PART ONE: THE PROPHET OF THE QUAG
Lea of Vorti regarded herself in her bed-chamber looking glass with an expression of distaste. After turning around several times and eyeing the reflection critically, she decided that the splendid blue gown laid out by her maid caused her to look fat. True, it set off the blond in her streaked wheaten and black hair, and it made her changeable eyes blue, which was their most striking color, but it also created an apparent bulge around her midsection where there was none. Lea was anything but fat - in fact, since early childhood, her nurses had been plying her with food in an attempt to bulk her up. For someone with a partial elf heritage, she was tall, but to describe her as anything heavier than slender would be an injustice.
After shrugging off the gown, Lea rummaged through her walk-in garment closet. Eventually, she settled on a less ostentatious turquoise dress. Having worn it several times before, she knew how it would look. She couldn't understand why her maid seemed averse to letting her wear the same clothes more than once in any given fortnight. Variety was important, but not as important as looking good.
At the age of fourteen - nearly fifteen - it was critical to Lea to appear attractive, and it was acknowledged that the uncrowned queen was among the most beautiful women within the walls of the palace. She had inherited the better traits of her parents, with one exception - a prominent, upturned nose. Then there was her hair, which was unique in its intricate, natural pattern of dark and fair strands. Hanging straight, with no waves or curls, it reached nearly to the small of her back, and was the envy of women both young and old throughout the city.
In little more than two weeks, Lea was to be crowned Queen of Vorti. The throne had gone unoccupied since the death of her father, King Sor. Lea had never known either of her parents since they had died within a few days of each other when she was a week old. During her long days of studying to become queen, she had learned a great deal about Sor, since his reign was well documented and everyone was willing to talk about him. It was different with her mother, however. Apparently, she had been a mystery. About all Lea had learned about Mora, or Joi as she was commonly called, was that she had been young, not pretty, the spitting image of Sor's first wife, and the product of a rare human/elf union.
After donning the turquoise dress and tying the laces across her ample bosom, Lea twirled around, admiring herself in the glass. Now she looked good. She was about to call for her maid to brush her hair when there was a knock at the outer door to Lea's suite.
"Come in," she called, her voice musical. Lea was an excellent singer, and the purity of tone extended to her spoken voice. Many had commented how pleasant it would be to hear her proclamations ringing through the large audience hall where most public functions were held.
At the queen's bidding, her regent entered, smiling fondly at the girl. Eya, who at thirty-seven was unmarried, was a plain woman with masculine features. Like her twin brother Reg, she possessed silver-streaked fair hair, blue eyes, and a sizable nose. In addition to being the queen's regent, guardian, and blood-aunt, Eya was an Apath of formidable abilities. Many believed her powers had scared off whatever potential suitors she might have had. In Vorti, few women of marriageable age, regardless of their appearance, remained single. Eya was a notable exception.
"Good morning, My Queen," said the regent with a formal bow. "I see you have again chosen to reject the dress set out for you by your maid." She indicated the blue gown that lay in a heap on the floor.
"I tried it on, Eya, but it made me look fat. You're always telling me how important it is that I look good."
"Indeed I am, but the dress you're wearing now is a bit too...common...for formal occasions. An audience with the king of another city is a very important event."
"Even Guc of Tsab?" asked Lea, wrinkling her nose. She didn't know the man personally but, based on palace gossip, she had formed some unpleasant opinions about the ruler of Devforth's westernmost city.
"Especially Guc of Tsab. He's coming here with an official apology, as well as offers of fealty. Neither is required of him; he could have as easily sent an emissary, but he chose to come on his own. Therefore, you must be polite and courteous to him."
"Even though he is responsible for the deaths of two of my guards."
"It happened in Tsab, but it is hardly his fault."
"Wasn't it you who taught me that the actions of a ruler's subjects are the responsibility of the king or queen?"
Eya allowed a wry smile to cross her features. "I see you learned that lesson well. In coming here, Guc is showing that he accepts the responsibility for his subjects, but don't confuse that to mean he countenanced what was done."
"I wouldn't do that."
"I didn't think you would."
"Well," said Lea, shifting the topic back to what it had originally been. "If I can't wear this, what can I wear? I wish I had wonderful clothes like you!"
Presently, Eya was dressed in a simple white gown with lace along the hem, cuffs, and plunging neckline. Her shoes matched the dress, and her hair was gathered back from her face by a pink ribbon.
"Lea, your wardrobe is twice the size of mine. There must be something in there that's acceptable."
"Then why don't you choose my clothes instead of Mya? She almost never gets it right, and she won't let me wear what I want to."
"Perhaps that's because what you want is not suitable. You're not a little girl any more, Lea. Now that you're about to take over ruling this city, you'll find that your wardrobe is among the least significant of many changes."
"But Mya's dress made me look fat!"
"I'll speak to her about it later. For now, let's see if we can find something more seemly for an audience with King Guc."
