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.

* * *

     Shortly thereafter, the four most important people in Vorti were assembled at the front of the audience hall. Sitting on the throne was Lea, with Eya by her side. To the left and just behind the regent was her brother Reg, and standing further back, in the shadows, was Vorti's enigmatic chancellor, the Apath Wil.
     Wil was seventy years old, far beyond the age allotted to most humans, but his appearance was that of a man twenty-five years his junior. In the past fifteen years, the chancellor had put on noticeable weight. Without the rigors of a farmer's demanding day, little of the product of the palace's chefs had been worked off. Wil's advancing years had turned his shoulder-length, ponytailed hair a color to match his iron-gray eyes. His eyebrows, as always, were so thin as to be invisible, and his chin and upper lip were currently barren of whiskers. His thin, hooked nose, which looked almost like a beak, had earned him the nickname of "the hawk."
     The audience hall, which held about three-hundred observers, was full to overflowing. By now, the guards had barred the entrance to prevent more citizens from crowding into the chamber. Since no seats were provided, everyone had to stand. A red-carpeted aisle, kept clear by guards, led from the double doors at the back of the room to the throne.
     As Vorti's bell tower tolled mid-morning, Eya's secretary, a wizened old man with a sturdy voice, stepped forward to convene the day's audience. "Men and women of Vorti, this Court of Her Most Excellent Majesty Queen Lea of Vorti, daughter of King Sor of Vorti, in the fifteenth year of the regency of Her Honor Eya of Vorti, is now in session. The first supplicant this day is His Most Excellent Majesty King Guc of Tsab."
     With a thud, the doors in the rear were thrown wide, admitting four figures, all dressed in heavy woolen garments with thick fur capes. The tallest and most elegantly attired was obviously the king, while the three with him were advisors. Notable by their absence were members of the Tsabian Special Corps, Guc's personal bodyguard.
     A hush fell over the room as the small contingent made their way toward Lea and her advisors. Once Guc had come to the end of the aisle, he slowly and graciously went down on one knee. The others with him followed suit, only one - an old man who might be the chancellor - showing any surprise at his king's actions.
     "Rise, Your Majesty," said Eya, her expression unreadable. Although this was technically Lea's audience, she didn't want Guc to forget who wielded the real power - at least until Midwinter's Day.
     "Thank you for agreeing to this audience, Your Majesty," said Guc in his smooth voice, fixing his blue eyes on Lea. "Your Honor," he added belatedly, nodding in Eya's direction, but not looking away from the queen.
     "It is in the best interests of both cities to keep the lines of communication open. We are no longer at war, as we were in the time of my father. Nevertheless, the attack within Tsab on one of my chief advisors has caused concern and unease among those upon whose opinions I rely," said Lea. The words were rehearsed, but she said them as if arriving at them spontaneously.
     "My brother came to your city as an emissary," added Eya, a dangerous inflection in her voice. "As such, he should have been treated as an honored guest and provided with protection to ward off danger."
     "I apologize profusely for what transpired," said Guc, addressing Eya but regarding Lea. The regent was displeased with the lack of eye contact - not to mention the insult that accompanied such an omission - and chose to make her feelings known to Tsab's king.
     During the past fifteen years, while functioning as Lea's guardian and acting ruler of Vorti, Eya had been given opportunities to experiment with and expand upon her magical abilities. One function she had perfected was the ability to speak directly into the mind of another. The capability was effective and useful because of its subtlety and simplicity, utilizing minute quantities of emotion for setting up and maintaining the connection. Unless she focused her will and channeled energy through the mind-to-mind link, it was not a painful process for the recipient, but if that person was not expecting a message, it was guaranteed to startle.
     Forging an invisible link of minds between herself and Guc, she informed him, You will look at me when you speak to me, Your Majesty. In your earnestness to ingratiate yourself with the queen, it would behoove you not to forget that I am her regent and an Apath.
     The moment he heard Eya's voice in his head, Guc nearly cried aloud with surprise, glancing wildly around him until his eyes found the source of the message. One hand shifted to the place at his waist where he normally wore his sword, but since supplicants and observers were not permitted to have weapons in the audience hall, he had removed it outside.
     Good, said Eya. Now I have your attention. With that, she severed the link.
     Guc's fellows, noticing the sudden, frantic reaction of their king, cast concerned glances in his direction. Lea observed her guest with a mixture of confusion and surprise.
     "I beg your pardon," said Guc, his voice momentarily unsteady. It was unclear whether he was speaking to Eya or those who had witnessed the lapse.
