hole in the middle of his chest and a look of disbelief on his face, frozen forever in death. Garan lie on the ground a few feet from Victice, but he stirred and rose to his feet, sprinting toward Brenna.
He was at her side in a heartbeat, clawing at her bonds and calling her name. She collapsed into his arms as he untied her, bruised, bloodied and drenched to the skin, but otherwise unharmed. The flame that had threatened her moments before was nothing but wet ashes and a tiny wisp of smoke now, having been thoroughly extinguished by the sheets of rain that still fell around them as Garan lifted her into his arms and carried her inside.
He cradled her in his arms, repeating her name and gently wiping her face with his hand. He kissed her desperately, tenderly and she kissed him back, tasting blood and soot. His fingers were smudged with blood where he’d touched her face, and she realized suddenly that she could see out of both eyes, the one having been encrusted with blood from the wound on her head. He kept saying her name, rocking her in his arms and thanking the gods that she was alive and safe, and she finally reached up to touch his cheek, to calm him and reassure him that she was alright.
“I knew you’d come,” she said.
“I wouldn’t have found you if not for Yvette.”
“Yvette?” She looked past Garan to Yvette, standing a little ways off, her face awash with a mixture of sadness and relief. She coughed then and left them alone.
As she entered the library, Brenna stopped and inhaled deeply. Libraries had such a distinctive, comforting smell, and this one was no different. Even though Charcond Abbey’s library was smaller than the one at Streestown, but it appeared to be well-stocked and she felt confident that the answers she sought would be contained within the shelves and stacks.
She located the books on herbology and medicine and began to search. She remembered the Baron telling her that his tea was a blend imported from far away across the sea, but that didn’t mean the poison was necessarily foreign. Still, her apothecary knowledge was fairly extensive, and she knew of no local substances that would cause the Wasting Sickness or produce symptoms similar to it. No one knew what exactly caused the Wasting Sickness, or if they once knew, that information was lost to the mists of time, but it was well known that once someone contracted the disease, death was not far behind.
Brenna had three goals – to discover what poison Machieve had used on Alfonse, to discover an antidote to that poison if he was currently using it on Alamara, and to find a way to prove that the Baron, and possibly Father Leonard as well, were trying to kill the queen so that they could assume the throne. She would not rest until she had found the answer to those three things.
Brenna read, researched and scribbled notes until well past midnight, when she found herself nodding off while reading, her nose bouncing off the open pages of a particularly large tome. She retired to her room for a few hours of sleep without even bothering to change out of her traveling clothes, but was back at the books before dawn the next day, so eager was her desire to find the information she sought. The Abbess and other priestesses left her to her work, and Agatha discreetly left meals on her little table for her, which Brenna picked at between research sessions. Her mind was constantly on Alamara and Garan, and the longer she worked the harder it was not to worry about her friends and what was happening back at the castle.
It was late in the evening when she found it – a reference to a strange plant from an exotic land on the other side of the world. The plant was called Mothere and the author noted that the locals claimed that touching or ingesting it caused one to wither and die. The author wrote that many in his party did not believe the tales since the plant smelled and tasted quite wonderful, and they had ingested large quantities of it, harvesting some to dry and bring with them. Sure enough, several months after their voyage was ended, all of those who had eaten the plant had grown ill, wasting away until they finally died. Upon further examination, the author found that the plant was covered with tiny worms, too small to see without magnification, that seemed to infest those who had eaten the plant, gnawing at their entrails until they perished.
Brenna was horrified, but it made perfect sense. When she’d scanned King Alfonse’s energy upon her arrival at the castle, it had not been the energy of a man with Wasting Sickness, even though his symptoms indicated that that is what he suffered from. This also explained why he seemed to rally a bit after she had sent healing energy into him. He was being eaten alive from the inside and the energy of her healing had caused it to subside temporarily. And now, the Baron was doing the same thing to Alamara!
She read on, searching desperately for information on how to expel the parasites and cure her friend. She knew that Machieve had been poisoning Alfonse every day for many years, but Alamara had only just begun to drink the tea, so perhaps the horrible creatures had not gotten purchase inside her yet. Finally, Brenna read something that gave her a bit of hope, one line the author mentioned about being able to find none of the worms in a tin of the dried plant that had been left open and out in the sunlight for several hours. She remembered how Machieve had insisted on keeping the king’s curtains drawn and his rooms darkened, and wondered if that was so the worms could grow more quickly. She knew she was grasping at straws, but it was all she had to go on and was worth a try.
Armed with her new-found knowledge, Brenna moved to a different part of the library. She needed a way to be able to prove that Machieve had poisoned Alfonse and was poisoning Alamara, and she had an idea. If there were tiny creatures in Alamara’s tea, could Brenna make them bigger, so that they could easily been seen? She knew there were lenses and devices that one could look through to see tiny objects – indeed, she herself had used them at Streestown Abbey when sorting sweet pea seeds – but Brenna wondered if there was another way, a way to actually make them bigger, not just to make them appear bigger. That would require a spell, or some substance that would cause them to grow and expand, and she dug through the books looking for such a thing.
Hours later, Brenna started awake, looking around in confusion before she remembered where she was and what had happened. She’d fallen asleep over her books in the library again, apparently, and it was now late in the morning of her third day away from the castle. She sat up, wincing and rubbing her stiff neck. She was no closer to being able to prove that the tea was what Machieve had used to poison Alfonse. She had a few more hours to search here and then she would need to start back to the castle, so she resigned herself to another long day and stood up, intending to stretch and relieve herself before settling in for more work.
On her way back from the privy, she met Agatha, carrying a tray laden with porridge and tea for Brenna’s breakfast. “Good morning, priestess,” the girl said with a shy smile. “How is your research going?”
“I’ve found some of the information I need, but not all of it. I need to find a spell or substance that can enlarge very small objects or creatures, to make it easier for them to be seen with the naked eye.”
“We have such a thing, here at the Abbey,” Agatha said. “I’ve seen it in Mother’s study.”
“Like a lens? I have seen one too, back at my Abbey. No, I will need something to make things much bigger than that.”
“This lens makes things look very big. Mother says it is a holy relic from the time before The Purge. Its magic is something I’ve never seen before.”
Brenna was intrigued. “Can you show me this thing?”
“Yes, follow me.”
They hurried to the Abbess’ private chambers and were admitted readily. Brenna apologized for the intrusion and brought her up to speed on her findings in the library, without going into detail about Machieve and his treachery, and before she could even finish her tale, the Abbess bade Brenna to join her at glass-topped table. She lifted the lid and handed an object to Brenna that looked very much like the handheld lens she had used in the past, but much, much larger. It was big and heavy, the size of a dinner plate and as thick as her arm. It appeared to be made of polished glass or mirror, and its surface gleamed and shone. When Brenna looked into it, she could see the tiny, fine grain of the table clearly, as though her face were right up against the wood, and when she moved the object slightly, she could see all the individual fibers of the black velvet lining of the table. She brought the lens closer to the material and gasped when she saw miniscule dust motes dancing about as though they were fairies in the moonlight.
“This is incredible! Where did it come from?”
“I do not know. Its true origins are lost in the mists of time, but it has been at the Abbey for as long as the Abbey has been here, at Charcond. The legends say that it was used by the ancient mystics in their healing and divination work. If this is true, it is only fitting that it should go with you.”
Brenna had been looking through the lens in fascination but now she looked up, catching the Abbess’ eye. Her expression told Brenna that she knew or suspected far more than Brenna had shared about why she was here and Brenna thanked her profusely for it.
“Will you be able to carry it back to the castle with you? I will wrap it securely so that it will stay clean and unscratched, but it is quite heavy.”
“I will manage. Locallen is but a days’ walk away, thankfully.”
“Very well. Take it with my blessing, Brenna Samuels.” She took the lens from Brenna, setting it back into the case and rifling through a nearby cupboard for suitable wrapping cloths.
“Thank you for your generosity, Mother. I will return it safely to you, I promise.”
Brenna hurried to her room, eager to gather her things and start her journey back to Locallen. She knew that starting out so late in the day would have her traveling in the dark for a good portion of the trip, but the urgency she felt at returning to save her friend and put an end to Machieve’s treachery outweighed for caution for traveling alone in the dark. Garan would be cross, most likely, but it was not like she was completely helpless. She had traveled alone, and often in the dark, long before they’d met and the road back was well marked. And with as many people as she’d seen on her journey to Charcond Abbey, she felt sure she wouldn’t be the only one making her way back to the castle late in the evening.
She said her goodbyes, thanking the Abbess once again and shouldering her pack. It was indeed much heavier than before, but Brenna leaned on her staff, determined to persevere. It was well past midday when she started out, hoping to reach Locallen by midnight. She walked for hours, hardly stopping to rest but making much slower progress than she had on her trip to the Abbey. The sun was hot and in her eyes for much of the way, making her trek that much more arduous, but she consoled herself knowing that she would see her beloved Garan soon and that she carried with her a possible solution to Alamara’s problem. She was relieved when the sun finally set and she stopped for a bit near a well, setting down her heavy burden and staff to stretch and eat some of the provisions Agatha had packed for her trip. She was tired from lack of sleep and from her labors and she found her eyes blinking, despite her best efforts. Hoping that a short nap would leave her refreshed, she leaned back against the mossy stones of the well and succumbed to exhaustion, closing her eyes.
Some time later, she snapped her eyes open. She heard, or rather felt, something that wasn’t quite right and her senses tingled. It was quite dark with what moon there was obscured by a thick layer of storm clouds which had rolled in from the sea, and Brenna suddenly felt afraid. She stood and looked around, but could see no one on the road and nothing to cause her to be fearful. It appeared that she was completely alone, although she was not convinced. Trying to shake off her unease, she hauled up the well bucket and dipped the dipper into it, taking a long, slow sip of the cold water.
