BtQC – Chapters 28 and 29
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.