It was shortly after dawn when Lea knocked on the outer door to Guc's chambers. One of the king's advisors - Lea thought his name might be Caa - answered, accompanied by a guard.
     "Your Majesty?" inquired Caa. The wiry man was wide awake; he either hadn't slept or was yet to go to bed.
     "Is King Guc awake? I have a matter of some urgency to discuss with him."
     "His Majesty is not up yet, but I will rouse him. I'm sure he wouldn't wish to keep his beautiful bide-to-be waiting. Won't you come in?"
     Lea followed the man into the sitting room, where she took a seat to await her intended bridegroom's arrival. The guard smiled pleasantly at her as he returned to his post in the outer room.
     Lowered voices could be heard from Guc's bedchamber. Although the words weren't loud enough to be distinguished, Lea recognized the cadences of the Tsabian king and his advisor.
     Moments later, Guc entered the sitting room, wiping the sleep from his eyes. His hair was pleasantly disarrayed and his sleeping robe, while belted at the waist, hung open nearly to the navel, revealing a mat of dark, thick hair. Lea momentarily wondered what it might be like to run her fingers through it, a curiosity that would hopefully be satisfied soon.
     "Lea," greeted Guc, bending down to kiss the back of her hand. "It's a little early in the day. You normally wake later than I do."
     "I couldn't sleep. Before going to bed, I had a... strange... conversation with Mak. He made some unsettling accusations."
     Guc frowned as he sat by her side. "What sorts of accusations?"
     "He said your courtship of me was a sham - your whole intention in this business was to further your own ambitions and Tsab's interests, presumably to the detriment of my city."
     "I dismissed Mak from my service last night. That he might be bitter is understandable, after all his years of loyal service, but I never expected him to do something underhanded like this."
     "Do you deny the accusations, then?" demanded Lea. As far as she was concerned, this was a key question. If Guc lied to her now, there was no question of a marriage between them.
     "Of course I do. I can't deny there were obvious political gains for myself and Tsab in a match between the two of us, but I never planned to seduce you to obtain them. And the benefits, I might add, would go both ways."
     "I see," said Lea coldly. "So there was no conversation between you and Mak about the advantages of a marriage before you first came to Vorti - and the irrelevance of what methods were used to get them?"
     By the sudden wary look in Guc's eyes, Lea could tell he sensed he was on dangerous ground. He wasn't sure what she knew, but he was beginning to suspect she was relying on more than Mak's testimony.
     "We - Mak and I, that is - discussed the possibility of a marriage. As the only unmarried woman of my rank, your name topped the list of potential candidates, but it was all speculation. No decision was made until after I had met you and we had fallen..."
     " love?" finished Lea glibly. "When exactly did it become convenient for you to 'fall' in love with me? When I refused your offer of the crown in repayment for the incident with Reg? Or later, when you recognized my attraction to you?"
     "Lea, this is unfair. I assure you I never approached you with anything but the purest of intentions."
     "Give me credit for a little intelligence, Your Majesty! I may not yet be seventeen, but I've had several excellent teachers, and the court intrigues of Vorti are no less convoluted than those of Tsab. I know a lie when I hear one, and you haven't spoken a word of truth this morning."
     "So you take the word of a traitor like Mak over mine?"
     "He's a traitor now? What was his crime?"
     "Telling lies about his king. It's a treasonable offense in one of his rank."
     "We'll see. Summon him so his version of events can be compared to yours."
     Guc hesitated a moment only before calling for Caa. The tall man entered with a bow to both his liege and the queen.
     "Summon Lord Mak."
     "I'm sorry, Your Majesty, but Lord Mak departed Vorti in the middle of the night."
     "The middle of the night?" demanded Guc.
     "Yes, Your Majesty. I believe it was two or three hours before the cock's first crow. Even considering a slow night speed, he must be a goodly distance west of here by now."
     "How convenient," said Lea.
     "Surely you don't think I could have arranged his departure? When I last saw him, our agreement was that he depart with the sun's rising," protested Guc. He sounded sincere enough, but Lea no longer trusted anything he said.
     Rising to her feet, the queen headed for the door. "I have a few independent inquiries to make. This discussion is not at an end, but I want others to be present when we resume it. It may be that our betrothal announcement was premature."

