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."

* * *

     "Absolutely not!" exclaimed Eya, her face livid. "What are you thinking, accepting such an invitation?"
     Lea had summoned her two closest advisors - Eya and Wil - to her private sitting room, a sunny little chamber that overlooked the gardens. Despite her placid expression, her heart was thumping and her palms were sweaty.
     Three chairs were arranged around a circular table. Eya was sitting in hers, as was Wil to her left. At the queen's news, however, Eya had risen.
     "If we're going to begin a new era, it has to be by trusting each other," explained Lea patiently.
     "You may be trying to begin a 'new era,' but how can you be certain that Guc is? Vorti and Tsab have been enemies for generations."
     "All the more reason to change things now. Guc isn't the monster you believe him to be. I think your powers intimidate him, and that's why he's been so cool to you. But he wants to break with tradition as much as I do. His father's warlike actions nearly destroyed Tsab, and Guc doesn't want anything like that to happen again."
     "Did it occur to you the kind of prize hostage you would make?" demanded Eya.
     "With two Apaths at my side? Do you think he would dare try anything?"
     "She's right," said Wil, speaking for the first time. Eya shot him a withering glance; she had been counting on his support in this matter. "Guc would never try anything with both of us around. He may be ambitious, but he's not stupid."
     "So you think we should let her go?"
     "It isn't a matter of letting her do anything," said Wil. "She's the queen, and can do whatever she likes. But, since you asked, I think this trip is a good idea. I understand your fears, Eya, but they're almost groundless."
     "It's the almost that bothers me. And we both can't possibly go."
     "Why not?" asked Lea.
     "Who's going to run the city while you're away? If you go to Tsab, you're likely to be there until nearly the beginning of summer. Vorti cannot go without a ruler for that long. By the time you got back, anarchy would reign. Wil will have to stay behind and take over in your absence."
     Lea wasn't about to be forced into a situation she wasn't comfortable with. Since Wil had backed her decision to accompany Guc, it was her chancellor she wanted with her. The difficulty was making that clear to Eya under a reasonable pretext.
     "I think it would be better if Wil accompanied me," she said. "After all, Eya, you're used to ruling this city. It's only been a short time since I assumed the throne, and you've kept abreast of everything that has taken place since the change of command. It seems logical you should assume the throne while I'm in the West."
     Eya's grimace showed she couldn't argue with her liege's reasoning. Everything Lea had said was accurate. Although Wil was certainly capable of governing Vorti in the queen's absence, Eya was more familiar with the intricacies of the everyday running of Vorti. After all, she had been doing it for most of the past fifteen years.
     "As you wish, Your Majesty," acknowledged Eya, admitting defeat with reluctance. She hoped her co-advisor would have the good sense to monitor carefully the relations between Lea and Guc. A formal alliance would be beneficial, but it was the other intentions of the King of Tsab that concerned her.
* * *

