BtQC – Chapters 17 and 18
The dining hall was magnificent. A thousand candles and torches lit the massive room and the gigantic table could easily seat twenty guests. As Brenna entered the room, most of the available seats were full and the assembled diners looked at her curiously as she entered. She felt suddenly out of place and very shy. The other guests were dressed in sumptuous velvets, silks and brocade, with ornate beading and embroidery on their full skirts and tailored waistcoats. Both the men and women wore elaborate hats and headpieces with feathers, lace and ribbons. Brenna’s brown linen gown seemed plain and homely in comparison and her hair, though neatly braided, was unadorned. She could see the others looking her up and down, as though disapproving of her, and she wanted nothing more than to return to her room. But she had told Alamara that she would join her for supper and didn’t want to disappoint the Queen.
There was a burst of trumpet fanfare, and all the seated guests stood and looked expectantly past Brenna to the open door behind her. She turned to see Alamara enter the room, looking as regal and beautiful as she had when Brenna first saw her. She was followed by several attendants and courtiers and had changed to a low cut gown of deep violet-blue silk encrusted with thousands of tiny pearls and diamonds.
Brenna stepped aside and bowed low as the Queen passed, but Alamara stopped in front of her and took her by the arm. “Oh, Brenna, I’m so glad to see you. Come, you’re sitting up front with me.”
“Of course, Your Majesty,” Brenna said, allowing herself to be ushered along past all the other guests to the opposite end of the room. There were two large, upholstered arm chairs at the far end of the table and as they moved to sit down, courtiers rushed to push in their chairs and see to it that they were comfortable.
Alamara picked up her goblet and addressed the others. “My lords and ladies, I am pleased to introduce to you Brenna Samuels, a priestess from Streestown Abbey who has come to attend the King as he nears his end of days.” Her voice caught at the last, and the others murmured in sympathy. Composing herself, she continued. “In addition to her imminent qualifications as a healer and priestess of the Abbey, she is my oldest and dearest friend. To Brenna!” She raised her goblet in a toast and the other diners did the same.
Brenna blushed and smiled at her friend. The attention was uncomfortable, but she was grateful to the Queen for her recognition. Perhaps now the others wouldn’t look on her as such an oddity. As the first course was served, Alamara asked Brenna to regale those assembled with a tale from her travels. She told them of meeting the tribes and speeding in the strange conveyances across the desert to their encampment. Several people expressed an interest in the conveyances and Alamara bade one gentleman to learn more about them.
The supper was four courses long, and by the end Brenna was very full. Each course was more food than she would normally eat for an entire meal, and that coupled with the rich sauces, exotic spices and copious amounts of wine made her feel tired and slightly guilty. Then, of course, there were the musicians, storytellers, dancers and other entertainers who performed throughout the evening for the amusement of the guests. It was all quite dazzling and overwhelming, and as the meal drew to a close, Brenna longed for the quiet of her room.
Alamara seemed to sense that Brenna was done and pushed back her chair to stand up, sending courtiers and attendants scurrying to assist her. “My lords and ladies, I thank you for a delightful evening meal. I think I will retire now, but please stay and enjoy the rest of the evening’s entertainments.” Turning to her attendants, she added, “Thank you, that will be all. Brenna, dear, will you attend me?”
“It would be my pleasure, Your Majesty,” Brenna replied, falling into step beside her friend as they left the dining hall and headed toward the staircase.
Once they rounded the corner and started mounting the stairs, Alamara burst into giggles. “Oh, Brenna, wasn’t that fun? Did you see the looks on their faces when I told them you were a priestess of the Abbey come to attend the king?”
“It was certainly different from supper at the Abbey, to be sure, Your Majesty,” Brenna chuckled.
“Oh, please don’t be so formal. It’s me, Alamara, and I have missed you terribly these past years.” Alamara slipped her arm around Brenna’s waist and pulled her close in a side hug. Brenna hesitated for a split second, then hugged her friend back, happy to fall back into the role of two friends on an adventure rather than of priestess and queen.