* * *

     Wil could always tell when something was wrong, and this was one of those mornings. Things hadn't felt right from the moment he'd first awakened, and now an early summons from the queen requesting his presence in the little throne room confirmed his suspicions.
     When he entered, Lea was sitting on the throne with Eya by her side. As was customary when the queen was present, four of Lea’s personal men-at-arms guarded the door, two inside and two without.
     While the queen’s expression was dejected, there was something about Eya’s that hinted she might not be opposed to whatever development had occurred. Since there was only one major policy issue Lea and her former regent disagreed upon, it wasn’t difficult to guess what had happened.
     “We appear to have a situation on our hands,” said Eya as Wil joined them. “Our queen’s beloved betrothed has shown his true nature.”
     Wil’s heart sunk. Weeks ago, before learning of Meg’s forecast of doom, he would have been glad to hear this. Now, knowing his duty was to force the marriage through regardless, he dreaded every word, and prayed Guc hadn’t done something beyond redemption.
     “The wedding must be canceled,” said Lea. From the puffiness of her eyes, it was clear she had been weeping. In Wil’s experience, love always brought pain. He remembered his own tortured feelings when the woman he had hoped to marry had instead agreed to a union with King Sor. Things had worked out in the end, but his agony at that moment had been acute.
     “Surely it can’t be that bad,” said Wil.
     Eya gave him a sharp look, having expected him to react much as she had - with loving consolation for the queen’s lost love, but glad to be rid of such an irksome, and potentially dangerous, problem.
     “He lied to me. I demanded the truth - told him I knew the truth - and he still lied. Such a man cannot be my husband and the king of Vorti.”
     “What was his lie?”
     After letting out an explosive sigh, Lea recounted her conversations with Mak and Guc.
     Wil withheld his questions until she was finished. He then asked, “And you confirmed Caa's information that Mak had left in the middle of the night?”
     Eya answered for the queen. “I had the stableboy and several of the guards questioned. He departed several hours before sunrise, and there appeared to be no compulsion involved. He was agitated, but that's normal under the circumstances.”
     “Have you spoken to Guc since this morning?”
     “Eya thought it wise that I wait until the three of us had discussed the matter.”
     “Eya is an intelligent woman,” remarked Wil sincerely. The question now was how to salvage the situation.
     “Is this one additional lie so important? You’ve known for a while now he’s been selective about the truth around you.”
     “It’s different because he looked me in the eye and denied accusations we both knew to be true. If he had admitted them, I could have forgiven him, but he’s just deepening the web of deceit.”
     “And you’re willing to throw away a marriage because of one lie?”
     Eya broke in, her tone informing Wil of her displeasure with his attempts to mend the situation. “It’s a matter of trust. This isn’t just about a single lie; it’s about an obvious betrayal.”
     “When people are placed in untenable situations, they often react foolishly. For argument’s sake, say Guc came to love you after initially planning to seduce and marry you to gain control of Vorti. If you were in his position, would you admit to your initial plans - plans that are no longer valid - and risk losing a marriage you now want for reasons other than political gain?”
     “So you think he might have lied to preserve the marriage?” There was hope in Lea’s voice. Eya, on the other hand, was speechless with anger.
     “It’s a possibility.”
     “You think I should still marry him? After this? Even when you were against the wedding from the beginning?”
     "I didn't say you should or shouldn't marry him, but I think you do Guc a disservice by not at least discussing the matter with him before making a decision that will impact the relations between two cities."
     "It would be different," interjected Eya carefully, "if this was a minor infraction. But such a breach of trust cannot be countenanced. If Guc can lie to Lea in a situation like this, who is to say what he may do after their marriage has taken place, when he is but a heartbeat from two thrones?"
     "Eya!" gasped Lea, horrified. "Telling a lie is a far different thing from murder."
     "Is it greatly removed? As a queen, that must be the overriding question for you to answer. Is this action on Guc's part an isolated event, or an insight into a character he has kept hidden from you? Is it you he wants, or your throne, and how much is he willing to risk for either?"
     Lea looked to her chancellor for advice. Although in his heart, Wil agreed with Eya's points, he couldn't risk the possible fruits of such honesty. Instead, he said, "For what it's worth, I don't believe Guc seeks your death. An assassination, even of a bed partner, is no easy thing with two Apaths so close. And surely he recognizes your untimely death would not go unavenged. He would be a fool to plot your murder, and the King of Tsab is no fool.