     "Are you all right, Your Majesty?" asked Lea quietly.
     Guc, now recovered, waved off the incident. "A moment's indisposition, Your Majesty. Nothing to worry about. Now, as I was saying, had I thought there was a danger to the life of Sir Reg, I would have sent a troop of my personal guard with him, but I believed the two most capable officers accompanying him would be able to fend off any minor irritations, and there was no reason to suspect a larger conspiracy. Also, had I been aware that he intended to spend the night in Tsab, he would have been offered accommodations within the palace, but it was my impression that he wished to leave as soon as possible for Vorti. For that reason, and no other, he was not offered the full battery of Tsab's hospitality."
     "Are you offering this as an excuse, Your Majesty?" demanded Eya.
     "Never, Your Honor," Guc said, making certain to look Eya directly in the eye as he answered her. "I would not think to insult this royal assemblage in such a manner. And to you, Sir Reg," he said, again falling to one knee and facing the man who had been attacked, "I beg your forgiveness for what transpired in Tsab."
     Stone faced, Reg said, "It is to the families of the two good men who died that such an apology is rightfully due."
     His entourage mirroring his actions, Guc again rose to his feet, turning to Queen Lea. "I have brought with me the miscreants who are guilty of this most foul crime." At the king's clap, two guards in Tsabian armor marched down the aisle, dragging with them four men in chains. Reg recognized them immediately, especially the one who had accosted him inside the inn. These were four of the men who had survived the skirmish.
     "Reg?" whispered Eya.
     "It's them."
     As the malefactors were brought forward, Guc continued, "Normally, I would have had them executed for such crimes, but I thought it more fitting that they should be brought to face trial in the city of those against whom their crimes were committed. They had three confederates, all of whom fled Tsab before they could be taken. Even now, I have men scouring the countryside in search of them."
     "These men appear to have been ill-treated," said Lea, noting the poor condition of the prisoners, all of whom bore the obvious marks of floggings and other abuse.
     For the first time, Guc's expression became hard. "They are lucky to still have their lives, Your Majesty. I did not feel constrained to issue orders that such criminals be handled gently. Their crime deserves worse than has been done to them thus far."
     For once, Eya found herself in agreement with the king, but she understood why Lea had made the observation. One of the girl's repeated lessons had been to respect all life. Callous disregard for a subject - even the most loathsome - had brought more than one ruler to a bad end.
     "Would Your Majesty have me release them?" asked Guc, perceiving the uncertainty in Lea's reaction.
     "No!" exclaimed the queen. Gesturing to a pair of her guards, she commanded, "Take these four to the dungeons. They will be dealt with at a later time."
     As the prisoners were led out, another man wearing the livery of Tsab entered the hall, bearing with him a plain burlap sack. After bowing to the throne and saluting his sovereign, the man handed the package to his liege. Then, with another bow, he turned and departed, accompanied by the guards who had previously escorted Reg's attackers.
     "I have considered long and hard what reparations Tsab might make to Vorti for this unspeakable crime. The answer did not come easily, but when arrived at, it seemed the only appropriate price." At this point, he began to untie the cords binding closed the bag.
     "The attack was committed by citizens of Tsab for whom I bear responsibility," continued Guc. "Because of this, I offer my most valued possession..." With a flourish, he withdrew the gleaming, jewel-bespeckled gold Crown of Tsab from the sack. "My Crown, and with it my Kingdom."
     A collective gasp escaped those gathered in the hall, and the old man from Tsab looked as if he was about to have an apoplexy. Clearly, he had not anticipated this, nor had the younger man standing to his left. Only Guc and the one to his right appeared calm.
     "Take this Crown, Your Majesty, and let your coronation be jointly that of Vorti and Tsab. I will step aside for you."
     It was an impressive gesture, but Eya was sure that was all Guc intended it to be. No matter how contrite the king of Tsab was, and she was not convinced by his performance before Vorti's throne, he would never give up this much. Nevertheless, it would be interesting to see what would happen if the queen accepted the offer.
     However, before Eya could counsel otherwise, Lea spoke, declining the crown as Guc had expected her to. "I am honored, Your Majesty, but I cannot accept this offer. Let us instead say that your very willingness to present it to me has shown the honesty in your heart, and the city of Vorti shall henceforth hold you and Tsab blameless in this matter - with one caveat."
     For a moment, Guc looked startled, but he managed to mask the expression by ducking his head in apparent gratitude.
