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By Alana Church
Artwork by Moira Nelligar
Copyright 2018 Alana Church
~~ All characters in this book are over 18. ~~
The grand audience hall of Delania was stifling.
Standing beside her father, Eleanora Tentrees shifted, trying to subtly guide some air up her heavy skirts. The warmth of the late spring day, the unaccustomed court clothes, and the sheer mass of nobles and courtiers in the throne room combined to make her incredibly uncomfortable. Her dark brown hair, done up in an elaborate coif by the shaking hands of her maidservant earlier in the morning, clung to her temples, and she could feel a slow trickle of sweat seeping down her back.
She grasped her father’s arm, rising up on tiptoe, in an effort to see over the heads in front of them. They had been standing in the reception line for well over an hour, waiting for the queen to call her father and herself forward.
“Patience, Nora.” Her father’s deep voice made her sink back down on her feet. “It will happen when it happens.”
It had better happen soon, then, she thought snappishly. I have to pee. I don’t think Queen Laurelin would think much of me if I had to leave the room to find a chamber pot.
“Yes, Papa,” she murmured obediently.
A few paces ahead of them, the figures in front of the throne bowed and backed away. A herald beside the throne struck the marble floor with the butt of his spear, and intoned, “Sir Warner Tentrees, and his daughter, the Lady Eleanora!”
Her knees shook as she walked the proscribed twelve steps forward. Her father was a large, comforting presence at her side. They stopped, waited for the count of six, then her father bowed deeply, while Nora bent her knees in a curtsy, her eyes downcast. She was acutely aware that her one court dress, hastily cut down from one of the few which remained in her mother’s wardrobe, was years out of fashion, and that she was a dull figure indeed compared to the glittering ladies of the court.
“Rise, Sir Warner. Lady Eleanora.”
She stood, her spine rigid, unwilling to let her fear of shaming her father show, and saw the queen for the first time.
In the throne room, she shone like a flame. Hair like embers on a winter morning curled down in riotous profusion, and her skin was white as cream. Eyes of a brilliant emerald, deep-set and intelligent, examined them curiously. Her nose was strong, her mouth sensual, and her body ripe and lush, clad in a dress which was the same green as those incredible eyes. A thin band of gold circled her brows, in which a single blue sapphire gleamed.
“Sir Warner.” There was true warmth in her voice, and her lips curled in a fond smile. “It is a long way from the Battle of Fisher’s Crossing.”
“Yes, your majesty.” He turned slightly, drawing the queen’s attention to Nora. “May I present to you my oldest daughter, Eleanora.”
Nora curtsied again. “Your majesty.”
The queen gestured impatiently. “Get up, child. I know my titles.” She cast a keen look at her father. “And where is your lady wife? From the stories you told me, I was truly looking forward to meeting her.”
“She wished to be here, your majesty. Truly. But I fear she is in a…delicate condition…right now.”
“What? Again? Seven gods have mercy, Warner! It’s not up to you to repopulate the entire kingdom by yourself!”
A titter ran through the throne room, and she giggled as her father flushed in proud embarrassment. Her parents had graced her with five brothers and sisters, and a sixth was on the way. Her mother seemed to be a constant state of pregnancy, but managed the household and her children with a serene competence and good cheer which made her oldest daughter envy her. Nora could only wish that she was as lucky in her choice of a lifemate as her parents had been.
“Well,” the queen was saying, with a cheerfully malicious smile. “I can’t blame you for wanting to make up for lost time after the war ended. I kept you away from her most cruelly.
“I suppose it is only fitting that I try to make some amends.” Reaching to one side, she held up a heavy gold chain. An embossed seal hung from one end.
“With the trial, conviction, and execution for treason of many of my former husband’s allies, too many of the high lordships of Delania are empty.” The queen stood and raised her voice, and it rang thoughout the throne room. “For service to the nation, for heroism on the battlefield, and for keeping faith with me when so many others did not, I hereby bestow the Barony of Buckhallow on Warner Tentrees, to be his and his heirs’, as long as he and his bloodline shall last.”
Nora gasped. For a moment she thought that her bluff, hearty father would faint dead away.
The queen winked. “This is where you kneel, and say ‘Thank you, your majesty,’” she whispered in a carrying voice.
Shaking, Sir Warner knelt. Nora followed. The marble was cold and hard beneath her knees. From the corner of her eyes she could see the chain of office settle on her father’s broad chest as the queen laid it over his shoulders.