     "What his true feelings toward you are, I cannot say, but you should make no final decision before having confronted Guc with the full battery of your information. Give him an opportunity to answer these grave charges. Hear his explanation."
     "Give him an opportunity to deepen his web of lies, you mean!" demanded Eya.
     Wil shrugged. "If he lies again, doubtless we will discern it. I suspect, however, that recognizing the gravity of the situation, he will speak the truth."
     Lea forestalled further argument by raising a hand. "You have both given me much to think about. Leave me now. I'll summon you when I reach a decision."
* * *

     Guc and Caa were caucused in the Tsabian king’s sitting room when Wil’s request for an audience was announced.
     “Tell the chancellor I’ll be with him momentarily,” said Guc, dismissing the guard. Turning to the Apath, he said, “Remain in here, but listen and keep watch. If he takes any threatening action, kill him. I don’t think he’ll risk anything, but there’s no telling with him, and I want to be prepared.”
     “Aye, Your Majesty.”
     When Guc emerged into the outer chamber, Wil was standing near the center of the room, waiting patiently. The two guards near the main door were obliquely watching the Apath’s movements, ready to spring into action at the first sign of danger.
     “Your Majesty,” said Wil by way of greeting. His expression was cold, almost hostile. Guc considered what that might mean for his collapsing plans.
     “Please be seated, Chancellor,” said Guc, gesturing toward a padded armchair. When Wil made no move to take the proffered seat, the king chose to remain on his feet as well.
     “Let me be blunt, Your Majesty. I find your behavior toward Lea reprehensible and unforgivable.”
     “I assume she has informed you of the lies and half-truths divulged by my former advisor, Mak.”
     “Don’t toy with me, Your Majesty. Lea may be naive in politics, but I am not. I played the game long before your birth, and my opponents were more worthy than you. From the moment you pressed your suit with the queen, I was aware of your intentions, as was Eya. Even Lea, for all that her vision was clouded, recognized that your motives were not entirely pure. I don’t know what quarrel brought Mak to turn on you and bring this into the open, and I don’t care. But you should know it is no more of a surprise to your intended bride than it is to us. What she objects to is your unwillingness to acknowledge to the truth.”
     “You want me to admit I wooed her for the power and position that would be mine as her husband?”
     “That’s exactly what I want you to do. You may have thought yourself shrewd in this matter, but those of us who serve Lea are not easily fooled.”
     “And how will the queen react, if I do as you request?”
     “I do not request, Your Majesty, I demand.”
     Guc stilled a hot retort, determined not to let an explosion of temper undo him. All was not lost... at least not yet. “How will she react if I do as you demand?” he amended.
     “I cannot say. Her Majesty is her own person, and she will make her own decision. But if you persist in your denial of the obvious, there will be no wedding.”
     “And if I apologize, and beg her forgiveness, might the marriage take place?"
     "Your betrayal has wounded Queen Lea deeply, but love isn't easily quenched, even by actions as treacherous as yours. If your words to Her Majesty are sincere and heartfelt, not flattery designed to mollify her, there may yet be hope. But you must freely admit your lies, and swear an oath on your life never to act in such a way in the future."
     "By your advice, you seem willing to countenance this marriage, Chancellor. I thought you were against it."
     "I am against any action that may bring harm to Vorti or her queen, but I believe there are potential benefits to both through a union, as long as you remain faithful to the covenant."
     "Will the queen see me now?"
     Wil shook his head. "She will summon you when she is ready."
     His message delivered, the chancellor gave a curt bow, then exited the king's quarters. Guc returned to the sitting room, where a bemused Caa was scratching his head.
     "Odd," murmured the Apath. "Not what I would have expected from him. He was far too easy on you."
     "You call that easy?" demanded Guc. "He treated me like a ten-year old caught stealing from the kitchens!"
     "Exactly. He treated you like a child and gave you a scolding, when he had every reason to do more. I imagine lying to a queen under those circumstances is a capital offense. I wonder what he's up to?"