They reached the third floor and passed Brenna’s rooms, stopping at a door in the middle of the hallway. Alamara entered the room with Brenna behind, then removed her crown from her head and handed it to a waiting servant. The room was beautifully appointed in creams and golds, and as Brenna looked around, awed by the splendor of it, the servants unlaced Alamara’s gown and pulled it off over her head, leaving her in only her long, silk under dress. Alamara kicked off her slippers, flopped down on an overstuffed couch by the massive fireplace, and tucked her feet under her, just as Brenna had seen her do a thousand times when they were younger. Brenna settled onto the rug next to Alamara’s couch, just as she had a thousand times as well, and Alamara dismissed the servants with a wave of her hand, leaving the two of them alone.
They talked for hours, catching each other up on the last twenty years of their lives. Alamara told Brenna of coming to live at the castle and of eventually being made Alfonse’s queen. She told of learning about Alfonse’s first queen, Sonnette, who had died tragically and somewhat mysteriously a few years before Alamara and Alfonse had met. She told of Alfonse’s hope that they might bear an heir to the throne, as he and Sonnette had been childless, and of trying repeatedly, only to lose the baby to miscarriage a few months into each pregnancy, despite the best efforts of the castle doctors and the local midwives. She told of Alfonse’s deep and abiding love for her, despite their childlessness, and how the Wasting Sickness had come upon him so gradually over the past few years that they hadn’t even realized he was ill until it was too late for any hope of a cure. She confided in Brenna that she was worried about what would happen to her after Alfonse died, for although it was not unheard of for queens to reign in their own right, several of Sonnette’s kinsmen felt they had a more legitimate claim to the throne than Alamara had.
Brenna listened to Alamara with interest, and then shared some of her own story. She told of her initiation into the priestess-hood and of her life and duties at the Abbey. She spoke of her herb garden, of her joy at teaching the defensive arts class to the young acolytes at the Abbey, and of her surprise at being sent for to attend King Alfonse. She told about some of her adventures on the road to Locallen, but found herself hesitant to tell her friend about Garan and their relationship. She desperately wanted to ask Alamara about him to see if the rumors were true that he was once a member of the court in her service, but something in her heart warned her to keep silent on the matter, so she referred to him only as her guide and left him nameless and featureless in her tales.
When Brenna noticed Alamara stifling a yawn, she rose to leave. Alamara rose as well, embracing her friend for a long moment before moving to a small, side door. When Brenna gave her a puzzled glance, she smiled shyly at her friend. “Alfonse and I have slept next to each other nearly every night for over twenty years. I shall continue to go to him each night until he no longer requires my company.” She blew Brenna a kiss and passed through the door, closing it softly behind her.
Brenna walked back to her rooms, her head and heart suddenly filled with thoughts of Garan. They’d only been apart one day, but she missed him terribly. It felt like a lifetime had passed since they’d said goodbye at the town gates, and as she pulled off her gown and crawled into the huge, soft bed, she felt a painful, overwhelming longing for him. They, too, had spent the past several nights sleeping together, and although she was quite tired, Brenna wasn’t sure she’d be able to sleep without him near. She said her prayers and blessings and then reached out with her mind, aching to connect with him. Just as the tears slipped from her eyes, she felt it, his warm, strong embrace as he wrapped his arms around her, crushing her to him. She could smell his skin, feel the coarse hair of his chest against her cheek, hear his slow, even breathing and the thudding of his heart. She gave herself over completely to the magic, feeling comforted and soothed by the illusion, and soon was fast asleep.
The next morning, Brenna opened her eyes and stretched, smiling contentedly. She rose and walked into the main room, opening the curtains to look out over the lush expanse of gardens and grounds that stretched to the edge of the cliff, overlooking the sea. She’d never seen the ocean before and it filled her with wonder and delight. She made a mental note to go down to the water’s edge at some point during her stay at the castle, and turned as Torrie entered the room bearing a tray heaped with items for breakfast. There were sweet rolls and pastries of every description, bacon and sausages, small tubs of butter and soft cheeses, and bowls full of several kinds of berries. Torrie set the burgeoning tray down on the table and Brenna gazed at it in amazement. She selected a few items for her breakfast and encouraged Torrie to do the same, which she did after some hesitation. In the center of the tray was a pot filled with a rich, sweet, chocolate liquid which Brenna had never tasted before but found very enjoyable.
