BtQC – Chapters 30 and 31
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.