     "He said he was an old hand at playing politics. I'd always thought of him as a behind-the-scenes worker, but I'm beginning to wonder. What do we know about Wil before he became Chancellor?"
     "I don't know anything, but we can find out. I doubt it will give any clues to his current intentions."
     "Maybe he intends to turn the sword back on us. What if he wants this marriage to go through so that he can get me out of the way and set Lea on Tsab's throne?"
     "I hadn't thought of that," admitted Caa. "It has a certain perverse logic to it, though. We were too arrogant to realize we might not be the only ones with plans along those lines. But would your sweet queen go along with it?"
     "I doubt it," admitted Guc. "Which means she probably doesn't know anything. This wouldn't be the first time others have manipulated a crown, though."
     "If it's true, then it might not be in your best interests to go through with the marriage. Speaking your vows could put your life in mortal danger."
     "We still hold the trump card. As long as they don't know you're an Apath, our hand is stronger."
     "You may be risking a lot," noted Caa.
     "I've always been a gambler. This time, the stakes are higher, but so are the winnings."
* * *

     Wil had avoided Eya for most of the morning, but his luck ran out as he returned to his quarters following the interview with Guc. She was waiting for him outside his door.
     “Perhaps you would care to explain?”
     Wil shrugged. “I don’t know there’s anything to explain.”
     “You don’t know..." she repeated, her anger escalating with every syllable. "We discussed the possibility of a match between Lea and Guc ad nauseam, and agreed it would be disastrous. Then you suddenly decide to give your blessing after the queen says she won’t get married without the consent of one of us.”
     “I reconsidered,” said Wil. He knew it sounded lame, but he didn’t want to get into the real reasons for his change of heart. Meg hadn’t sworn him to secrecy, but he had the feeling her vision was something best kept to himself.
     “Reconsidered?? Presumably there was some overwhelmingly important reason for this.”
     “Not especially. I recognized if Guc can be kept on a short leash, there are a number of potential benefits to be gained from this match.”
     “Do you intend to spend every night in their bedchamber? If not, there’s little we can do to protect Lea when she’s alone with him.”
     “As I said before, I’m counting on our presence at court to be a suitable deterrent. Guc isn’t stupid. He’ll know what kind of retribution to expect if Lea meets a suspicious end. For his own safety, it’s in his best interests to keep her alive and healthy.”
     “Even assuming that to be so, why didn’t you at least consult me about this?”
     “Isn’t this argument reason enough?”
     “We wouldn’t be having this argument if you had come to me beforehand to discuss this.”
     “When you’re close-minded about a subject, we never ‘discuss’ it. Now, if we’re going to end up shouting at each other, perhaps we should go into my quarters where we’re less likely to disturb the others living in this wing.”
     “There’s not going to be any screaming if you give me a decent, reasonable explanation why you started championing this marriage. This morning, we had a perfect opportunity to make sure it never happens - Lea wanted us to support her breaking the engagement - but you urged the opposite. That makes no sense whatsoever.”
     “As I said before, there are...”
     “...benefits to an alliance by marriage,” snapped Eya. “Which we discussed before and decided weren’t worth the risk of Lea’s life.”
     “We’re going in circles, Eya. This is a matter on which we can't agree.”
     The former regent heaved an exasperated sigh. “Not now, but it wasn't like this two weeks ago. I want to understand what’s changed your mind. If there’s something about this marriage I haven’t thought of, I need to know what it is. I don’t want to stand in Lea’s way if this is best for Vorti.”
     “Take a look through the twenty-five volumes of treaties and trade agreements between the two cities over the past century-and-a-half. The animosity between the Vorti and Tsab has to end, or there will be another war.”
     With a flash of intuition brought on by the prescience of Wil's statement, Eya said, “You’ve been talking to Meg.” It sounded like an accusation.
     “I speak with her frequently. You know that.”
     “But she had a vision, didn’t she? Something about what might happen if Lea and Guc married, or if they didn’t?”
     Since she had guessed, Wil saw no need for further subterfuge. He nodded. “It’s not my place to reveal her visions, but one of them was the reason for my... revised policy. Speak to her if you want to know the particulars.”
     “If you trust what she saw, I’ll take your word for it.”
     “Everything she has seen has come to pass, in one way or another.”
     Eya nodded, but said nothing.