After breakfast, Brenna washed, dressed and gathered her medicine bag to begin her duties. Rapping on the king’s door softly, she was not surprised to find Baron Machieve already with the king. She greeted the king pleasantly, moving to open the curtains and let in some of the glorious sunshine she’d experienced from her room. Machieve winced. “The curtains should be kept drawn, for His Majesty’s eyes are sensitive to the light.”
Brenna returned to the king’s side and kneeled next to his couch. He looked more ashen and withdrawn than he had when she’d first seen him yesterday, and as she took his hand he tried weakly to smile at her. “How are you this morning, Your Majesty,” she said, hiding her concern.
“Better, now that you are here,” he said, before a spasm of coughing overtook him. When he’d regained his breath, he turned to the Baron. “No offense, Machieve, but the lady Brenna is easier on the eyes.”
“None taken, my liege,” Machieve said, but he shot Brenna a glance that made it obvious he didn’t share the sentiment.
Brenna moved to the fireplace, taking a kettle from a hook near the fire and checking to be sure it was filled with water. She pulled a small brazier from her medicine bag and soon had it lit, setting the kettle on it to boil while she rummaged through her bag for specific herbs. When Machieve realized what she was doing, her smiled indulgently at her. “His Majesty has already had his tea this morning, Priestess. I made it for him myself, as I do every morning.”
“Oh, I see. What kind of tea do you make for His Majesty,” Brenna said as she poured the now boiling water over a handful of herbs, placing a lid on the cup to catch the steam.
“It is a special blend of teas imported from far across the sea,” Machieve said. “My own proprietary blend.”
“It sounds quite exotic. I am fond of a good cup of tea myself. Perhaps you would be willing to share some?” Brenna said, straining her herbal infusion into a second cup and stirring it to cool it a bit.
Machieve smiled a strange smile. “If you wish,” he said.
“Baron Machieve, you wouldn’t happen to know if there is any honey available, would you? My concoction can be bitter, and honey would be a wonderful addition to it.” The Baron frowned with disdain, clearly indicating that fetching honey was a job better fit for servants, not nobility, but the King was gazing at him with amusement and Brenna was waiting expectantly.
“I believe the cook has some down in the kitchen. Excuse me, Your Majesty,” he said, turning on his heel and leaving the room.
Brenna glanced at the king, trying to stifle her smile, but Alfonse was smiling back at her and she chuckled. What an arrogant bore the Baron was, she thought, and why on earth does the king put up with him? She helped Alfonse to sit up, arranging the pillows behind him. “I’m afraid my tea is not imported from afar, but it will help you feel better. Would you like to try some now or wait for the honey?”
“I’ll try a sip now. How bad can it be?” Brenna handed him the cup, helping to steady the king’s trembling hands as he brought it to his lips. He sipped at it tentatively, winced and blinked. “It’s not as bad as all that. That which does not kill us makes us stronger, right?”
“Indeed, Your Majesty,” Brenna said. She was surprised as he brought the cup to his lips and drained it in one long draught, sinking back onto the pillows. “I fear the Baron will be annoyed at having been sent on a fool’s errand for the honey,” she said.
“You mean, that wasn’t a clever ploy to get us alone together,” Alfonse said and the twinkle in his eye told Brenna he was teasing again. Evidently, he was feeling better already.
“No, I’m afraid not,” Brenna said and laughed at the king’s feigned disappointment. She knew he was only ten years older than she was, but he seemed so elderly and frail that it broke her heart. She looked across the room to the windows, and past them to the sea. “The castle grounds are truly lovely,” she said. “I have never been to the seashore. It is spectacular.”