     "I wish a sum of one-thousand gold coins to be paid to the family of each of the guards slain defending Sir Reg. In addition, a written apology signed personally by you shall accompany the money. Are you agreeable to these terms?"
     "I am, Your Majesty," said Guc. "All shall be as you wish."
     "Then this audience is ended," said Lea. To her chief steward, she added, "Let the men of Tsab be shown to royal accommodations, that they may partake of the hospitality which was not offered to Sir Reg and his guards."
     Looking chastened, Guc genuflected once more before the throne, then followed the palace servants from the audience hall.
* * *

     "You don't approve of how I handled matters, do you?" asked Lea of her regent as Eya helped her dress for the official Tsabian welcoming dinner.
     "There are times when you can be too trusting, Lea," said Eya, fastening the final button on the collar of the queen's formal dress.
     "I knew the whole thing was just a political ploy, if that's what you're wondering."
     "And what would King Guc have done had you accepted the Crown?"
     "There was never any chance of that. His offering was a formality. I was supposed to refuse."
     "Often, it's rulers who buck the trends of 'formality' who become great kings and queens. Your own father did that, and look how Vorti has thrived. When he first abolished the nobility, there were those who said the city could not survive, let alone become the crux of human existence in Devforth."
     "There are those who say your reign - with the greater tolerance you brought - is more responsible for Vorti's elevation than anything accomplished by King Sor," noted Lea. That was not something she had learned in her "official" lessons, but it was an opinion voiced often by the palace servants.
     "Idle speculation by those who know no better," said Eya dismissively. "All I did was carry on your father's policies as best I could. Had he lived another decade, who knows how great Vorti could be at this moment?"
     "What would my father have done about Guc's offer?" asked Lea.
     It was a difficult question to answer, since Eya had not known Sor well. His positions on many important issues were a matter of public record, but it had been difficult to know the king's mind. "I can't say for sure, but King Sor was not inclined to show mercy. Had he survived, however, the question would probably be moot, since in all likelihood he would have marched Vorti's army back to Tsab after the failed invasion and taken over the city. Then Tsab and Vorti would be flying the same flag today."
     "Guc isn't the monster you made him out to be. In fact, he's charming."
     "Not to mention attractive?"
     Lea tried a little too hard to sound casual as she replied, "I suppose so. I really hadn't noticed."
     "I noticed you not noticing, and I suspect Guc did as well. Be careful, Your Majesty. Those could be dangerous waters."
     "What could?"
     "In case you hadn't noticed, King Guc is unmarried, and very much in search for a suitable wife. Need I be more explicit?"
     "He's twice my age!"
     "No match in the history of Devforth has been stopped by the ages of the participants. Your own father was three times your mother's age. Don't be naive about this, Lea, and don't do anything King Guc could construe as encouragement."
     At that moment, Mya entered the queen's dressing chamber to arrange her mistress' hair. Eya stepped to the side so the conversation could continue while Lea's hair was put up in an intricate pattern of braids.
     "Do you think King Guc was impressed by me at Court?" asked Lea.
     Eya noted that though her ward might nearly be of the age where she could legally claim her throne, she was still unsure of herself.
     "I believe he was surprised you looked and acted as mature as you did. He probably expected you to be a figurehead, with me pulling the strings."
     "And you? Were you surprised?"
     "My queen, you were precisely what I knew you would be - regal and composed. Your father would have been proud of you."
     Lea beamed at the compliment, but became sober again before asking her next question. "What will you do with the prisoners that King Guc brought?"
     "They'll be given a trial, then executed. Reg has identified them as his assailants, so there shouldn't be any trouble finding them guilty."
     "What manner of execution?"
     "Hanging, if they confess the deed and plead for clemency. Otherwise, a public flogging followed by drawing and quartering."
     Lea didn't gasp as she once had at the mention of such a horrible form of death, but she marveled that her regent could make the pronouncement in a detached voice. Killing people was one aspect of ruling the queen had not yet come to grips with. One of her goals, which she hadn't yet told anyone, was to change Vorti's penal system.
     "Couldn't the sentence be commuted?" asked Lea.
     "There is no provision in the law for commuting the penalty for an offense such as this. Besides, while such an action would be showing mercy to unworthy miscreants, it would deprive the families of the dead guards of the justice they deserve." Knowing her ward's distaste for bloodshed, Eya added, "Your sentiments do you credit, Your Majesty, but as Vorti's ruler, you must harden your heart. You don't have to enjoy ordering executions, but it is the duty of a leader - not merely their prerogative - to see that the law is not transgressed, and that the appropriate punishments are handed out in cases when it is."