     “Can I assume you’ll support me with Lea?”
     “Against my better judgment, yes. And maybe just this once I’ll make an exception and pay Vorti’s resident seeress a visit.”
* * *

     “Your Majesty, I humbly beg your pardon for my attempts to deceive you. Mak’s words to you were true, but I denied them earlier because my feelings and intentions have changed, and I wanted nothing to jeopardize what is now between us.” Guc and Caa had spent nearly an hour scripting those two sentences.
     “Do you claim the love you profess for me is legitimate?” asked Lea quietly, leaning closer to the king of Tsab, who was kneeling in front of the raised platform upon which her chair rested. In addition to the two rulers, only three others were present in the little throne room - Wil, Eya, and Caa.
     “Yes, Your Majesty. Yet I realize that by my actions, I have betrayed your trust, and if it is your desire the wedding be canceled, I will withdraw my proposal.”
     “If the decision was solely mine to be made on personal grounds, I might accept that offer. But, as my two advisors have pointed out, the whims and wishes of a queen are subordinate to the needs of her people. Vorti needs this match, so I do not intend to withdraw from the engagement. However, it must be agreed upon now, in the presence of these three witnesses, that there shall be only plain-speaking between us. At the slightest indication of prevarication, I will sever the union, even after it has been solemnized.” More quietly, she added, “I may love you, but I no longer trust you.”
     For Guc, the indictment was surprisingly unsettling, and led him to wonder if he had again misjudged the young queen. Nevertheless, he readily agreed to her terms, even though he didn’t intend to adhere to them.
     At that moment, even as Guc was rising to his feet, there was a discreet knock at the door to the small audience chamber. Lea motioned for Wil to admit whoever was there, knowing the guards wouldn’t let anyone pass unless it was important.
     Bin, one of the co-captains of the palace elite corps and a grizzled veteran of Vorti’s militia, entered, helmet in hand. After nodding respectfully to Wil and bowing deeply to the queen, he delivered his message. “Begging Your Majesty’s pardon for the disruption, but an emissary has arrived from Falnora and is requesting an immediate audience. He states the matter is urgent.”
     “Show him in,” said Lea, motioning for Guc to join her on the platform.
     Bin stepped outside and motioned for someone to come forward. Moments later, a man familiar to everyone present entered, his clothing streaked with the dirt and grime of a long, hard ride.
     “Gav!” exclaimed Wil, moving from the queen’s side to embrace his son.
     The younger man favored the chancellor with a wan grin. Seeing the two of them together, it was difficult to note any family resemblance, which wasn’t surprising since Gav was the biological son of King Sor, not Wil. Additionally, although father was nearly twenty years older than son, they looked about the same age. Gav had not grown old gracefully, and didn’t share the youth-preserving feature of his father’s powers. His thinning white hair barely resembled the thick, fair mane it had once been. His strong face showed the ravages of time and the elements, with leather-tough wrinkled skin hanging loosely around his jowls. Excepting only a sparse white mustache, he was cleanshaven.
     “It’s good to see you, Father. And you, Your Majesty,” he said, turning to Lea, who had come down from her throne to hug him. The queen knew Falnora’s ruler as Wil’s son only; Gav’s blood-connection would not be revealed until after his death, if then.
     Gav endured the ritual greetings politely, going so far as to acknowledge the presence of Guc, a man he detested. It was plain, however, that he had come for reasons of greater significance than a social visit. The leader of a major settlement did not ride to Vorti to demand an immediate audience with the queen unless something serious had occurred.
     “What’s wrong, Gav?” asked Wil after they were seated around the room’s single long table.
     “Quatics. We discussed this when I was here last year, but things appear to be happening faster than we anticipated. At a guess, I’d say they’re massing for something more significant that a raid on a merchant’s caravan. Perhaps an assault on Fels.”
     "Presumably, you have a reason for suggesting this?"
     Gav nodded. "The Vordi Marsh quatics have started moving. Not in small numbers, but en masse. Their destination appears to be Flaz' Quag, and that can mean one thing only."
     Lea supplied the obvious solution. "They will band together and attack, and the nearest city is Yax's."
     "Then it's war," said Guc. His words, irrefutable and final, rang out like the klaxon of doom.

© 2006 James Berardinelli

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