Just then, she felt a presence behind her and she spun around. A pain exploded behind left ear, worse than anything she had ever felt or imagined, and she cried out, squinted her eyes against it and feeling herself reeling and falling. A heavy blackness descended upon her and she was unconscious before she even hit the ground.
Brenna hadn’t had much time to explore the entire castle, so she wasn’t completely sure where Baron Machieve’s rooms were located. A couple of discreet inquiries led her to a wing on the opposite end of the keep from where her rooms were located, and after taking a deep breath, she rapped lightly on the door. When there was no answer, a sudden surge of boldness seized her and she tried opening the door. To her surprise, it was unlocked, so she glanced up and down the hallway to make sure she wasn’t observed and entered the room.
The room was dark and cool, the curtains drawn against the late afternoon sunlight. When Brenna’s eyes adjusted to the dimness, she could see that she was in a sitting room very similar to her own, with a sitting area, a small table, a desk near the window and a door leading, presumably, to the bedchamber and dressing room. It was all quite tidy and tastefully appointed, and Brenna didn’t see anything unusual or out of place. She closed her eyes briefly, listening to be sure she was truly alone and reaching out with her mind to see if she could sense anything, and found herself drawn toward a set of large cupboards near the window.
When she opened the first cupboard, Brenna was surprised to see an apothecary that rivaled her own – bottles, bowls, bags, some empty and some full of herbs, tinctures, and potions; a mortar and pestle; scales; jars of ointments; and cans of powdered substances. This was the cupboard of someone who was a serious practitioner of the herbal arts, and Baron Machieve did not seem like the sort of person to her. She scanned the shelves, looking for something amiss but there was nothing strange or unusual that she could see. There were several well-thumbed books on the top shelf, including copies of all the standard tomes that healers, apothecaries and practitioners of herbology studied. Why had she been drawn to this cupboard? What was here that she needed to see?
Brenna closed the first cupboard and opened the second one. There was more of the same here, including some of the same types of items Brenna often used in her magickal work – small crystals and stones, a handful of colorful bird feathers, rolls of parchment, small bottles of ink, an assortment of bones from some small animal. For a follower of the One God, he certainly had a supply of items for Old Ways rituals and worship.
Just then, Brenna heard voices in the hallway outside. She closed the cupboard, turning around to face the door just as Yvette entered the room, followed by a young servant girl. They all stood staring at each other for a long moment, then the servant girl scurried from the room as Yvette rounded on Brenna. “What are you doing here?” Yvette demanded. Brenna could tell from her expression that she was hoping to use her discovery to her advantage.
“I am looking for Baron Machieve,” Brenna said. She kept her gaze even. As far as Yvette knew, she had been waiting patiently for the Baron to arrive, not snooping about in his cupboards, and Brenna didn’t want to arouse her suspicions any more than they already were.
“Well, he isn’t here. He and Viccy are in town, on business,” Yvette said. She still eyed Brenna warily.
“I really must speak with him. Do you know when he will return?”
“What’s the matter, priestess? Bored with your handsome knight already?” Yvette smirked, hoping to goad Brenna into anger.
Brenna ignored the barb and tried again. “Do you know when the Baron will return?”
“I don’t know. I’m not their keeper. Probably not until late tonight, after supper.” Yvette crossed the room and reached into the first cupboard, prying open a large canister and spooning some of its contents into a teapot on the table. She went to the fireplace next, retrieving a simmering kettle hanging from a hook over the fire and filled the teapot with water, replacing the lid and returning the kettle to the fire.
Brenna watched her work, having the odd feeling that there was something here, something she was just missing, when it suddenly struck her. “Is that the special tea the Baron has had imported?” she asked, struggling to keep her tone nonchalant.
“Yes, it is very expensive and very rare. The Baron is very picky about whom he shares it with. It isn’t for just anybody.” Yvette was trying hard to goad her again, but Brenna didn’t take the bait.
“I see. I believe he shared it with King Alfonse though, before he died.”
“He did. He said he brought the king a cup first thing in the morning every day before he died. He said the king wouldn’t let anyone else make it for him since the Baron knew how to make it just right. Now, he’s shown me how to make it for the Queen.”
“The Queen is drinking it?”
“No, she’s using it to dress her hair! Of course, she’s drinking it. I know how to make it just the way she likes it!”
“How long have you been making tea for her?”
“Just a couple of days. I told Her Majesty that it was the same tea the king used to drink, and she thanked me because she said it reminded her of him.”
“And you’re making this tea for her now?”
“Why are you so full of questions?” Yvette looked guilty for a brief moment and turned away from Brenna, lifting the lid of the teapot and sniffing the steam carefully.
“When the king was still alive, the Baron mentioned his special tea and offered to share some with me. If it is as wonderful as you say it is, I am looking forward to taking him up on his offer.”
“Well, you’ll have to ask him about that. This pot is mine.” Yvette poured herself a cupful and stirred in several spoonfuls of sugar, smirking at Brenna the entire time. Seeing Brenna’s expression, she turned defensive. “He said I could have some, as a thank you for taking over the job of fixing the Queen’s tea for him. He’s very busy these days, you know, and since I’m taking care of it now, he doesn’t have to worry about it anymore.”
Brenna knew that she was most likely stretching the truth a bit, but Brenna didn’t care. “Well, I suppose I’ll have to wait until tomorrow to ask him about it. Good day.” She hurried out the door to the sounds of Yvette’s slurping, intent on discussing what she’d learned with Garan.
As she moved through the halls, her mind raced. The tea! Was that the connection? Could Machieve have poisoned King Alfonse? Was he trying to poison Alamara as well? Was he really so desperate to gain the throne that he would stoop to murder? And was Father Leonard involved somehow? The implications of her suspicions were alarming, but she needed proof before she could accuse them publicly. She needed to get a hold of some of that tea.
She reached the opposite end of the castle, but instead of stopping at Alamara’s rooms, she headed to her own, pulling down her books and settling into a chair to do some research. What type of poison could cause the Wasting Sickness or at least mimic its symptoms? Alfonse had appeared to suffer from it for years, so the poison would have to be one that was slow-acting and would accumulate in the body over time, unless, of course, Machieve had slowly been increasing the dosage over the years. Blessed Mother, could he be that cruel and calculating?
She poured over her books, making notes and cross-checking references. After a few hours, she sat up, rubbing her eyes and stretching. The sun was beginning to set and Brenna rose to light the lamps so she could continue her research. She’d found nothing in her books about a poison that would make one appear to have the Wasting Sickness, but Machieve and Yvette had both mentioned that the tea had been imported from far away, so it was possible that the substance was quite rare and unusual. Oh, how she longed for the library back at Streestown Abbey! There was an entire room there devoted to books on the herbal, alchemical and apothecary arts, and she felt certain she’d find the answer she was looking for there. If only she could go there now.
As she sank back into her chair, Brenna had an idea. Charcond Abbey was only a day’s journey away, and they were bound to have a library she could use. She couldn’t afford the time it would take to travel home to Streestown, but a quick trip to Charcond was feasible. She jumped up and hurried to Alamara’s room to share her suspicions with Garan and let him know what she’d decided.
She knocked softly on the Queen’s chamber door and entered. Alamara was awake and looking well-rested, her color restored and a happy expression on her face. Garan sat across from her, regaling her with a humorous tale from his time away from the castle and Brenna paused for a moment to take in the scene, unwilling to disrupt the joyful mood. She was greatly relieved to see that Alamara was feeling better and she moved to her friend’s side, taking her hand and sending a burst of healing energy to her.
“There you are, Brenna. Why didn’t you tell me that you and Garan had traveled to Locallen together? He was just telling me about your encounter with the desert tribes,” Alamara said.
“Forgive me, Your … my friend, but I wasn’t sure how to tell you,” Brenna said.
“How did your visit with the Baron go?” Garan asked, changing the subject.
“He wasn’t there, thankfully, but Yvette was.” Brenna recounted her conversation with Yvette and her suspicions about the tea, ending with her research and decision to travel to the Abbey at Charcond.
Garan began to pace in front of the fireplace. “I don’t like it. You’ll be completely alone and vulnerable. If Yvette tells Machieve or Leonard about your little chat, they’ll be suspicious and could look to do you harm.” He was torn between his duty to Alamara and his love for Brenna.
“I will send a contingent of castle guards to accompany you. No one would dare accost you with an armed escort,” Alamara said.
“No, that will draw too much attention to my trip and we don’t want to alert them to the fact that we suspect them. I’ve traveled alone quite a bit in my duties as a priestess at Streestown, and I’m hardly helpless and vulnerable. It is a day’s journey there and a day’s journey back, but when I am at the Abbey I will be quite safe.” Seeing Garan’s look of protest, she continued. “Garan, it is now more important than ever that you protect the Queen. The Baron and Father Leonard are growing more desperate, it seems.”
“I will ask Briance to protect the Queen, or to travel with you.”
“No, Garan, it will arouse suspicion. I can slip away and return before I am missed. Besides, it would not be unusual for me to journey to Charcond Abbey alone at this time of the year. It is nearing the time for the Harvest Festival.”
Garan knew she was right, but he didn’t like it. He turned to the window to look out over the darkening sky, scowling. Alamara took Brenna’s hands in hers. “What can we do to help you, dear?” she asked.
“First of all, do not drink any more of that tea until I can be sure of what is in it. How to do that without arousing their suspicions, however, will be a challenge.”
“Leave that to me. I can be quite clever when I want to be,” Alamara said with a smile.
“It is important that they suspect nothing, so you must pretend as if you’re considering Father Leonard’s proposal that you marry Machieve or Victice while stalling them.”
“You ask a lot of me, my friend,” Alamara smiled, “but I am still mourning my dead husband and I am still the Queen, so I think I can manage to keep the hounds at bay, with Garan’s help, of course.”
Garan grunted in response and Brenna knew he was not happy with their plans. She rose to leave, intent on packing the things she would need on her journey so she could get an early start in the morning.
