PART TWO: FIRST SURGE
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..."
"...in 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."
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