     Following Eya's pronouncement, there was a long moment of silence until Mya moved away from Lea with a satisfied, "There!"
     Stepping back to admire her handiwork - a complex creation of fair and dark braids forming a natural crown - Mya said, "You do be the prettiest girl in the whole palace, Yer Majesty. There be none other the likes of you."
     Lea rose and twirled so her regent could see her from all sides. "What do you think?"
     Eya, who had long since given up dressing to increase her attractiveness, knew the queen's splendid appearance outshone her own spartan gown and simple hairstyle. But her intention was merely to look regal, while Lea wanted to dazzle. "I think your maid is correct. Now, shall we go to the dining room? It wouldn't do to keep His Majesty King Guc waiting."
* * *

     At that moment, Guc was indeed waiting for the official summons to dinner. Resplendent in an silver-trimmed aquamarine doublet with matching hose, the king was occupied with trimming his waxed mustache in front of the imperfect looking-glass provided by his hosts. His hair was drawn back over his head and pulled into a knot at the nape of his neck, and his chin was newly shaven. The soft felt shoes, which were of a paler color than the rest of his raiment, had yet to be placed on his feet.
     Standing by his liege's side, wearing similar yet less ostentatious garb, was Mak, the sole member of the royal entourage who was in the king's confidence. In fact, much of what had transpired in the audience hall this morning had been planned by him.
     "So, what shall we expect from Her Majesty tonight?" asked Mak.
     Smoothing his mustache with a forefinger, Guc replied, "Probably the same cool reserve we saw this morning. No doubt she has been well-schooled about how to behave in public, especially when dining with the enemy."
     "You know what you have to do?"
     "Perfectly. I'm not an idiot that you have to keep reminding me."
     "Forgive me, Your Majesty. I didn't mean to imply..."
     "I know that. Tell me, Mak, what were your impressions of Queen Lea?"
     Mak shrugged, a gesture that the king couldn't see with his attention fixed on the looking-glass. "She seems competent enough in her position. Obviously still led by her regent, but old enough to have begun exhibiting an occasional initiative of her own. Just about what we hoped for, I believe."
     "Indeed. She certainly has an independent mind. Eya's expression when she refused the Crown was priceless."
     "It's a good thing you only offered it to the queen, and not her."
     "I never would have been so foolish. As you said beforehand, Lea was bound by the conventions of protocol to turn it down. The same wouldn't be true of Eya. Even as it was, there was risk enough involved in presenting it to the queen."
     "And what of your impressions of Her Majesty?" asked Mak. "She's your prospective bride, not mine."
     Guc considered for a moment. "I found her to be...pleasant. Not at all the shrew I expected. Granted, thus far all we have observed is her public persona, but I believe she is too young to submerge her real self entirely. This courtship game you have set for me may be more pleasant than I hoped it would be."
     "She is attractive," acknowledged Mak.
     "Aye, but we knew that beforehand. I refer to her character, not her physical appearance. She is neither mean-spirited nor sharp-tongued. Those qualities belong exclusively to Eya."
     "Who will be your chief obstacle, one who won't easily be overcome."
     "Wasn't it you who said when we embarked on this course that nothing can triumph over love in the heart of a young girl, not even the advice of an old and trusted friend?"
     "There are easier - and more reliable - ways to deal with the situation so it doesn't get to that point," noted Mak, fingering the ornamental dagger sheathed at his hip.
     Guc shook his head. "Murder is something I would prefer to avoid, except as a last resort. This is the Palace of Vorti, not some back alley in Tsab. And, in case you had forgotten, Regent Eya is an Apath."
     "Apaths are as vulnerable as the rest of us when they sleep, and if you look back half a century, you'll note that quite a number of people died mysteriously within these walls. There was one night when two queens were slain."
     "You oversimplify matters, Mak," cautioned Guc. "Murder is a tool, like any other. We dare not overuse it for fear of blunting its effect. Have faith in your original plan and believe that, once Lea has reached her majority, I can win her over despite the protests of a woman who will no longer wield any official power."
     "I simply believe in preparing for contingencies."
     "So do I. A king doesn't last as long as I have without taking account of every possibility, no matter how small. In Eya's case, instead of reaching for your sword immediately, consider weaknesses that can be exploited while she still lives. Even Apaths, as long as they retain some emotion, have those."
     A few moments later, a guard arrived to inform them that their presence was requested at Queen Lea's formal dinner of welcome.

© 2006 James Berardinelli

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