Alamara held her hand, staying her. “I am feeling better, but not so well as to go down for supper. Will you and Garan have supper with me here, instead?” Brenna looked from her to Garan, who had turned from the window and was looking at the two of them as well.
“Of course, Your Majesty,” they said, almost in unison, and Alamara smiled at her friends.
“Excellent well,” she said.
The next morning, Brenna rose before dawn, dressing quickly in the darkness and pulling her cloak tightly around her shoulders. Garan rose and dressed as well, handing Brenna her pack and staff and walking with her to the front gate. She pulled her hood up, both to ward against the damp ocean air and to shield her face from prying eyes. Garan gathered her close, brushing a tendril of hair from her forehead and searching her face.
“I don’t like this. I should be going with you.”
“Garan, we’ve discussed this. The queen is in much more danger than I am, and you are the best person to protect her.”
“How long will you be at Charcond Abbey?”
“A day, two at most. If their library is as well-stocked as the one at Streestown, I should have no problem finding the information I need.”
“Keep to the main road. It leads directly to town, and the Abbey is just beyond it. There are always plenty of travelers going between here and there, so you should be safe enough staying in the open. If you walk straight through, you will arrive just before nightfall.”
Garan cupped her face in his hands, kissing her almost desperately, and Brenna remembered a similar kiss they shared at the town gates, weeks ago. To part from him again, after being reunited, was almost more than she could bear, but she knew this was the only way to put an end to Baron Machieve and Father Leonard’s plans to overthrow the Queen and she comforted herself with the fact that their separation would be much shorter this time than the last. “Three days, four at the most,” she whispered against his lips, trying to keep the tears from springing to her eyes.
“If you are not back in my arms by nightfall four days hence, I will come for you.” He kissed her again, stopping the protest that rose to her lips, loathe to let her go.
Finally, they pulled apart and Brenna turned, slipping through the castle gate and off down the darkened street toward Charcond. Garan watched until he could no longer see her, marveling at how quickly she blended into the fading shadows.
Her journey to Charcond was blessedly uneventful. Brenna stayed to the main road, as Garan had advised, traveling as quickly as she could without drawing undue attention to herself. As the day wore on, she noticed others on the road as well – farmers and merchants with carts and packs laden with goods for market, a troupe of acrobats and musicians hoping to find a performance venue in Locallen, a group of guards on patrol, and a smattering of lone travelers like herself. She reached Charcond at dusk and continued on through the town, smiling as she passed the small inn that had been Garan’s home while they were apart. The sky was just beginning to darken when she arrived at Charcond Abbey and after her credentials were verified, she was admitted into its confines.
She had no sooner entered the grounds when the Abbess herself appeared, hurrying toward her with a cadre of priestesses and acolytes trailing behind. Brenna bowed low before her as she approached, as was customary for a priestess of her rank, saying, “The Blessing of the Goddess upon you and yours, Mother.”
“And you as well, Brenna Samuels.”
Brenna looked up, surprised that the Abbess knew her name. She’d just given it to the gatekeeper, of course, but word evidently traveled quickly through this Abbey.
“You are quite the celebrity to those of the Old Ways, Priestess. To be summoned by name to the castle to attend Their Majesties is quite a privilege,” the Abbess said, her warm smile putting Brenna at ease. “To what do we owe the honor of your visit?”
“Thank you, Mother. I am on an errand for Her Majesty and was hoping to make use of your library.”
“Of course. We are happy to assist you and Her Majesty in any way you require. Have you eaten?” The Abbess motioned for Brenna to walk with her and they moved across the courtyard toward a long, low building.
“No, Mother, not since midday.” Brenna looked around, taking in the sights, sounds and smells. A wave of homesickness hit her as they walked and she realized how much she missed the Abbey at Streestown, her home for so long. They entered a dining hall and the Abbess indicated that Brenna should sit, which she did gratefully, letting her cloak, pack and staff slide to the floor beside her bench. Soon, a priestess brought a bowl of warm, scented water, a cake of soft soap and a thick towel for Brenna to use to wash away the dust of the road. When she was finished, a simple supper of salad greens, thick, brown bread slathered with fresh butter and a roasted sausage appeared, along with a mug of a sweet, slightly effervescent juice that Brenna had never tasted before. She hadn’t realized how hungry she was until the food arrived, and she ate every bite while exchanging pleasantries and making small talk with the Abbess. She was careful not to say too much about her errand or the political intrigue at the castle, however. It seemed best not to share the real reason for her visit and thankfully, the Abbess did not press for her true purpose.
When she’d finished eating, the Abbess rose and Brenna did the same. “There is a room just off the library that Agatha will make ready for your use.” A young priestess picked up Brenna’s pack, cloak and staff and hurried away. “Will you join us for evening prayers in the chapel?”
What Brenna really wanted to do was go directly to the library to begin her research, but she knew it would be rude to refuse to attend the evening prayers, so she agreed to follow the Abbess to the chapel.
After evening prayers, Brenna found herself surrounded by several young priestesses who plied her with questions about life at the castle. She answered their questions about the feasts, balls, tournaments, court fashions and handsome, available knights as best she could, charmed and amused by their enthusiasm and naivete. She, too, had been young and naïve once, and although her interests had changed over the years, she well remembered when what the ladies of the court were wearing that season was of the utmost importance to her. Some of the more thoughtful girls asked about the worshippers of the One God and their influence at court, and Brenna did her best to answer those questions too, being careful to remain neutral in her answers and not to allude to the political machinations she was currently trying to circumvent. It would do no good to alarm the Abbey’s inhabitants unnecessarily and if her errand proved fruitful, there would be no need for them to ever know how much danger their way of life and spirituality had been in.
Finally, Brenna plead exhaustion and Agatha showed her to her room next to the library. It was a small, sparse cell not unlike the one she had shared with Lorianne, but it had a comfortable cot, a small table and chair she could use for writing and a single, mullioned window that opened onto the courtyard. When Agatha left her for the night, Brenna lit a lamp and went through the rounded arch into the Abbey’s library, intent on starting her work that evening.
A bit of investigative work from Torrie led Brenna to the guardhouse, where Sir Briance was training several young guards on sword fighting techniques. He called a halt when he saw her approach, welcoming her with a broad smile and a gracious bow. “Good morning, Priestess. To what do I owe the pleasure of your company?”
“Good morning, Sir Briance. I’m sorry to interrupt. I was hoping to ask you some questions about Queen Sonnette and her time here at the castle. Do you have time to walk with me?”
“Of course.” He dismissed the guards and held the door to the guardhouse tower open for her. Brenna ascended the stairs to the widow’s walk, pausing at the top to take in the view as she always did. When Briance had joined her, Brenna quickly brought him up to speed on her conversations with Machieve and Alamara. Briance listened to her tale silently, a look of concern growing on his face. When she’d finished, he said, “My lady, you are wise to tread carefully here. The Baron is well respected amongst many of the nobles and could easily raise the support necessary to attempt the Queen’s ouster.”
“Briance, what can you tell me about Sonnette? What do you remember about her?”
“She was a beautiful young woman, so small and delicate and fragile, but with a quiet, stately presence. She was never one to shout or demand or even raise her voice, as I recall, but there was a coolness, an elegance about her that commanded respect. When Alfonse confided in me that he had agreed to marry her in order to unite the kingdom, I remember thinking what a mismatched pair they were, like fire and ice. But they seemed to share a mutual respect and admiration for one another that grew into love over time. Alfonse, certainly, had come to care for her greatly by the time of her death.”
They walked along in silence for a time, Brenna giving Briance time alone with his thoughts, before he continued. “Her suicide left everyone reeling. It seemed so out of character for her. I mean, she was always quiet and cool and reserved and seemed even more so in the weeks preceding her death, but to jump from the wall …”
“How did Machieve handle her death?”
“As he and the entire family always handle everything, with quiet dignity and reserve. There were no fits of weeping or hysterical outbursts. Nothing unusual that I can recall.”
They had reached the far wall now, the one looking out over the crashing waves where Sonnette had taken her own life so many years ago. Brenna said a little prayer and made the sign of blessing and protection as Briance looked on. The wind was sharp here and the water churned madly against the rocks far below. No one could’ve survived that fall, but at least her suffering would’ve been minimal. Brenna shivered and slipped her arm into Briance’s, and he patted her hand gently before they started off again. “There is something, priestess, now that I think on it. It may be nothing, but given what you’ve told me about Machieve, perhaps it will lead us to something more.”
“Anything you can remember will be a great help.”
“Father Leonard and Baron Machieve were nearly constant companions to the Queen, Machieve more so than Leonard. Father Leonard was her personal spiritual advisor, and as a woman completely devoted to her faith, it did not seem unusual that the good Father would be a constant presence in her life, but to have Machieve, her uncle, by her side even more than the King himself, seemed a little odd to many of us. I remember Alfonse remarking once that the only place he could be alone with his wife was in their bedchamber, and even then he expected that Machieve stood right outside the door.”
“That does seem odd.”
“Alfonse was at my estate the night Sonnette died. He rode out for a visit, ostensibly to check on me since I’d taken a good shot to the ribs at our last tournament, but when he arrived I knew what he really needed was to escape the pressures of the crown for a bit. We sat up much too late drinking good wine and laughing about the adventures of our youth, and Alfonse confided in me that Sonnette had grown so austere and devoted to her faith that her constant insistence that he convert to the One God and decree that the entire kingdom was to renounce the Old Ways was a growing source of irritation between them. We were deep into our cups when the messenger arrived to inform the King that the Queen was dead, and I have never seen my friend in such despair at the news. He blamed himself for Sonnette’s death, because he was not at the castle.”
They had completed their circuit of the wall by this point, and Brenna turned to Briance. “Thank you, my friend, for your honesty and candor. I will keep you apprised of anything more I learn.”
“Priestess, I am at Her Majesty’s command, and yours as well. I will endeavor to assist you in any way I can. I, too, have many like-minded friends and allies amongst the nobles, those who will rally to the Queen’s cause if called. Please tell Her Majesty that she does not stand alone.”