“Rise, Baron of Buckhallow.” A slim white hand appeared, and her father took it as he rose to her feet. A moment later, it hung before her eyes. Nora grasped the warm fingers, finding them surprisingly strong.
Standing, she saw the queen looking at her sharply, as if truly seeing her for the first time. The green eyes seemed to be looking into her very soul, and it was a quite uncomfortable feeling.
Turning to the herald, the queen made a small gesture. The man nodded, struck the floor again with his spear, and said loudly, “My lords and ladies, this day’s business it at an end. The queen will hear your petitions tomorrow, commencing at the third hour after dawn.”
A muted sigh swept through the room, as those who had hoped to speak with the queen gave voice to murmurs of disappointment, but there were no audible protests.
“Will you and your daughter accompany me back to my chambers, baron? I have a proposal which you might find interesting.”
“I didn’t want this, Laurelin,”
“If you had,” she responded tartly as they entered the private rooms she shared with Prince-Consort Roland, “I wouldn’t have given it to you. The kingdom is full of people who want power, but have no right to it. As my fool of a husband proved all too well.”
Laurelin removed the gold circlet from her head, placing it carefully on a table, and rubbed at her brows. Even as thin as it was, the gold was heavy.
Almost as heavy as the weight of duty and sorrow.
“Still, your majesty,” the tall, bearish man said stubbornly. “I’m just a knight. Yes, my great-grandfather held a barony, but that was three generations back and in the female line. I’m just a farmer, when all is said and done.”
She cocked her head. “A farmer who risked his life, rode three horses half to death, and covered a hundred leagues in four days so he could warn me that Baron Kyren had turned his coat and sided with Prince-Consort Welston?” She shook her head. “You underestimate yourself, Werner. As usual. They sing songs about you. Did you know that? And the way your men held back Duke Mandora’s charge on the second day of the battle, after Earl Sandholt fell and you took command? I’d be a fool if I didn’t take advantage of such a man. And I’m trying very hard not to be a fool these days.”
She heard the bitterness in her voice, and hated it. “What say you, child?” she asked, spinning suddenly to face Werner’s daughter, who was standing unobtrusively a few paces away. “What do you think about your father’s sudden elevation in rank?”
She was pleased to see that the girl did not flinch. Her chin rose stubbornly. “I think he will do as well as any and better than most, majesty.”
“As do I.” She shook her head. “Have done, Werner,” she said tiredly. “We lost a quarter of the nobility in the kingdom in this stupid, stupid war. Either dead on the battlefield, captured and murdered by Welston, executed for treason, or merely exiled with their lands and titles stripped. You’re not the only man or woman who is going to be learning as they go. Just in the last two months, I’ve had to pass out eleven baronies, three earldoms, and a duchy to people who were completely unprepared for the task. Trust me. You were one of the easiest choices. And one of the best.”
Werner nodded, but for a blessing, he didn’t argue. “And where is the new prince-consort?” he asked. “I hoped to see him.”
“And he hoped to see you. He sends his regards, and hopes that you and your daughter will dine with us this evening. But he was called away. Duty never rests, and there was some dispute between the city guard, one of the trade-guilds, and the temple of Alianna.”
“Yes.” Her lips quirked, remembering her husband’s astonishment. “Apparently, there was a question about whether some of the women who were contracted for an evening of pleasure were with the temple or the trade-guild, or were working independently, and who was owed payment. Roland got tired of having them sending him complaints, so he went into the city to straighten it out. I hope he bangs their fool heads together,” she muttered darkly.
“Oh,” Warner said, blushing into his beard. “That trade-guild.”
“What trade-guild, Papa?” the girl asked curiously.
“Never you mind,” he replied quickly, and Laurelin remembered that he was a man unused to the sort of pleasures that could be purchased in the royal city. And that his daughter was even more of an innocent.
Luckily, they were interrupted by a soft cry from an adjoining room. Eleanora’s head jerked up. “Is that…”
Laurelin smiled with unalloyed pleasure. “Yes. Do you wish to meet them?”
“Yes! May I?”
“Of course.” She stood and led them through a pair of doors at one end of the room. A large room, warm and decorated in pastel colors, soothed their eyes. Sunshine flowed in from windows set in the southern wall, which overlooked the castle gardens.
A woman of middle years stood quickly as she entered, and she nodded distractedly. “How are they today?”
“Very good, your majesty,” the wet-nurse replied. “They both fed well, and had a long nap. I think they are about to wake up.”