     The company from Tsab numbered less than one-dozen, and they were dwarfed by the two score guards, eight retainers, and one advisor that accompanied Lea. The queen's personal preference had been for a smaller force, but both Eya and Guc, albeit working separately, had convinced Lea it was in her best interests to march into Tsab with a show of pomp and strength. When asked if he was nervous about being outnumbered during the ride west, the king of Guc merely smiled and shrugged, commenting that he believed he had nothing to fear from his new ally.
     Guc had been right about the splendor of the journey. The countryside was beautiful at this time of year, and Lea's joy was increased tenfold by the simple wonder of being away from familiar lands for the first time in her life. She was full of questions, all of which either Guc or Wil answered.
     The entourage of the two leaders took the well-traveled Vorti-Fels road which curved southwest, passing just north of Falnora. During that portion of the journey, Wil excused himself for a two-hour period to visit his son. When he returned, his gaze was troubled.
     "What is it, Chancellor?" asked Lea when she noticed the Apath's dark expression.
     "Nothing concrete, but there may be reason for some concern. Gav has been back in Falnora for only a few days, but he says unsavory rumors abound. Several scouts have reported seeing strange creatures moving around north of this road, and a hunting party claims to have made contact with a quatic."
     "On the plains?" demanded Guc, who was riding alongside Lea.
     The chancellor nodded. "It's the first time in over a century a member of that unsavory race has been sighted outside one of the swamps. Gav isn't sure, but he believes there may be reason to suspect the quatics of Flaz' Quag have opened communications with their brethren in the Vorti Marsh."
     "The quatic clans have been splintered since they were driven back four-hundred years ago by Garvad. They haven't had interrelations with other tribes within their own swamp, not to mention with those half a continent away," said Guc.
     "Can you think of another explanation why they would be traveling parallel to the Vorti-Fels road, on a direct course from Flaz' Quag to the Vorti Marsh? For them to do this, something momentous must have happened within quatic society."
     "The combined might of the human and elf nations pushed them back once, and we've gotten stronger since. If need be, we'll do it again," declared the King of Tsab.
     "I hope you're right," muttered Wil, not impressed by Guc's bravado. Peace had reigned for so long in Devforth because of the vast schisms that characterized the fabric of quatic society. If something had occurred to band together the tribes, the resultant force would be terrible to face, a potentially unstoppable tide.
     Lea listened to the discussion with rapt attention, but had little to offer in the nature of an opinion. The only thing she knew about quatics - and their mountainous troll kin - was what she had been told in children's stories.
     As the morning blended into afternoon, Guc sent a messenger ahead to inform elderly King Yax that royal envoys from Tsab and Vorti requested shelter in his city for one night. Although relations with Fels were strained for both segments of the approaching party, Yax's response was all courtesy and grace, indicating that his city would be honored by the presence of two such distinguished guests who would be offered all the hospitality available in the palace on short notice.
     Trumpets sounded from the high, proud marble-white walls of Fels as the royal party approached. A contingent of four-dozen members of Yax's elite corps, dressed in burnished plate armor, approached to act as an escort. The northern gates, normally closed after noon, were thrown open, and an exuberant fanfare greeted Lea and Guc as they rode side-by-side at the fore of their group. Large crowds had gathered on either side of the main thoroughfare to wave, cheer, and throw flowers.
     Slow and stately like a parade, the procession moved toward the grand palace, which was located at the exact center of the city. Lea was overawed at the first sight of the structure, towering over a hundred feet into the sky, with surfaces as white as alabaster and windows whose glass was tinted all the hues of the spectrum. The walls, which at first glance appeared to be smooth, were actually inlaid with intricate designs whose meaning, if any, was probably known only to the designer, now dead for three-hundred years.
     While the bulk of the palace was roughly square, its upper reaches culminated in a golden dome that glimmered in the afternoon sun. From that dome sprung three thin, elegant spires that jutted another fifty feet into the sky. Each of these towers contained a bell for ringing on feast days and for other important events. Two of the three bells were clanging now, informing the city that something momentous was occurring.
     King Yax, looking younger and sprightlier than he had in Vorti, greeted the newcomers from the red-carpeted palace steps. Impressive in his black-and-white robes of state, Yax was the perfect image of a king, with his thinning white hair drawn back into a ponytail and his mustache and goatee immaculately groomed. His smile never once slipped during the formal greetings.
     "Your Majesty," stated the aging monarch, bowing effortlessly to Lea. "It is a pleasure to be able to repay your hospitality so soon. King Guc," continued Yax, turning to his other royal guest. "Your presence is always welcome in the great city of Fels."
     "That's not what you said last summer when we met here to discuss trade routes," replied Guc, his smile sardonic.
     "Words spoken in haste, my friend," replied Yax. "Shall we go inside?"
     Less than an hour later, after Guc, Lea, and their advisors had been shown to their quarters, the three monarchs, each accompanied by a chancellor, met in Yax's windowless, tapestried sitting room for private discussions. Here, the atmosphere was more relaxed than it had been on the outside steps, but gone was the smile on Yax's wrinkled face.
     Hob, Guc's chancellor, had removed a quill and scroll and was preparing to take notes, much the same as Lord Rif of Fels. Wil, however, merely sat by his queen's side, quietly listening to the discussion.
     "What brings you to Fels, Guc?" demanded Yax, his tone barely civil.
     Guc smiled. "Her Majesty and I are on our way to Tsab. This route seemed the most propitious, and I knew Your Majesty would be offended if we passed by without stopping to pay our respects."
     "With so little warning, you've put me in a most awkward position."
     "Surprises keep life fun."
     "You have a glib tongue, Guc. Be careful some day it doesn't get cut out."
     "Your Majesty," said Lea, drawing five pairs of eyes to her. "If you are displeased with our presence here, we will leave." She made as if to rise.
     Impatiently, Yax gestured for her to remain seating, almost as if he was commanding a servant. "Sit down, Child. Now you are here, there's no question of your leaving. How would that make me look? At dawn tomorrow, you can walk out the gates, but not before then."
     A glint of anger flashed in Lea's eyes. "Your Majesty, do you recognize me as the lawful ruler of Vorti?"
     "Of course," scoffed Yax. "I was at your coronation."
     "And since when has 'Child' been an acceptable form of address for a queen? I would appreciate the same courtesy I have paid to you, Your Majesty. I do not take kindly to condescension, and if it continues, I will walk out of this city regardless of what embarrassment it may cause you."
     Yax was stunned speechless, but Guc was smiling broadly. "That's put our host in his place, Your Majesty. Well done," he applauded, beaming at the queen.
     "Very well, Your Majesty," said Yax sourly when Guc's mirth had subsided. "Did you have some point you wished to discuss? Perhaps terms of a new treaty?"
     Lea thought he was being sarcastic, but let the comment pass. "Nothing like that. I was wondering if you have heard reports of local quatic activity."
     "Why do you ask?"
     "We've heard rumors of limited quatic movement north of the Vorti-Fels road. Since Garvad routed them, the haven't emerged from the swamps," said Lea.
     "I don't need history lessons, Your Majesty. I rule a city bordered on the north and west by Flaz' Quag. If the quatics emerged, Fels would be their first target."
     "That should make you more concerned than anyone about these rumors," noted Guc.
     "There are always rumors about quatics. Maybe even some of them are true, but when your city is less than a mile from the outskirts of Devforth's largest breeding ground for those monsters, that's only likely. They've been quiet for four-hundred years. There's no reason to believe they'll start anything now."
     "But have you heard anything specific recently?" persisted Lea.
     "There have been a few cases - farmers claiming to have seen shapes at night, and finding footprints in their fields the next morning. In an audience earlier today, a man said five or six of his cattle had been slaughtered by a wild animal. His property has its western border against Flaz' Quag. Other than that, nothing, and all of this is unsubstantiated and far from out-of-the-ordinary. Your concerns are unwarranted."
     "Gav of Falnora believes the quatics may be starting communications between the Quag and the Vorti Marsh," said Lea.
     Yax let out a harsh, humorless chuckle. "Gav of Falnora is peasant with aspirations of grandeur, and no more knowledge of quatics than..." He came to an abrupt halt when he remembered the relationship of Falnora's leader to Lea's chancellor.
     "Please continue, Your Majesty," said Wil in a controlled voice, the first words he had spoken during the summit. "I am interested to hear your opinions of my son."
     Yax blanched. "No disrespect was intended, Chancellor."
     "Why bother with such a transparent lie?" returned Wil. "Everyone in this room knows that not only was the disrespect intentional, but it would have continued had I not been present." Turning to Lea, he said, "I believe we have learned all we will from His Majesty. I suggest we retire now and change for dinner. I'm sure King Yax will want his guests bathed and dressed in splendor for the feast he has prepared for this evening."
     Gauging the tense mood around her, Lea nodded her agreement. It seemed unlikely that further conversation with Yax would bear fruitful results. Whatever the ruler of Fels knew, he was keeping to himself, either because he didn't believe it, or didn't want his fellow monarchs learning the truth.
* * *