“I will do so, sir knight. Farewell.”
Brenna descended the stairs and headed back across the courtyard, pausing to glance into the Great Hall as she passed. Through the doorway she could see Alamara sitting on the throne and speaking with a group of merchants from Locallen, with Garan standing slightly behind and to one side of her. She could see Machieve as well, hovering nearby with Victice, Yvette and several nobles around him. She also noted that the second throne, the one Alfonse had occupied until so recently, had been removed from the dias. Brenna knew that removing the empty throne had been a calculated choice by Alamara designed to subtly indicate to all who entered the Great Hall that she was the sole ruler now, but it still gave her a touch of sadness to know that Alfonse, a man she had always harbored a bit of resentment toward for stealing her best friend away from her, but had grown to know and love during the last few weeks of his life, was now gone from this world.
As she turned to go, she saw Alamara say something to Machieve, and then Yvette approached the throne with a curtsy and took a teacup and saucer from the Queen’s hand, carrying it from the room. Surely Yvette had not become one of the Queen’s attendants, Brenna thought. Having to put up with the wench’s sauciness and sullen retorts was not something Brenna looked forward to.
Brenna knocked on the conservatory door and entered when bade to do so. Alamara was seated in a comfortable arm chair near a window overlooking the castle gardens and Father Leonard was seated across from her. He looked up in irritation as she entered the room, and Brenna struggled to hide a satisfied smile. His feelings about her presence at the castle hadn’t changed, it seemed.
Garan was in the room as well, standing far enough away from the Queen to not eavesdrop on her conversation with Father Leonard, but close enough to come to her aid should she require assistance. Brenna smiled at him as she crossed the room and he answered her with a twinkle in his eye and a small nod.
“I beg your pardon, Your Majesty, but I thought we were to have a private conversation,” Father Leonard said, ignoring Brenna as she approached.
“We are having a private conversation, Father Leonard. That is why I invited you to join me in the conservatory this afternoon. It is much less crowded than the Great Hall, don’t you think?”
“There are fewer people here, yes,” he conceded, pointedly glancing at Garan and Brenna before looking back to Alamara.
“I asked the lady Brenna to join us because, as my personal spiritual advisor, I knew she would be interested in what you have to say today,” Alamara said, her gaze and her tone even.
“As you wish, Your Majesty, of course,” Father Leonard said, clearly displeased with the turn of events.
Brenna sat in an adjacent chair. “Thank you, Your Majesty. Good afternoon, Father Leonard. Have I missed anything?”
“No, you’re right on time. Father Leonard was just getting ready to tell me about his impression of the religious diversity within the kingdom.”
Father Leonard turned in his chair, making it quite obvious that he was talking to the Queen and not to Brenna. “Your Majesty, I am aware of your background, how you entered the Abbey at a tender age and then … left … to marry King Alfonse and become Queen. However, as your friend and as a spiritual leader of the followers of the One God, I must be honest with you. I am afraid your tenacity in clinging to the beliefs of your childhood has blinded you the spiritual realities of the kingdom which you now hope to rule.”
A sharp retort rose to Brenna’s lips, but Alamara spoke first. “And what spiritual realities are those, Father?”
“That most of the populace has either given up the Old Ways and embraced the One God or is in the process of doing so.”
“Really? That has not been my experience at all,” Brenna interjected.
“Then you are blind to reality as well,” Father Leonard replied, continuing to face the Queen and ignore Brenna. “Your Majesty, the people, including many of the members of your court, are concerned that their needs, their wants, their spiritual well-being will not be considered favorably by you in the future. They are concerned that, as you seem to be entrenched in the ancient beliefs of the past, the kingdom will languish.”
“And you speak for the entire populace?” Brenna interjected again.
“I speak for the followers of the One True God, who are a growing segment of the populace.”
“All of them?”
“I am their spiritual leader.”
“Forgive me, Father, you may be the spiritual leader for the followers of the One God in Locallen but I find it hard to believe you represent the entire kingdom.” Brenna was growing even more infuriated because Father Leonard refused to look at her or address her directly with his replies.
“For now, perhaps, but as you know, Your Majesty, as goes Locallen, so goes the rest of the kingdom. Which is why it is even more critical that you continue the work Alfonse and Sonnette began, so many years ago.”
“And what work would that be, Father?” Alamara asked, her manner still polite and even.
“Why, to merge the two faiths, of course, with an eye to phasing out the Old Ways and gradually shifting the kingdom toward the true faith. Now, I’m not suggesting that you convert personally, although the One God knows that I believe that is your wisest course of action and I would be happy to advise you should you desire to recant your heathen ways. No, we can be just as effective in our work if you would agree to marry a powerful follower of the One God, someone who is well respected and who could rule by your side to help bring the kingdom into the future. Not right away, of course, for the One God knows that you must have time to properly mourn King Alfonse, who, I might add, agreed to just such a marriage in his youth.”
Brenna’s jaw dropped. She started to speak but found that the words wouldn’t come out. The audacity of the man! Insulting the Queen to her face and suggesting an arranged marriage before her dead husband was barely cold in the crypt, and all under the guise of advising her as to the spiritual needs of the populace! She turned to look at Garan and saw that he had moved closer to Alamara and stood with his hand on his sword, jaw clenched and steely eyes fixed on Father Leonard. She knew he stayed his hand only because Alamara willed it and she turned back to the conversation, her eyes darting between the Queen and Father Leonard.
“And whom would you have her marry, then? The Baron Machieve?” Brenna blurted out, unable to contain herself.
“The Baron would make an excellent choice, Your Majesty,” Father Leonard replied, as if Alamara had suggested it herself, “as would Sir Victice, who is young but quite devout in his faith and growing in the respect and admiration of his peers every day.”
“Your suggestion does bear merit, Father,” Alamara said with a pleasant smile, “but tell me more about the arrangement between King Alfonse and Queen Sonnette. His Majesty hardly spoke of it, so deep was his grief, but I would like to learn more about how they endeavored to merge their two beliefs into a cohesive whole for the good of the kingdom.”
Father Leonard puffed up, clearly pleased that the Queen was coming around to his way of thinking, and then leaned in conspiratorially. “Well, Your Majesty, Queen Sonnette was a young woman of excellent character and virtue, a shining example of the grace that belief in the One God can bring. Shortly after old King Gregory died and Alfonse assumed the throne, he wisely listened to the good counsel of the Baron and myself and agreed to marry Sonnette, for the kingdom was teetering on the brink of chaos then, much as it is now. Their marriage was highly celebrated throughout the land and it ushered in a new era of peace and prosperity, for the entire populace felt valued and recognized. The Baron and I moved into the castle to advise the young monarchs, and we spent much of our time with Their Majesties assisting in the complex work of running the kingdom. Sonnette encouraged Alfonse to move away from the Old Ways, but he refused, subtly and politely at first, but then with increasing rancor toward her. It was as if he couldn’t see how she was trying to help him, to save him from the misguided life he insisted on leading, and the more he rejected her beliefs, the more despondent she became. She came to see it for what it truly was, a rejection of her personally, and the despair of this realization is what finally drove her to take her own life, may the One God bless her soul.”
Brenna opened her mouth to speak, but Alamara gave her a warning glance hidden behind a polite smile. The look told her that Alamara was up to something, so Brenna remained silent.
“What a sad tale, Father. I am curious, though, why Sonnette did not seek out you or her uncle, her closest companions and confidants, in her desperate hour.”
“A series of sad coincidences kept us from helping her, unfortunately. Baron Machieve had returned to his estate to attend to some business matters, and I had confined myself to my rooms to spend the evening in fasting and prayer. King Alfonse was away from the castle as well that night, so Her Majesty must have felt that no one was able to come to her aid. I will always regret not answering her knock on my chamber door.”
Alamara sat back in her chair, closing her eyes and rubbing at her temple slightly. Brenna could see that she was tired. After a moment, she opened her eyes and stood up, extending her hand to Father Leonard. “Thank you, Father, for your honesty and candor. I will consider everything you’ve said.”
Father Leonard looked a bit taken aback that their meeting was over, but he stood up as well. “Your Majesty, what answer shall I give the Baron?”
“I don’t understand the question, Father. Are you proposing marriage on the Baron’s behalf?”
“I am happy to play matchmaker between the two of you, or between you and young Victice, if he suits you better.”
“If Baron Machieve or Sir Victice is interested in marriage, they should court me themselves, not send their spiritual leader to do so.”
“Of course, Your Majesty, of course. But I should hate to give them false hope if there is no chance that their overtures will be accepted.”
“I will take time to grieve my husband, as you so wisely counseled, Father, but after that I would certainly be open to entertaining all reasonable offers.”
“Ah, good news, Your Majesty, good news! Machieve and Victice will be pleased to hear it!” Father Leonard started for the door, practically barreling Brenna over in his haste. She leapt to one side as he passed, barely acknowledging her, and slammed the door firmly behind him as he left.
Garan, Brenna and Alamara stood looking at each other for a moment before Alamara sank back down onto her chair, rubbing her temple again. Brenna moved to her side, concerned for her friend, as Garan exploded in rage. “What an unmitigated ass! Did you hear him? The nerve of him, speaking to the Queen in that manner. Who does he think he is?”
“He thinks that, because he is the One God’s spiritual leader for the entire kingdom, he is the Queen’s equal,” Brenna said, adding, “Your Majesty, are you alright?”
“I seem to have developed a headache during our meeting with the good Father, probably from gritting my teeth and clenching my jaw to keep from saying what I really thought.” Alamara smiled weakly, but Brenna was not convinced. She rested her hand lightly against Alamara’s forehead. It felt slightly warmer than normal, but the Queen’s color seemed off and she could tell that the light was hurting her eyes. There was something else, too, but Brenna couldn’t place it.
“You’ve kept a hectic pace since before the King’s passing,” Brenna said, “and it is not uncommon for those who are bereaved to fall ill after the initial shock of their loved one’s crossing has passed.” She took the Queen’s hand, sending a pulse of soothing, healing energy to her.