Eleanora was already looking over the side of one crib. “Oh. She’s adorable!”
Laurelin was absurdly pleased. “Well, I certainly think so. But all mothers do, I suppose.” She trailed a finger over one chubby cheek. “This is Princess Linessa.
“And that,” she continued as a cranky cry rose from the other side of the room, “is his majesty Prince Ashkelon, before whom we all shudder and tremble, Dark Lord of all he surveys.”
“No, he’s not.” Nora skipped over and hauled the protesting baby out of his crib. “You’re just a cute little sweetie, aren’t you?” she said, kissing his cheek. “Yes, you are!” She bounced her son in her arms, and was soon rewarded with a gurgling chuckle.
“She’s good with children, isn’t she.” The words, spoken quietly to Warner, were not a question.
“Seven Gods, yes,” he agreed fervently. “Gwendolyn says she didn’t know how she would have coped without her, while I was away.” He smiled proudly as she lifted the laughing baby high into the air, under the eyes of the bemused guards.
Laurelin smiled too, but sadly.
She’s your pride and joy. And I’m going to take her away from you.
“So what do you think of the queen, now that you’ve met her?” her father asked, later that evening, as they prepared for dinner.
“I think that she’s the queen, and is a little bit above my likes and dislikes, Papa,” she responded. She had been petrified to learn that she and her father were going to dine privately with the queen and her family. It was taking all her self-control to not fall into a puddle of frazzled nerves on the floor.
Even after the war, when her father had returned home, she had been half-inclined to believe that his stories about the queen and the prince-consort had been the mere tall tales of a soldier. It seemed impossible to believe that he was on a first-name basis with the two most important people in the entire kingdom. But the queen’s casual friendship, her easy dismissal of rank, told the truth. Theirs was the kind of bond which could only be forged in the most terrible, desperate times.
“I liked her,” she added, after a moment. “She doesn’t talk down to me and treat me like a child, like Aunt Estrella or Aunt Danice do.”
Her father smiled into his beard. “My sisters aren’t used to thinking about you as a grown woman, yet,” he teased.
“Hah.” She slid her feet into her court slippers, soft things made of satin, and squinted at him suspiciously. “Are you ready to go?”
“Yes, dear,” he said humbly, and she sniffed.
“You’re as bad as Petrella,” she said, glaring at him in mock-disgust, naming her youngest sister, who was four years old. “And have even less excuse.”
The tall man in the expensive clothing crossed the distance between them as soon as Nora and her father entered the royal couple’s private apartments, admitted by a pair of watchful if unobtrusive guards.
“Oh, your pardon,” he said as he drew near. He bowed with mock-gravity, though his eyes were dancing. “Baron Buckhallow. Congratulations on your elevation to the peerage. The realm is richer as a result.”
“Stop it,” her father growled. “Before I cave in your skull and knock out what little wits you have.” His cheerful expression belied his words, however, and he clasped the man’s forearm in greeting.
“And this must be your daughter, since she is far too small, and far too not-pregnant to be your lady wife.” The man bowed his head. “Lady Eleanora. I hope I find you well?”
“Yes.” She looked up, panicked.
“Nora.” Her father rescued her. “May I make you known to Queen Laurelin’s husband, Prince-Consort Roland.”
“Oh!” She gasped in dismay and curtsied. “Your highness.”
The man waved his hand. He was handsome, with an impressive nose, a cleft chin, and black, waving hair. His clothes were rich but not ostentatious, and the dagger at his hip was plain, without the jewel-studded hilts she had seen worn by many of the petty nobility. “Please, Lady Eleanora. In these rooms, I am only Roland. There are far too few people I trust absolutely. Your father is one of them.” He inclined his head gravely. “I hope that you will soon be another.”
“So do I,” she stammered. “And please. Call me Nora.”
“It would be my pleasure, my lady.” His eyes twinkled, and she couldn’t tell whether he was teasing her or not.
“Ah. And here are the last two members of our dinner party,” he said cheerfully, as the queen entered, two other figures trailing behind her. One was dressed as a servant, with a pale, colorless face and limp, lifeless hair that might have been blond, had it not been ruthlessly pinned back under a starched white cap. The second was a child, perhaps seven years old, clad in a dark rose gown that did not suit her coloring at all. Her skin was much darker than that of the queen, and she had black hair which fell in ringlets past her shoulders. Her eyes were a dark blue, almost violet, and her face was finely carved, an elf-maid in miniature.