     Lea awoke later than she had intended the next morning, her mind still fogged by the aftereffects of a few too many goblets of wine. The colored glass windows of her bedchamber revealed only that it was darker than normal for this hour of the day. It took a report from her maid to inform her that the weather outside, while not stormy, was less than ideal for travel.
     The queen let out a sigh. She hated being out in the rain, but it was preferable to spending another day in Fels' palace, which was beginning to feel like a dungeon. Her room had been damp and drafty, and she had spent much of the night - after she had gotten to bed, that is - curled in a ball under her covers. The feeble warmth of her bedroom fire didn't extend more than a few handspans beyond the hearth.
     Scrubbing her face with cold water did little to reduce the buzzing in her head or the queasiness of her stomach. This was not a full hangover - she had experienced those once or twice in her short life - but it was bad enough to make an otherwise bleak morning nearly intolerable. Tactfully refusing King Yax's invitation to join him for breakfast, she concentrated on dressing for the day's ride.
     Lea's departure from Fels was less triumphant than her entrance. Owing primarily to the cold rain, the streets were empty except for those who had to be outside, and King Yax had decided there would be no fanfare for the departure of his royal guests. Appearances, it seemed, had been satisfied by yesterday's procession.
     Initially, the plan for the second stage of the journey was for the group to proceed south from Fels to just north of the Twin Cities, then swing north and west past Lake Merk, and straight up the coast to Tsab. This was by far the safest route, but it was by no means the fastest. In the drab, muddy conditions of this day, it seemed unlikely they would reach their destination by nightfall. There was the option of stopping at Merk or Xert for the night, but after her experience in Fels, Lea was skittish about imposing unexpectedly on the ruler of another city. While it was true that Vorti was friendlier with the Twin Cities than with Fels, she had no desire to place an unwarranted strain on relations with the southern realm because of an unanticipated royal arrival.
     Guc offered an option, however. "If we skirt the southern edges of the Quag, and cut through the northern fringes of the Merk Woods, we should be at Tsab before twilight. The route is about two-thirds as long as what we planned."
     "Is it dangerous?" asked Lea, pulling her sodden cloak more closely around her.
     Guc shrugged. "To a small group, perhaps, but not to a party this large. Wild animals will stay clear, and the Merk's elves won't bother us as long as we avoid damaging the forest."
     "And quatics?"
     "If Yax is right, we have nothing to worry about," replied Guc, his tone noncommittal.
     "And if Gav is right, the extra time could be bought at a cruel cost," said Wil.
     Continued discussion, coupled with skyward glances at a dark sheath of clouds that stretched unbroken from horizon to horizon, convinced Lea that the quicker route was the better choice. Her chancellor's stern warning, however, was to be prophetic.

© 2006 James Berardinelli

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