Alamara nodded and stood up again, swaying a bit before Brenna steadied her. “I think I would like to lie down for a bit before supper,” she said. Garan was at other side at once, helping her walk to the couch and settle onto it.
Brenna fetched a few blankets and pillows to help make her comfortable as Garan kneeled beside her, a worried expression on his face. “I think a nap is an excellent idea. I have some headache tincture in my room. Let me fetch it,” Brenna said. She hurried next door to retrieve a small, brown bottle and returned to decant a few droppersful into a goblet of water. Alamara drank it down, wrinkling her nose at the taste, and settled back onto the pillows as the servants turned down the lamps and drew the curtains against the bright afternoon sunlight. She slipped her hands out from under the blanket, extending them toward Garan and Brenna, who each took one.
“You two are my truest and dearest friends,” she said. “The game is afoot, but I know with you both by my side, we’ll see this through to the end.” She closed her eyes and tucked her hands back under the blankets, but then opened them again, the barest hint of a mischievous twinkle in her expression. “Sir Garan, would you sing me to sleep, please?”
“Ah, Your Majesty, you well know that if I were to sing to you, your headache would only grow tenfold. You remember how your poor cat used to yowl and run in terror from the room whenever I broke into song.”
“Yes, poor Mathilda was your harshest musical critic, I think. Brenna, would you sing for me? I haven’t heard the circling song in ages.”
“Of course, Your Maj … my friend,” Brenna said and began to sing softly. Alamara’s brow smoothed and a slight smile spread across her face as she listened, and within a few minutes she was fast asleep, her breathing deep and even.
Brenna ended her song and waited for a few beats to see if Alamara would awaken. When she didn’t, she moved to the far corner of the room, motioning for Garan to join her.
“Once again, your witchery has saved the day. Do you think she’s caught a fever?”
“No, although it wouldn’t surprise me. She has not slept well for weeks and has kept a hectic pace since before the King’s passing.” Brenna looked back at her friend with concern and Garan followed her gaze.
“What is it, then? Can you cure it?”
“It is probably just a headache, brought about from exhaustion and stress, as she said. Still …” she broke off, chewing her lip and considering, “something is not right. There is an odd energy there that doesn’t feel like illness.”
“What, like a curse or a bewitchment?”
Brenna looked back at Garan with a teasing smile. “I thought you didn’t believe in such things.”
“I didn’t, until I met you.”
“When have you ever known me to curse or bewitch anyone?”
“You’ve bewitched me.” He wrapped his arms around her waist, pulling her close for a gentle kiss.
“I’ve done no such thing. If you are bewitched, you’ve come to it of your own free will.” She snaked her arms around his neck, pulling him down for another kiss. “and I am bewitched as well.”
They kissed for a long moment before Brenna gently pulled away. “Will you stay with her for awhile? The headache tincture has a bit of a sedative in it, so I’m sure she will sleep for a few hours, but I will feel better knowing that she is not alone.”
“Of course. Where are you going?”
“As much as it pains me, I think I will pay a visit to Baron Machieve to see what else I can learn about his niece and her untimely end.”
“You prefer his company to mine?” Garan pulled her close again, nibbling at her earlobe and kissing a trail of soft kisses along her neck and jaw.
Brenna tilted her head back, relishing the tingle of his lips on her skin. “Not at all, but I should go now, while the Queen has no need of me.”
“I have need of you,” he murmured, kissing her again, more hungrily this time.
Her hunger matched his as their kiss deepened, but Brenna pulled away again, more reluctantly this time. “You are on duty.”
“She is asleep.”
“You would make love to me right here, on the floor of the Queen’s chamber, with Her Majesty sleeping across the room and all the servants watching?”
“I would make love to you anywhere, even in the Great Hall during high court or in the middle of the Grand Tournament field. I told you, you’ve bewitched me.” They kissed deeply again and Brenna could feel his need for her growing, as hers grew for him. She wanted to sink down onto the floor with him, to feel his bare chest against her breasts, to entwine her arms and legs around him, but something niggled at the back of her mind and she pulled away again with a sigh.
“Let me run my errand, love, and I will return shortly.” He started to protest again, but she put a finger to his lips, silencing him. He captured her hand in his, turning the palm upward to kiss it tenderly, and releasing her from his embrace. She was right, of course, but it took all their willpower to part from their embrace.
“Take your staff,” he called softly after her as she left the room.
Sometime in the pre-dawn blackness, Brenna found herself wide awake and unable to go back to sleep. Garan lay curled around her, his breath slow and even against her ear, and although she was loathe to leave his side, she slipped from the covers, pulling her under dress on over her head and Lorianne’s shawl around her shoulders. Garan murmured something unintelligible but continued to sleep, so Brenna headed out to the widow’s walk so as not to disturb him.
She’d discovered the widow’s walk the second week of her stay at the castle and she was a frequent visitor. The walkway was perched on top of the castle wall and went around the entire keep, offering spectacular views of the castle grounds, the town of Locallen and the coastline. She headed toward the western wall now, her favorite spot, and looked out over the shimmering sea. The wind was soft and cool from the west and the waning moon hung low on the horizon. Brenna pulled the shawl more tightly around her shoulders and took a deep breath of the tangy air, leaning against the low wall surrounding the walkway. She smiled, remembering her initial reluctance when Mother Yoshiko told her she had been summoned to Castle Locallen. She hadn’t wanted to leave the familiar comforts of the Abbey, of Streestown, and the other priestesses, but now she thought she glimpsed the merest part of the Goddess’ plan. If she hadn’t left the Abbey, she would never have seen this magnificent sight, and more importantly, she might never have found Garan again. It did feel as if they had found one another after many years, rather than having just met only a few months ago, and now that they were together again Brenna wanted never to be apart from him.
She wondered what would happen now that her work at the castle seemed to be coming to an end. When she’d left the Abbey in the spring, she could think of nothing but her eventual return. Now, she wasn’t sure she even wanted to return to the life of an Abbey priestess. Although she found the other members of the court to be shallow, gossipy and irritating much of the time, living at the castle was exciting and glamorous, and although Alamara’s love of parties, feasts and celebrations was exhausting, Brenna was exceedingly grateful to have been able to reconnect with her old friend. Now that she’d experienced the life of a member of the court, would the quiet, agrarian duties of a priestess bore her? Now that she’d seen the rolling foothills, the vast desert, the forested mountains and the rugged sea coast, would she be content with the flat plains and farmland of Streestown and the surrounding valley?
Then, of course, there was Garan. He seemed to have slipped back into his role of courtier and Queen’s darling quite nicely, and if Brenna stayed at the castle they could be together, at least for now. If Garan’s past sins had been redeemed and Alamara continued to have need of her presence, there was really nothing to keep them from being together. Brenna found that thought both exciting and a little disquieting. She had never considered a future that did not involve Streestown Abbey, but it was not unheard of for priestesses to live outside an Abbey’s walls, acting as personal healers to powerful nobles, or providing services for people living in areas too remote for local Abbeys to reach. Brenna resolved to send word to Mother Yoshiko in the morning, seeking her counsel.
“Take care, priestess. The wall often deteriorates in the salt air and it would be … unfortunate … if you were to fall from this height.”
Brenna jumped and gave a little cry, thoroughly startled. She had been daydreaming again, so lost in her reverie that she hadn’t seen or heard Baron Machieve come up behind her. She whirled to face him, and he was uncomfortably close, an inscrutable expression on his face that Brenna thought held just a touch of malevolent glee. She was keenly aware of how vulnerable she was then, alone in the dark on a high ledge, and wished she had thought to bring her walking staff with her.
Machieve noted her discomfort. “It is fortunate I found you here. I have been wanting to finish our conversation about your plans for the future, now that your work here is finished. When will you return to your duties at your Abbey?”
“As I said before, I will stay as long as Her Majesty has need of me, Baron. I am in no hurry to leave and she does not seem eager to see me off just yet.”
“But your work here is done. King Alfonse is dead and buried and the valiant Sir Garan Lyons has returned to keep Her Majesty safe from harm until she can convince the assembled nobles of the realm of her legitimate claim to the throne.” He sneered at the last bit, sarcasm dripping from his voice.
“The King himself named Queen Alamara as his successor. You heard it from his own mouth, as well as I did. Her claim, as you put it, is quite sound.”
“Did I? What I heard was the ravings of a man clearly suffering as he neared the time of his crossing, and very likely bewitched by your heathen practices and arcane magick.”
Brenna gasped in horror. So this was his plan, to deny what he’d heard and force his claim upon the throne instead of Alamara’s. She wanted to run back and awaken Garan, to tell him what she’d learned, but Machieve blocked her escape.
“You are an artifact of the past, priestess. The Old Ways are dying and will soon be gone for good. Those who embrace that eventuality are poised to rule in the future.” His tone changed to one of conspiratorial advice. “What the Queen must do, if she thinks to continue as monarch of the realm, is to shun the Old Ways and embrace the One God. Or, if she is unwilling to make so drastic a change as that, to consent to marry someone who has, to effect an easy merger from the dark past to the bright future, for the good of the populace.”
At that, Brenna’s incredulousness turned to anger. “And who on earth would she marry that could bring this about? Victice?”
Machieve laughed, but the sound held no mirth. “Victice is a child and a fool. No, the Queen needs to marry someone more mature, more respected amongst the powerful elite who are followers of the One God, someone who is already familiar with the inner workings of the kingdom and the court.” He smiled slyly, but the smile did not reach his eyes.
“I assume you mean yourself.”
Machieve gave a little self-righteous nod. “It is for the good of the kingdom, I assure you.”
Brenna locked eyes with Machieve, no longer afraid. “And I can assure you, Baron, that that is something she will never do.”
Machieve’s expression darkened, all pretense of civility gone. He gripped Brenna’s upper arm tightly, pulling her toward him. “We shall see, priestess. I can be very convincing.”