“Yes, it is,” he said, eyes closed. “Locallen Castle has been here for as long as anyone can remember, probably before The Purge. The ancients chose wisely when they built on this site. The view from here is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.” His voice trailed off wistfully.
“Your Majesty, would you like me to arrange a couch for you near the window?” Brenna said, suddenly inspired. He didn’t answer, but his expression told him he would indeed like that, so Brenna set about gathering servants and rearranging the furniture, eventually directing several strong men to lift the couch that the king was lying on and move it to face the open window.
Alfonse had dozed while Brenna and the servants worked, but now opened his eyes and looked outside. Tears misted his eyes and he smiled, reaching over to pat Brenna’s hand. She took his hand in hers, sitting next to him on the floor and gazing out the window as well, sending her healing energy into him. He took it all in, absorbing every detail as if burning it into his mind forever, then closed his eyes to nap again.
Brenna was pleased at finding something so simple that had given him such joy. She slipped her hand gently from his, standing and moving to the table to tidying up her tea-making supplies when Baron Machieve entered the room. He stopped short, scowling at the rearranged furniture and open curtains, and rounded on Brenna. “Your honey, Priestess,” he said, all pretense of courtesy dropped now that the king wasn’t listening.
“Thank you, Baron,” she said evenly. “I shall keep it for this evening’s dose of medicine.”
“Surely, you know that the king is dying. Your herbal concoctions and magic spells can do nothing but delay the inevitable. Perhaps your talents are better served at helping to hasten his crossing, to relieve him of his suffering.”
“It is true that there is no cure for the Wasting Sickness, but I don’t believe the king’s death is quite as imminent as we originally expected. What I find curious, though, is why you want to hasten his death?” Brenna looked at him pointedly, refusing to be intimated by him.
“I wish only for His Majesty to be comfortable in his final hours, and for Her Majesty to not be strung along with false hopes,” he said. Brenna detected an undercurrent of malice in his voice and looked at him evenly.
“Then we share the same goals, it seems,” she said. “I will endeavor to insure that both things occur, as is my charge.”
At that moment, Torrie knocked timidly on the door and entered the room. “My lady, would you be available for a moment? Her Majesty has sent some gowns for your perusal.”
“Gowns? For me?” Brenna said, mildly irritated at the interruption. “Yes, of course. Excuse me, Baron.”
Machieve nodded in her direction, clearly dismissing her and gesturing to a servant to close the curtains. Brenna stifled an exasperated sigh and headed back to her room.
Torrie was already there, waiting expectantly next to the sofa, which was heaped with elaborate gowns of every color and description. “Aren’t they beautiful?” she sighed.
“Indeed. What are they doing here?”
“Her Majesty wants you to pick out the ones you like, for you to wear while you’re here at the castle.”
“That’s very kind of Her Majesty, but I have gowns to wear.” Even as she said the words, Brenna fondled the soft fabrics and luxurious trims. They were the most exquisite things she’d ever seen, and wearing them would be thrilling.
“Yes, but your gowns are …” Torrie hesitated, not wanting to offend Brenna. At Brenna’s raised eyebrow, Torrie continued “… perfectly serviceable for your healing work, but, um, perhaps, um, not appropriate for banquets and balls …” her voice trailed off, nervously.
“Yes, that is true, but I am a Priestess, not a lady of the court.” Still, it wouldn’t hurt to pick out one or two of these lovely confections, in case she was expected to attend any more formal suppers like the previous evening. “Torrie, which ones do you like?”
Torrie’s face lit up, clearly relieved. “Oh, my lady, I think any of the jewel-toned ones would look lovely on you.” She began to hold dresses up to Brenna, clucking and murmuring to herself. She was separating the dresses into two piles and Brenna smiled at her.
“I have no experience with fashion, dear. Why don’t you pick out a few gowns that you think would be appropriate for me.”
“It would be my pleasure, my lady,” Torrie said, diving back into the pile of dresses with gusto as Brenna headed back down the hall to the King’s chambers.