Eventually, the pair settled on another turquoise gown, this one more extravagant than the simple frock preferred by Lea. When the queen tried the new choice on, however, she had to admit that the effect was impressive.
"Do you think Guc really wants to make peace?" asked Lea as Eya brushed her hair.
"That's a difficult question to answer. We don't know as much about Guc as we did his father. Since Hwo was executed, the government of Tsab has been keeping a low profile, so it's difficult to tell how he feels about Vorti. Judging from my brother's report last week, Guc's reception of him was abrupt - if not rude - but this turn of events may have made him conciliatory."
"But I should be careful?"
"Always be careful in diplomatic interactions. Never trust the other party, at least not completely, no matter how artless they seem. Make no mistake - Guc is not beyond deception if he thinks he can gain some benefit out of it. Your duty is to determine how much of what he says and offers is real."
"Everyone else will help me, though, right?"
Eya smiled. "That's what advisors are for. Reg, Wil, and I will be beside you."
"Could Jav be there too?" asked Lea, referring to her tutor.
Fifteen years ago, Jav had been Vorti's chancellor, but he had resigned the post upon Eya's appointment to the regency. Since then, he had continued to live within the palace, functioning as one of the queen's legion of teachers. It was no secret, however, that he was her favorite, probably because he had spoiled her even as he taught her lessons.
"I'm not sure that would be fair to Jav," said Eya, aware the man in question had no desire to become involved in politics again.
"But he was Chancellor once, for my father."
"That was some time ago, and Jav is no longer as young as he once was."
"He's younger than Chancellor Wil," protested Lea.
"But Chancellor Wil is an Apath. Jav isn't."
"So you're saying Jav can't be there?"
"No. I'm saying you should consider whether it's in his best interests or not."
Lea pursed her lips. "I was hoping Jav would be my chancellor."
"Are you displeased with the job Wil has done?"
"No, but I want Jav close to me when I take the throne."
"Because he is your loyal servant, he wouldn't tell you this, but the post of Chancellor is not one Jav would wish to fill again. If you asked him, he would probably say yes, out of loyalty to you, but all that would accomplish would be to make him a very unhappy man. It's better to have him as a friend than an official advisor."
"So you think I should keep Wil as my chancellor?"
"That would be my recommendation, although there are others as qualified. The final choice is yours."
"And you're not saying this because you're sharing Wil's bed?"
Eya raised an eyebrow, surprised by how perceptive her ward was about some of the internal goings-on within the palace. She thought she and Wil had been discreet. "No, my opinion is based on his performance in that office over the past fifteen years."
"All right. You know I'm going to take all your recommendations any way, Eya - or at least most of them. It probably will help my security on the throne to have an Apath in such a prominent position."
"You'll always have me as well, Your Majesty."
"I know that, Eya. I'm still trying to come up with a suitable position for you. I want you to be more than just an 'advisor.'"
"'Advisor' is fine. I have no aspirations to anything more. The only reason I became your regent is because I feared the ideas of others who vied for the position. I would never claim I didn't gain personally, but my first concern has been for you and Vorti."
Having finished with the queen's hair, Eya bade her to stand and pirouette. Even at such a young age, Lea cut a striking figure. In a few more years, when she reached full physical maturity, she had the promise to be a real beauty. The palace had not been graced by one of those since the death of Queen Sye, Sor's mother.
Having satisfied her regent that she looked presentable at Court, Lea strolled over to one of the half-dozen egg-shaped windows set in the suite's eastern wall. The view, normally magnificent, was curtailed today, the intensifying snow blocking out all but the nearest buildings. In the palace courtyard, workmen were shoveling assiduously to keep the walkways clear for the arrival of the king of Tsab and his entourage.
"I love the snow," said Lea, gazing wistfully across a city being blanketed by it. "I wish I could go out and play."
Eya chuckled. "That would make an interesting sight. The soon-to-be-crowned queen frolicking in the snow."
"I didn't say I was going to do it," said Lea. "Just that it would be fun to."
Eya came up behind her and draped an arm companionably over her shoulder. "Snow is always better to watch from inside, where it's warmer. I could never understand its nostalgic quality. Personally, I can't stand it."
"That's because you're old," said Lea matter-of-factly. "All young people love snow. Look." She indicated a pair of children throwing snowballs at each other just beyond the palace walls.
"I've always liked warm weather, but I was raised in a farming community, and all my good memories are of the summer months."
Somewhere to the west a trumpet sounded, followed in quick succession by several others. Hearing the fanfare, Lea noted, "I guess our guest has arrived. I hope he liked traveling all this way in bad weather. Mya said it's worse over the plains."
"Wil got a letter from his son. For the first time in recent memory, the snow in Falnora is knee-deep. Rumor has it that they've even seen a few flakes as far south as the Twin Cities."
At that moment, there was a knock at the door. When Eya opened it, she was informed that the queen's presence was requested in the throne room for an audience with the king of Tsab.
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