“You have yet to convince me, and I am a close companion and advisor to Her Majesty,” she shot back.
“You do know what happened to my niece, Sonnette, don’t you? The first and real queen of the realm?” Machieve’s face was inches from Brenna’s and she could feel the bruises beginning to form on her upper arm where his fingers gripped her. “She was a follower of the One God and Alfonse wisely agreed to marry her in his youth, thus beginning the merger of the Old Ways and the New. It was a time of peace and harmony throughout the realm as the Old Ways began to retreat, but although Sonnette was a shining example of the grace and progress and virtue to be had, Alfonse would not relinquish his antiquated faith and so, feeling that she had failed and betrayed the One God, Sonnette threw herself off that cliff, into the sea.” Machieve yanked Brenna around to face the sea and then turned her back to face him. “So you see, priestess, because of Alfonse’s stubbornness and refusal to embrace progress, Queen Sonnette died and the realm was plunged into upheaval and chaos once again.”
Machieve’s face was practically touching Brenna’s now, and his words grew in anger and intensity. Although she tried to free her arm and recoil from him, he held her fast. “Father Leonard counseled the king extensively to try to help him see the error of his ways, but instead Alfonse went gallivanting off across the countryside and found himself a farm girl to dally with, which would’ve been fine if he hadn’t married her and made her his queen. All the strife and despair and problems in the kingdom stem from Alfonse’s refusal to embrace the One God. And I intend to set that right.”
“You are mad,” Brenna said, truly fearful now but determined not to let Machieve see it.
“No, priestess, I am determined. Do not try to thwart me or you could meet a similar fate to Sonnette and Alfonse.”
“What do you mean by that?” Brenna was shocked. Was he implying that he was responsible for both Sonnette and Alfonse’s deaths? Would he try to harm her or Alamara?
“I hope I’m not interrupting anything.” Machieve and Brenna turned to see Garan walking toward them. He had pulled on his breeches and sword belt, but nothing else, and at that moment he was the most beautiful sight Brenna had ever seen. His hand rested lightly on the hilt of his sword and he had a guarded expression.
Machieve tugged Brenna in front of him, releasing her arm. “Not at all, sir knight. I was just informing your lady about the dangers of walking about outside in the dark alone.” He turned back to Brenna and added “Remember my words, priestess,” before brushing past Garan and down the stairs.
Brenna watched him go, rubbing her arm. Thank the Goddess Garan had come. The moon had set and the sky had lightened to a pale gray, signaling the approach of dawn.
Garan closed the distance between them in an instant. “What was that all about?” he asked, arching one eyebrow.
“It is as he said. He was warning me about the dangers that might befall me or Alamara if I stayed at the castle, much like what happened to Sonnette and Alfonse.” Seeing Garan’s expression, she continued. “He has designs on the throne. He wants to marry Alamara and become king himself, in order to complete the conversion of the kingdom from the Old Ways to the One God, something Sonnette attempted to do when she married Alfonse. He intimated that he had a hand in Sonnette and Alfonse’s deaths and that he might do the same to Alamara.” Garan’s hand tightened on his sword hilt and he started down the stairs, Brenna right behind him. “We must be careful. The Baron is powerful and influential amongst the nobles. He is planning to refute the king’s last wishes that Alamara assume the throne and reign in her own right. As only the three of us heard Alfonse’s words, the other nobles could be easily swayed. We need to think this through.”
“Political machinations be damned! My duty is to protect the queen. If he has threatened her …”
“He will not be so foolish as to threaten her or harm her overtly, especially so soon after the king’s death. Attacking him openly now will only cause his allies to rally around him.”
They had reached Alamara’s chambers and Garan spun around to face her. An angry retort sprang to his lips but as his eyes met hers, he stopped himself. “You have done your duty to Their Majesties, Brenna. Now, let me do mine.”
“At least, put your shirt on first, my love, before you barge into the queen’s private chambers half naked.” He looked down at his bare chest and smirked, but was unconvinced. “I will go in while you finish dressing. Surely I can hold any attackers at bay until you return and it will not be as unseemly for me to be half naked in the queen’s bedchamber.”
“Very well. I will be right back.” He sprinted next door to her rooms to retrieve his shirt while Brenna rapped lightly on Alamara’s chamber door and let herself in.
The main room in Alamara’s chambers were dark and quiet, and nothing seemed to be amiss. Brenna stood in the doorway for a moment, her eyes adjusting to the dimness, and then crept across the room to the bedchamber door. She debated whether to just barge in or to knock first, and decided on a third option – to open the door quietly and peek inside. She turned the knob as softly as she could manage and opened the door just a crack, letting out a sigh of relief to find her friend still sleeping peacefully, her face turned toward the door and one arm tucked under her pillow.
Brenna closed the door and turned to see Garan entering the room, now clad in his shirt, pants, boots and swordbelt from the previous evening. He cut a dashing figure striding across the room toward Alamara’s bedchamber, but Brenna intercepted him, her finger to her lips.
“The Queen is safe and still asleep. Rather than wake her at this hour with rumors and hearsay, let’s make a plan to expose Machieve for the traitor he is.”
Garan looked from Brenna to the bedchamber door and back. He was torn between the wisdom of Brenna’s words and his desire to see for himself that Alamara was safe. Finally, he let Brenna lead him back to a seat near the fireplace, the familiar, bemused smile that Brenna had grown to love beginning to spread across his face.
“Before we begin our plotting and scheming, do you want to get dressed first? Not that there is anything wrong with your being half-naked in the Queen’s chambers.”
Brenna glanced down at her sheer chemise, bare feet and shawl, and smiled back at Garan. Now that she thought about it, she was a bit chilly. “Yes, you’re right, I should get dressed as well.” She headed for the doorway, turning back to add, “Do not wake Her Majesty, though.”
Garan waved her away and moved toward the window to look outside. “I won’t.”
Brenna hurried to her rooms to throw on a gown and slippers, stopping to run a brush through her hair and put it up in a quick braid. Machieve’s hint that he had been involved with Sonnette and Alfonse’s passings was niggling at the back of her mind. Were his words just the ravings of a mad man or had he really caused their deaths somehow? And if he had, how? Brenna frowned and chewed her lower lip. It was as if she knew the answer but it was just beyond her recollection. She had been present for the last few weeks of the king’s life and his passing, but although Machieve was often with the king, he had done nothing that aroused Brenna’s suspicions. She resolved to learn more about Queen Sonnette and her life at the castle. Perhaps there would be some clue there that would help her unravel this mystery. She decided to seek out Sir Briance to ask him what he remembered about the events leading up to Sonnette’s death.
When Brenna returned to the queen’s chamber, she was surprised to find servants bustling about, setting the large table near the window with platters of meat pies, fruits, cheeses and breads. “What’s all this?” she asked, arching one eyebrow.
“Breakfast! Political intrigue is best executed on a full stomach. Besides, I’m ravenous!”
“I thought you weren’t going to wake the queen.”
“I haven’t.” He picked up a plate and began piling it with food. “Although, if she wants any of this she’ll have to hurry.”
Just then, the bedchamber door opened and Alamara stumbled into the room, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. She squinted at the light from the open window and looked from Brenna to Garan, puzzled.
“What’s going on? Why are you both here so early?” She took in the scene – Brenna standing in the middle of the room, a slightly embarrassed and contrite expression on her face, and Garan, a meat pie halfway to his lips, looking completely unapologetic. Alamara tried to screw her face up into a look of queenly displeasure, but the small twinkle of amusement in her eyes gave it away.
“Oh, Your Majesty, I am so sorry we have disturbed you. We were concerned for your safety and had planned to wait quietly for you to awaken.” Brenna glanced pointedly at Garan at the last part, but he ignored her, munching on his meat pie. Finally, he swallowed his mouthful and spoke.
“Yes, thank you, since I’m awake.” Alamara sat at the table and began helping herself to some breakfast.
Brenna sat as well, feeling a little exasperated but glad to see Alamara’s good humor about the situation. She selected a plum from a platter near her and bit into it.
“Now, what’s this about my safety?” Alamara asked after they had eaten in silence for a few moments. Brenna quickly recounted her conversation with the Baron earlier that morning, watching Alamara’s face for her reaction. Alamara remained composed and thoughtful as Brenna spoke, looking from Garan to Brenna. When Brenna finished her tale, Alamara sat back in her chair, sipping her tea and looking out the window. Finally, she said, “Well, this is a dilemma.”
“How so, Your Majesty?” Garan said. “You are Queen, after all. You could order him banned from the kingdom.” Alamara and Garan exchanged a glance before he continued. “He isn’t a threat to you if he isn’t around you.”
“I’m afraid this cannot be solved with a sword cut,” Alamara said, smiling indulgently at Garan. “No, I agree with you, Brenna. We must be careful. The Baron is powerful and has many allies at court. There must be a way, other than marrying him or converting to the One God, to solve this puzzle.”
“Did His Majesty share any details of his life with Sonnette? Is there anything he said or anything you’ve heard about her death that seems suspicious?” Brenna asked.
“He did not speak of it much, because it pained him to do so. I think he felt somehow responsible for her death, although it always sounded to me as though the poor woman had gone mad with religious fanaticism. Why kill yourself just because your husband does not believe as you believe?” She paused, remembering. “I believe Father Leonard and Sonnette’s family may have actually lived here at the castle while she was on the throne. Machieve is still here, of course.” A rueful smile touched Alamara’s lips, but she pushed back her chair and stood, which sent servants and attendants scurrying in her direction. “However, I am still Queen for now and have duties to attend to. There are a few matters of state that need my attention and I am resuming the practice today of setting aside time to meet with those who seek audience with me. And this afternoon, I have promised to give Father Leonard my undivided attention, which is a meeting I hope you will attend with me, Brenna. I’m sure it will be a stimulating, intellectual discussion of the similarities and differences between the Old Ways and worship of the One God.” Alamara’s droll expression told Brenna that it would be anything but that, and she nodded her acceptance, already dreading the meeting.
