“USE MY FACE or my ass. I don’t give a damn what you put on the coin,” Avestine shouted. She sent her treasurer and most of her staff from the room. In addition to her royal guards, only Gerard remained, standing attentively beside the granite throne.
Leaning forward, she rested her forehead in her hands, and the room remained silent until after evensun.
The newly-named kingdom of Arrowreign claimed to have kept Darklaw at bay, though Avestine knew her brother had left the Trade Quarter of his own accord. She thought he had come seeking her, but he must have found his prize elsewhere.
The residents of the kingdom that had once belonged to an ancestral king were naturally suspicious of her, so questions about her right to rule still stirred up trouble in the cities and villages. She reminded the region’s landowners how they relied on her to protect them from the return of the black legions, as well as the deprivations of an angry Avjakar and Koledoon interested in annexing their farms.
She cultivated patience because she knew if she could manage the questions well enough, everything she wanted would be hers.
Wald was the first attendant to wake her each day. Along with her chambermaid, he arrived with coffee and biscuits. His cheerfulness was like an accusation, and Avestine was coming to loathe the boy.
He was a lanky adolescent with big feet and bad breath, who had found her like so many other Essanti had over the years. He had arrived at Ureth Mourning’s gates claiming to have escaped from the garrison at Insaid.
At first, Avestine didn’t know why Darklaw soldiers had bothered to jail him, and later she wondered why they had not executed him. He claimed he planned to kill a lover who spurned him. She found the motive trite and the plan ill-conceived, but grew intrigued when he mentioned who his lover had been: one of her brother’s generals. Such “unnatural” matings were punishable by death in the Dark Quarter, the result of her brother’s rectification of a “fallen age.” Her father had never cared where a man got his pleasure, but Avestar declared the divine mandate came from Arujan himself the year after her defection at Agate Bay.
“My Gracious Queen,” said Wald as he held out the plate of biscuits. “I can help you dress or send for your chambermaid.”
Avestine waved him away and settled for coffee. She told him to leave. He complied with visible disappointment.
Amilese leaned around the door of the servant’s quarters and tried to vanish before Avestine saw her.
“Amilese,” said Avestine sternly. “Why are you hiding?”
“Forgive me,” she said. “I only wished to see if you needed me.” She peered through long lashes. “Might I please you?”
Avestine observed the young woman who serviced her more than anyone. “You always please me. Not now.” She dismissed Amilese with a wave of her hand as she tossed through a pile of clothes on the floor.
She smelled a shirt and pulled it on over the linen smock she had worn to bed. She pulled on her trousers and boots, and was surprised when Amilese set her blue robe on her shoulders. Avestine looked into the brown eyes, only then seeing their dilation and the emotion wracking the young body. She touched a finger to Amilese’s chin. “Odd time, don’t you think?”
Amilese shook her head as her breathing hastened. “No. I’m always in such a way for you, My Mistress. My magnificent Queen!”
Amilese could be enthusiastic, was certainly dutiful, but was never importunate. She was a young woman of discrete and sensible manners. Not like Kami at all. The moment she thought the name, Avestine felt as if she had been stabbed.
She hadn’t thought of Kami in a while, had found every opportunity to distract herself so she wouldn’t. The pain was unexpected, and she let anger distract her.
Eyeing Amilese more carefully, she sniffed her and understood. “You’ve disobeyed me. I told you it’s not for you, Amilese.”
Avestine knew she should punish a disobedient servant, but even torture had not stopped two other servants from stealing boxes of opium from the storeroom. Gerard had warned her how powerful the powder would be, but she had not believed anything could be more powerful than her command.
She was disappointed because she was fond of Amilese.
She considered the variety of punishments she could inflict before wondering about the pleasure she might be able to take from the moment of inhibition instead. But thoughts of Kami were too near. Avestine was about to call for her guard when the door opened. She turned, ready to upbraid whoever dared to enter without permission, but her voice sputtered like a dowsed fire.
“If you let attendants dress you, you might smell better,” said Rook. He closed the door, palace guards hovering behind him.
Avestine couldn’t move, but she said, “I thought you were dead.”
“I think I was.” He took a step toward her and stopped. He watched her body stiffen with reckoning.
Avestine shook her head sharply to keep him from speaking. “You can tell me what happened to her one day many years from now. You need food.”
Rook’s mouth parted with surprise.
“Aren’t you hungry?” she growled, insulted by his reaction to her kindness.
“Famished, Your Grace.”
She tried to straighten her hair by running her hands through it before she gave up and tied it with a leather strap. She looked him over again and didn’t bother to smile. The time apart didn’t matter. She had lost him many times already.
“I saw Wald,” Rook said. “Is that his name? Essanti. The only one that’s come?”
“If you prefer to stay angry at the gods, then you should hand this kingdom over to someone who will make something of it.”
“Just back from the dead and think you can tell me what to do?”
“It’s time to think about the future of the Trade Quarter.”
“I think about it constantly,” hissed Avestine, “or haven’t you noticed that it belongs to me now?”
“Then today you have decisions to make, and the first one is whether to dress and act like the queen you are, or continue like a mercenary who’s getting ready to run off with the silver.”
He raised his arm to block her hand as it balled itself on the verge of a punch. He relaxed, just before she balled it up again and slugged him in the abdomen. He doubled over. Avestine leaned down and said into his ear. “I’m not the only one who stinks.”
Published in Darklaw |
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