PART ONE: THE PROPHET OF THE QUAG
Midwinter's Day dawned clear, bright, and cold. The fountain in the palace gardens had frozen solid overnight, as had the surfaces of many of the city's drinking wells, causing men and women with torches to venture out early to burn off the icy skim. The breaths of those so laboring in the early morning hours streamed through the air as white plumes, and only those required by duty remained outside longer than was necessary.
Inside the palace, the servants had been busy all night, stoking fires to keep the many important guests comfortable in their sleep. No less than forty visiting dignitaries were present, including the leaders of all five of Devforth's other cities, and of three of the four major settlements: Knex, Torg, and Falnora. An invitation had been sent to Hons, but there had been no response, nor had a representative from that isolationist village appeared in advance for today's ceremony.
Even though the coronation was scheduled for high noon, Lea was up before sunrise, pacing her carpeted chamber. Despite the hearty blaze burning across the hearth, the room was chilly, and she had to wear a woolen shawl over her sleeping dress to keep from shivering. In her brief fifteen year life, the soon-to-be-crowned queen could not remember such a frigid morning. Of course, it was rare that she was up so early. Normally, her day started several hours later, when Eya came to rouse her.
While the windy cold was not ideal weather for the day's activities, especially the parade through the city streets, at least it wasn't snowing. One of her weather readers had claimed it was too cold to snow. Whether that was true or not, Lea was glad the sun would shine upon her this day. Foul weather would have been a bad omen, and Lea was superstitious.
Placing her hand against the chilly pane of one of the windows, she wiped away the condensation and looked outside. The night watch was proceeding through the city extinguishing lanterns, and a few early-risers were rushing to the wells, bundled in woolen garments and animal furs. No one stopped or spoke, as they might at some warmer time, and it hardly looked like the beginning of one of the decade's most festive occasions. But Lea knew not even these conditions would keep people from toasting to her reign as they gathered in taverns at the close of the day, especially since the first round was on the Crown.
Over the past three days, Lea had been introduced to her fellow rulers of Devforth, and had formed opinions about them. Siv, the elderly king of Llam, seemed to be a sweet old man and, after spending the better part of an afternoon speaking with the grandfatherly ruler, Lea was unable to fathom how such a chasm had developed in the relationship between the two cities. On the other hand, it was easier to understand why Vorti and Fels were not on best terms, at least judging by that city's leader. King Yax, although easily as old at Siv, was of a nastier temperament. Lea wondered how she would be able to sit across a table with the Felsian ruler and negotiate the treaties her advisors told her must be hammered out.
Queen Mia of Xert was gracious but cool in expressing her wishes that Lea would have a happy and prosperous reign. Nom of Merk, the youngest of the rulers besides Vorti's queen, was enthusiastic and bubbly, but obviously self-centered. It seemed every other sentence he spoke used "I" as the subject.
The leaders of the settlements were more subdued than those of the cities. Mayor Bru of Knex said little but wore a perpetually sour expression that told Lea as plainly as any words he disapproved of the ostentatious display being put on for the coronation. The town council of Torg had sent a youthful and handsome representative who had spent the better part of his two days flirting with the maids. Falnora, Vorti's nearest neighbor, had sent Gav, their titular ruler and the son of Chancellor Wil.
Then there was Guc, who had been in the city for two weeks. Since his arrival to beg forgiveness for the attack on Reg, he and Lea had spent time together as they attempted to foster a better mutual understanding between the two cities. At last there seemed to be hope the ages-old hostility between Vorti and Tsab might be coming to an end, for it seemed impossible two communities could war when the leaders genuinely liked each other. And Lea was fast coming to enjoy being with Guc. He was charming, gallant, and amusing, and she found his company a refreshing change from many of the serious men and women who populated her Court.
Today, however, there would be little time for Guc, or any other personal business, for that matter. Eya had said the coronation would be like a wedding, and Lea wondered if all brides were this nervous. She hoped when the time came, she wouldn't forget the formula she was expected to recite, and she figured if she could get through today, the rest of her reign would be less intimidating.
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