“Sir Garan, that leaves you to be my companion and nursemaid for the first half of the day. Go finish getting dressed while I do the same.” Seeing Garan’s look of protest, she continued. “I’m sure Brenna can keep an eye on me until you get back.” She turned and headed toward her dressing rooms, a trail of attendants behind her.
When she was gone, Garan pulled Brenna into his arms. “What are you going to do with yourself this morning?” he asked, kissing her forehead.
“I’m going to seek out Sir Briance, to see what he can remember about Sonnette and her time at the castle,” she said.
He released her, holding her at arm’s length. “Be careful, love. Maybe you should take that formidable walking staff with you.” He smiled at that, but Brenna could tell he was serious.
“I will,” she assured him as he hurried out the door to dress for the day.
They stayed like that for several seconds as their breathing slowed and the passions subsided. As Brenna lowered her leg and Garan slipped from inside her, he caught her face in his hands and kissed her again, slowly and deeply. They looked into each other’s eyes and Garan pulled away slightly, chuckling.
“You have ensnared me, witch,” he said.
“We are soulbound,” she said simply, and he knew it was true. “And,” she sighed and began to smooth down her hair and straighten her dress, “we should get back before we are missed.”
Garan pulled her close, ostensibly to re-lace the back of her gown, but more as an excuse to hold her in his arms once again. He kissed her neck behind her ears under the pretense of leaning closer to get a better look at the laces and she chuckled. “I don’t think anyone misses us,” he said.
“Her Majesty will notice that we’ve left and besides, you’ve promised her a dance,” Brenna said as she straightened his shirt collar and began refastening his doublet.
“Aye, so I did. We will finish this later then,” he said, catching her hands and bringing them to his lips, turning them so he could kiss each palm.
She car essed his face again and smiled. “I look forward to it.”
He took her hand then and they moved through the door and back down the darkened hallway. As they neared the Great Hall, Brenna heard a woman’s high-pitched laughter and saw the door to the hall open. Garan pulled Brenna back against the wall into the shadows, his finger to his lips and his eyes flashing with mirth. Evidently, someone else was slipping away for a tryst in the dark with their lover, Brenna thought. Two figures stumbled through the door and into the hall, laughing and shushing as they pawed at each other’s clothes, completely oblivious to Garan and Brenna. With a mixture of dismay and amusement, Brenna realized the two lovers were Yvette and Victice, and from the looks of it they had both enjoyed plenty of wine throughout the course of the evening. They could hardly stand without leaning on the wall and one another for support, and Yvette squealed and tittered loudly as Victice grabbed her from behind and sank down onto the floor with her on his lap.
“Viccy, say it again!” Yvette demanded with a giggle, turning to face him and thrust her ample breasts in his face. He grunted and buried his face in her cleavage, fumbling with her skirts. Yvette sat back on her haunches and unfastened his breeches. He groaned and reached for her, but she pulled away from him, getting down on her hands and knees with her lips mere inches from the tip of his cock. She licked her lips and looked up at him through her lashes. “Say it again, Viccy,” she purred.
Victice wound his fingers through her hair, straining to pull her mouth closer, but she giggled again and lightly kissed the head of his cock, eliciting a gasp from him. “I want to hear you say it,” she repeated.
Victice looked down at her through bleary eyes, trying to focus. “When I am king, you will be my queen,” he slurred, raising his hips to try to reach her.
“Mmm, yes,” Yvette cooed, running her tongue up and down the length of his shaft. “Again.”
“Victice threw his head back, pulling her mouth down onto him. “You will be my queen,” he repeated through ragged breaths and moans as Yvette set about pleasuring him.
Brenna looked up at Garan in dismay, but he was trying to stifle his laughter. When she shot him a look, he mistook her concern about what they’d overheard for embarrassment over what they were witnessing, and hugged her close to him, hiding her face against his shoulder. Brenna shook her head and looked at him imploringly, but he pressed his finger to his lips again, still amused by the proceedings.
Just then, Victice pushed Yvette off his lap and onto her back, climbing on top of her and thrusting wildly into her. They rutted on the floor for several minutes, Yvette panting and yelling, “Yes, yes, say it again!” and Victice grunting unintelligibly. With a shout from Victice, it was over and he collapsed down on top of her, gasping for air for a few minutes before beginning to snore softly, his lust assuaged. Yvette rolled him off of her and urged him to stand, supporting him as they moved off down the hallway and out of sight.
When they were gone, Garan burst out laughing. Brenna could only look after them in horror, and couldn’t believe Garan found the proceedings funny. “Didn’t you hear them?” she asked.
“How could I not?” Garan laughed, but noticing that Brenna did not share his amusement he added, “You don’t believe them, do you?”
“Why shouldn’t I?” Brenna demanded, growing more irritated that Garan did not share her concern. “He wants to be king!”
“Many men want to be king, priestess,” he said, still smiling, “but few have the wherewithal to realize that desire. Besides, men such as the noble Sir Victice are not above saying whatever it takes to bed a pretty girl, truthful or not.”
“Perhaps,” she said, looking doubtfully down the hall in the direction they’d gone.
“He was deep in his cups and as horny as a goat. I’d put no stock in his words.” He placed a finger under her chin, tilting her face up to kiss her gently.
Brenna felt somewhat reassured, but a bit of nagging doubt lingered. “Still, it behooves us to be careful and vigilant.”
“Indeed,” he said as he led her back through the doorway and into the Great Hall.
As they slid into their seats, Brenna saw Alamara on the dance floor. She laughed and twirled, sparkling like a jewel as she moved around the circle with the other dancers. She is truly in her element, Brenna thought and smiled happily at her friend. She looked around the room and saw that many of the partygoers had already retired for the evening. Garan chatted amiably with Sir Briance and Brenna wondered at the lateness of the hour.
When the dance was over, Alamara returned to her seat, beaming at Brenna. “There you are!” she said and then leaned closer to whisper, “I noticed that you and Sir Garan were both missing. Coincidence?”
“Not at all,” Brenna replied. “I find his company quite agreeable.” She flashed a conspiratorial smile at her friend and Alamara squealed triumphantly, grabbing her arm.
“I knew it! He has taken quite a shine to you too!”
“It would seem so, Your Majesty.”
Alamara noticed Brenna stifling a yawn and rose to leave. The musicians stopped playing in deference to the queen and those few still in attendance turned to give her their attention. “Dear friends,” she said, “Thank you all for a wonderful day and evening in memory of our dear King Alfonse. I am sure he would be honored were he still with us. Please feel free to stay as long as you and these talented players have the energy to continue, but I am to bed.”
There were murmurs of approval as the musicians launched into a slow, stately number. Garan turned to Alamara and bowed, offering his hand. “Your Majesty, I believe I still owe you a dance.”
She smiled graciously at Garan. “Just like old times, sir knight. Sir Briance, this dance is for four dancers. Will you and Brenna join us?”
Sir Briance rose and offered Brenna his hand. “It would be my pleasure, Your Majesty. My lady?”
“Oh, I’m afraid I don’t know this dance,” Brenna said.
“It is very simple, dear,” Alamara said. “I will call it for you as we go.” They stepped onto the dance floor as the music began, Alamara calling out the steps for Brenna as the four of them moved together and apart, trading partners and laughing as the dance progressed.
Brenna watched as Garan and Alamara danced together, feeling relieved to see nothing but friendship and admiration for each other in their eyes. She was surprised at herself for having harbored feelings of jealousy toward her friend earlier, but it was clear to her now that even if they had been in love in the past, they were just friends now. As they changed partners again, Brenna thrilled to be in Garan’s arms and noticed that his hand lingered on the small of her back and fingers clasped hers for just a moment too long as they moved through the steps. They looked into each other’s eyes and Brenna knew again that they were soulbound and had been connected through all time.
The dance ended and they all applauded the musicians. Alamara turned to her companions, saying, “I am off to bed. Will you walk up with me?” She slipped her arm into Briance’s and they started toward the door, Garan and Brenna following behind.
At the queen’s private chamber, Briance dropped to one knee, taking Alamara’s hand and kissing it reverently. “Thank you, my valiant knight,” she said. “I have had a wonderful evening and couldn’t have asked for a better champion and consort.” She leaned over and kissed the top of his head, causing him to blush.
“I am forever in your service, Your Majesty. Good night,” he replied and disappeared down the stairs.
Brenna moved to go in with her friend, but Alamara waved her away. “No need to tuck me in, dear. I have attendants for that. Good night, my friends.” She blew them a kiss and passed through the doorway, leaving Brenna and Garan alone in the hallway.
As the door clicked closed behind them, Garan pulled Brenna into his embrace, leaning down to whisper in her ear. “We are off duty, then,” he said.
“So it seems,” she said, “although as Champion of the Kingdom and the Queen’s Protector, I think it wise if you stayed close by, just in case.” She kissed his neck just below his ear and felt him shiver.
“Hmm, but where shall I stay? Apparently, the rooms next to the Queen’s … my old rooms, I might add … are currently occupied.” He made a trail of kisses from her ear to her hollow of her throat and she leaned her head back to give him better access.
“You are in luck, my lord. The rooms are currently occupied by me.”
“How convenient. Perhaps I can think of some way to convince you to allow me to stay in them tonight.” Garan brought his lips to hers, kissing her lightly.
“Perhaps, but where will I go if you occupy my rooms?” Brenna murmured before deepening the kiss.
“I think we can work out an acceptable arrangement,” he said before picking her up into his arms and carrying her across the threshold.
As Brenna entered her rooms, Torrie was waiting for her. “Oh, my lady, isn’t it exciting? You’ll be seated at the head table this evening, and with Sir Garan! Which gown will you wear?”
