PART ONE: THE PROPHET OF THE QUAG
Six weeks after Lea's coronation, the vicious winter of 610 broke with five days of torrential thunderstorms. As temperatures soared, so did the hopes of farmers, the rain washing away the icy remnants of snow covering their fields and thawing the hardened ground beneath. Merchants were less enthralled with the change in weather, since downpours meant fewer customers, but even they had to concede that better days were ahead.
In the palace, most things continued as they had for years, the only notable difference being that the young queen now openly governed. Queen Lea had instituted no major policy changes, however, so there were few outward indications that the scepter of rule had been passed. Eya continued to maintain her position in court as an advisor, and Wil remained invested with the powers of Chancellor.
By now, almost all the grand guests who had attended the coronation had returned home. In fact, most had left within a week of the event, as soon as there was a slight moderation in temperatures. Remaining behind had been Gav of Falnora and his contingent, and Guc of Tsab's party. With Gav's departure the previous day, that left only the Tsab delegation within Vorti's walls.
Guc's prolonged stay had less to do with the treaty being hammered out between the two cities than with the wooing of Vorti's queen. He was moving slowly in his quest to capture Lea's heart and hand, aware that she was still quite young and that her gaggle of advisors were watching him closely, hoping to see some sign of impropriety in his approach. Guc was determined they would find nothing.
Initially, the pair had taken to meeting in the little throne room, where their gatherings had been couched in formality. Recently, however, they had begun to walk together through Lea's newly flowering gardens. Occasionally, they discussed political issues, but the majority of the conversation was more intimate.
Today was a lovely day, with a brilliant sun sparkling high in the sky. The rains which had sluiced Vorti clean over the past week had left everything in the palace gardens green and vital, and the the fresh scent that followed a spring rainfall permeated the air. It was warm enough that Lea ventured outside wearing only a turquoise cape over her white gown. Guc, dressed in a simple black outfit of loose-fitting trousers and a silver-trimmed vest with matching cloak, strolled by her side.
"The city is so beautiful at this time of year," murmured Lea, drinking in a full breath of the sweet air.
Guc allowed himself a smile at the queen's girlish enthusiasm over the new season. "The whole world is beautiful this time of year." He paused, then deliberately added, "Your Majesty."
Lea came to an abrupt stop, turning to favor her companion with a sour expression. "Guc!" she exclaimed, the single word conveying her pretended vexation. This had become a game for them - every time she insisted he call her by her name, he became more dogged than ever in addressing her by her title.
"I crave Your Majesty's pardon," said Guc, executing a formal bow while managing to keep a straight face.
Lea shook her head in mock consternation, then bent to pluck a delicate yellow blossom from a flowering vine crawling up the trunk of a dwarf peach tree. She wove the stem through her hair just above her left ear.
"Eya says that in the Halcyon Meadows there are fields of violets so thick the ground is like a carpet of purple."
"There are even more wondrous sights to the west. There is a great hill to the north of Tsab called the Rainbow Hill because every year at this time it comes alive with color. I don't pretend to know much about flowers, but there are yellows, reds, oranges, and even blues. I count it as the most beautiful place in all of Devforth. Each year, dozens of lovers are married there, amidst the splendor."
"Someday, I would like to see that," said Lea. "Do you know, I've never been out of Vorti."
Guc looked surprised, although he had made it his business to learn such things. "Really? Never, not even a short trip?"
Lea shook her head. "I've always been told the risks outweigh the advantages. Now I'm queen, with official visits and all that, I suppose I'll finally be permitted to travel."
Guc appeared to consider for a moment before making a suggestion. "In another few days, I'll have to return home. I've been away for far too long, and the people will start to think they don't need me. When I leave, why don't you come along? Gather an escort and ride in honor with me to Tsab. In addition to it being an official sign of the dawning of a new era between our two cities, it would give you an opportunity to see not only Rainbow Hill, but many of the other wonders the land has to offer between here and there."
Lea's expression brightened momentarily before clouding over. "I don't think my advisors would approve."
"Your Majesty, you are the queen and they are your subjects. Their role is to 'advise,' not dictate. I know it's hard to break fifteen years of training, but when you give a command, they must obey. It's not up to them to forbid anything. If you want to accompany me to Tsab, there's nothing they can do against it except try to talk you out of it."
"You're right, of course," agreed Lea. "But I've never defied Eya before, and I don't want to start now. I know you two don't get along, but she's been like a mother to me."
"And, despite our differences, I honor her for that," lied Guc smoothly, concealing his distaste. "Explain things to her. Perhaps you are misjudging her likely reaction. It may be that she will see the wisdom in this course and prove your misgivings to be unfounded."
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