Brenna hadn’t even considered what she would wear to the feast and ball that night, but saw that Torrie had laid three dresses out on the bed for her to choose from. They were stunning jewel-toned confections made of silks, velvets and brocades and covered with jewels and exquisite embroidery, and Brenna fondled each one, considering her choices. She settled on a gown of deep emerald green silk with a fitted bodice and sleeves and a full skirt that flared out at the hips. It laced up the back and had a simple, scooped neckline and long tippets of black silk at each elbow that matched a band of black silk along the bottom of the dress. It was trimmed with a row of onyx, emerald and hematite beads along the neckline and cuffs and Brenna was drawn to it because it had less corsetry and frippery than the other two gowns. “This one, I think,” she said, picking up the gown and turning to Torrie. “I have always been partial to green.”
Torrie clapped her hands with delight. “That will set off your eyes perfectly! Now, let me draw your bath … if it pleases you, of course,” she added, remembering her station.
Brenna smiled at her, enjoying her excitement and enthusiasm. “Yes, dear, a bath is just the thing. Thank you.”
She bathed and washed her hair, enjoying the warm, scented water and daydreaming about attending the feast and ball with Garan. What she really wanted was to be alone with him, of course, to feel his strong arms around her and his kisses enflaming her with desire. It had been many weeks since they’d made love and with him so close now, Brenna longed to hold him, to caress him, to feel their bodies join and their passions rise. I will have to be patient just a little while longer, she told herself as she stepped out of the tub and dried off with the towel Torrie held out to her.
Once dried, Torrie helped her to dress, lacing up the back of the gown snugly to show off her full curves. Brenna was a bit uncomfortable with how low cut the gown seemed to be, but Torrie assured her that it fit perfectly and set about clucking and fussing with Brenna’s hair, brushing it until it hung in soft, loose waves about her shoulders and placing a simple circlet of diamonds and emeralds across her brow. Brenna waved off Torrie’s attempt to rouge her cheeks and lips or ring her eyes with color, as she had seen the other ladies of the court wear, but let her slip soft, black velvet slippers onto her feet. Finally, after some protest, Brenna let Torrie place an exquisite necklace around her neck, its teardrop-shaped, emerald pendant hanging just above the swell of her breasts over the neckline of her gown.
Brenna stood up from the dressing table and turned around to face the full-length mirror on the opposite side of the room. Torrie stepped back and squealed with delight as Brenna stared into the mirror, dumbfounded. A beautiful, elegant, and barely recognizable woman stared back at her, equally dumbfounded. Brenna turned slightly from side to side, noticing how the dress seemed to change from green to black as it caught the light from different angles, and she walked closer to the mirror, touching the crescent tattoo on her cheekbone to be sure it was really her. Yes, it was really her and she was really dressed like a lady of the court. Brenna had to admit that the ensemble was quite becoming and wholly out of character for her. Would Garan like it? It was certainly different from the plain, serviceable gowns she’d brought with her from the Abbey.
The Abbey. What would Mother Yoshiko and the other priestesses say if they could see her now? Even though it had been less than a year since she’d left them, so much had happened to Brenna since then. She’d changed and grown in ways she’d never expected. Could she ever go back to that life? Did she even want to?
“My lady, it is almost time to go downstairs,” Torrie said, bringing Brenna back from her daydream.
“Yes, of course,” Brenna replied. Torrie handed her a black shawl shot with jet beads to wrap around her shoulders, but Brenna waved it away. She left her rooms and headed toward Alamara’s, arriving just as the Queen was emerging from her dressing room. Alamara was dressed in an immense gown of burgundy and hunter brocade with a full skirt and tall starched half ruff in the back. Her hair was piled on top of her head in a cavalcade of braids and curls around her crown and she wore several long strands of pearls that wrapped around her throat and hung between her ample cleavage and down the front of her bodice. Brenna marveled once again at how magnificent her friend looked and how easily she seemed to have taken to a life of privilege and elegance as Alamara extended her hand.
“Oh, Brenna, look at you! You look simply stunning! Emeralds suit you, dear,” Alamara said, smiling broadly and holding Brenna at arm’s length to get a good look at her. “You will be turning all the men’s heads tonight, especially one in particular, hmm?”
Brenna blushed at the compliment but said nothing. She still hadn’t told Alamara or anyone else about her history with Garan and wasn’t sure she was ready to confess just yet. Something told her to bide her time and observe first, and she trusted her instincts.
They walked downstairs together, a gaggle of attendants trailing behind them. They entered the Great Hall to a burst of applause and Brenna was dazzled by the hundreds of elegantly dressed and coiffed revelers. The hall was awash in candlelight and the tables had been arranged in a horseshoe shape around the edges of the hall to make room for the dancers. Brenna was still taking in the sights and sounds of the room when she heard a familiar voice just behind her.
“You look ravishing,” Garan said softly, his lips almost touching her ear. Brenna shivered at his nearness, closing her eyes briefly. She turned around to see him standing directly behind her, dressed in a deep brown leather doublet and breeches that fit close to his body, showing off his muscular frame. His shirt was the color of cream and it was open at the neck, offering Brenna the merest glimpse of his broad chest. He wore brown leather boots that reached up to his knees and a richly embroidered cloak was draped around one shoulder and tied across his chest. He doffed the small flat cap on his head and bowed over Brenna’s hand, pressing it to his lips and looking up to capture her gaze as he did so.
Brenna caught her breath at the sight of him. She had never seen him dressed this way and he looked every inch the dashing courtier. He stood then and turned to Alamara, bowing and kissing her hand as well. “Your Majesty, you are particularly stunning this evening,” he said and Alamara beamed down at him.
“You are a sight for sore eyes, Sir Garan,” she said and flashed Brenna a knowing smile. She moved to take Garan’s proffered arm, but Sir Briance interrupted them.
“Now just a minute, young squire,” Briance said, a look of mock gruffness on his face. “You may have won the day today, but I still bear Her Majesty’s favor. You have your own lady to escort.” He stepped in front of Garan to offer his arm to Alamara, and Garan backed up with an exaggerated bow.
Alamara laughed with delight. “Now gentlemen, don’t fight. You’re right, of course, Sir Briance. Sir Garan, I will save a dance for you later in the evening. Walk with your lady.” She smiled up at Sir Briance, taking his arm and flashing another knowing glance in Brenna’s direction.
Brenna slipped her arm in Garan’s, relishing the now familiar tingle of his touch. They made their way to the head table at the far end of the hall, taking their seats so that the evening’s festivities could begin. Brenna noticed Victice and Yvette take their seats on the opposite end of the table as well, but she refused to let them spoil her evening.
There were multiple courses of food, barrels full of wine, singers and dancers, jugglers, and bards for the revelers’ amusement. Briance and Garan told funny stories from Garan’s time as a squire, and Alamara was her ever-charming and gracious self, chatting amiably with Victice and Yvette, greeting well-wishers warmly and smiling indulgently at Sir Briance. Brenna was glad to see that he had been invited to sit at the head table as well, for he seemed to be the perfect gentleman and consort for her friend.
Brenna, however, only had eyes for Garan. He seemed to find little excuses to touch her throughout the feast, and his every touch stoked the growing ache in her loins for him even more. His eyes seemed to devour her and when he leaned close to whisper in her ear, “You smell delectable,” she nearly leapt upon him right there at the table. Instead, she took another sip of her wine, her eyes feasting on the delicious sight of him.
When the dancing began, Garan pulled Brenna to her feet, leading her to the dance floor. She hadn’t danced since before she had entered the Abbey and felt self-conscious at first, but Garan pulled her into his arms and guided her expertly across the floor and she soon forgot everything but the closeness of his body and the rhythms of the music as they swayed together. One of his hands rested against the small of her back, pressing her hips against him and the other clasped her hand, holding her bosom against his chest. She slid her free hand up around his neck as he leaned down to whisper in her ear, “By the gods, I am on fire for you. You have completely bewitched me. I have thought of nothing but you since the moment we parted. I want to throw you onto the table and make love to you right here, present company be damned.” His lips grazed her ear and Brenna moaned softly, her own loins throbbing for the want of him.
She tilted her head up, her breath against his ear causing him to shiver. “But what will Her Majesty say? You’ve promised her a dance this evening.”
“Her Majesty has Briance to entertain her,” he growled and Brenna glanced over to see Alamara laughing with delight as Briance glided across the floor with her. “I doubt she’ll miss us. Come on.” He released Brenna suddenly, taking her hand and urging her out a side door.
They found themselves in a dimly lit hallway. Garan pulled her into his arms again, kissing her roughly. She resisted for only a moment before giving herself over to her passion, entwining her arms around his neck and deepening the kiss, pressing herself against him as tightly as she could. They heard a door close somewhere in the distance and Garan broke off the kiss reluctantly, taking Brenna’s hand again and leading her along the hallway. He came to a door and opened it, looking into the room before pulling Brenna inside. He gathered her up in his embrace, pressing her back against the closed door as she kissed him again, feeling his erection bulging against his breeches. His fingers deftly unlaced the back of her gown as she opened his doublet and slid her hands under his shirt, their mouths still pressed together. With her gown loose, he slipped her breasts up over the top of the neckline, cupping them in his hands and pulling one nipple into his mouth. She threw back her head and gasped, pulling his head closer. He soon captured the second nipple, brushing his thumb lightly against the first and sending a bolt of pleasure through her that ended deep within her. Her hands found his breeches and unfastened them, freeing him as he groaned and found her mouth again.
He lifted her skirts and pulled at her drawers, as Brenna wrapped one leg around his hips. He drove into her and she cried out, meeting his thrusts as they clung together, his strong arms supporting her as she leaned back against the door, matching the intensity of his passion. His thrusts nearly lifted her off the ground and she clung to him, urging him deeper into her and feeling her climax nearing. She was engulfed and completely surrounded by him, the press of his chest and groin against her, the scent of his skin, his sounds of pleasure, the taste of his lips. Her passion exploded then, radiating out from the center of her being to every cell, every atom of her body. She cried out his name and he came then too, his own pulsing waves of orgasm causing him to gasp and crush her to him even more closely than before.