27. Secrets in the Night
Secrets in the Night
A look towards the west revealed the sun not far from the edge of the horizon. Once it set completely, the last evening bell would toll and all the gates in the city would be locked, separating the five city districts until morning. Hastening to avoid this, Troy and Leander were all but running as they moved along the central road in Tothmor. Since it was uphill and neither man had an impressive constitution, they were soon panting and gasping for breath. As they reached the second circle, they both had to stop at the gatehouse and regain their wind while the guards watched in amusement.
“Let us go again,” Leander said half-heartedly, and he set into motion once more.
“Bards were not meant for physical exertion,” Troy attempted to speak, though little more than garbled sounds came out of his mouth as he followed after Leander.
Finally, they reached their destination. The house belonging to the count of Esmarch looked as empty and uninviting as ever, but the pair entered without hesitation nonetheless. “Lord Hubert?” Leander called out. “My lord, are you present?”
“Leander?” came the call from the bedroom upstairs.
“Lord Hubert, you are needed,” came the reply.
There was a brief sound of doors or furniture scuffling before the count appeared at the top of the staircase. “Needed?” he repeated, his voice acquiring a tone of eagerness.
“Yes. There is treason afoot in the city, Lord Hubert. We need your assistance to stop it.”
“Finally,” Hubert grinned. “Come, boy, help me put on my armour!” he said, turned around, and disappeared, leaving Leander and Troy to stumble exhausted up the stairs.
Entering the count’s bedroom, they found him opening an armoire. Inside hung upon a rack his armour, arms, and a surcoat with an embroidered emblem of the King’s Blades, a bluebell in front of two crossed swords. “My lord,” Leander said as Hubert began taking pieces of his gear out from the closet. “There are traitors planning to attack the palace.”
“Excellent,” Hubert replied.
“It is the priests of Hamaring. At least twenty of them, and they have allies among the palace guard.”
“Tremendous,” the count remarked as he began equipping himself.
“We do not know whom we can trust,” Troy inserted. “Who are still loyal and who are traitors.”
“Brilliant,” came a muffled reply; putting on his mail shirt dampened the sound until the count’s head appeared above the armour again. “Do we have a battle plan?”
“Well,” Leander said with an uncertain voice, “they will take action tomorrow morning. So if we arrest the priests tonight, that should be the end of it.”
“Understood,” Hubert nodded, adding the surcoat to his attire and giving Leander his braces to strap onto his arms. “Remove the head of the snake. What soldiers are at our disposal?”
“Well,” Troy said hesitantly, “we have you. So far.”
“So first order of business, mobilising the troops,” Hubert responded with another nod. “You, boy,” he added with a throw of the head towards Troy, “you seem like the sort to be acquainted with the less reputable parts of the city.”
“Less reputable might be harsh,” Troy tried to object.
“Are you familiar with the establishment known as The Pork and Pepper?”
“Yes, it’s a public house in the third district,” Troy answered.
“Good. Go there now. You will find several men there, hired by the owner towards keeping peace among the patrons. They are former Blades,” Hubert explained. “Tell them to gather any others that remain and meet me by the district gate. Do you understand?”
“Pork and Pepper, former Blades, gather others and meet by the gate,” Troy recited with a bard’s memory. “Yes, I understand.”
“Then go,” the count said loudly. “What are you idling for? Run!”
“Right,” Troy said dismayed. “Run.” He turned and did his best to run out of the room.
Buckling his sword belt around his waist, the count turned towards Leander. “We will go to the palace. Some of the guards are also former Blades. The rest may be of dubious fealty, but not them,” Hubert declared.
“Right, good,” Leander nodded. “We should probably tell the queen before we start a battle in the city.”
“The queen, yes, chain of command,” Hubert agreed. “Quite right.” He grabbed his helmet and pressed it down over his head. “No more dalliances. To the palace with all speed!” the count exclaimed and moved with surprising agility.
“Are you well, my lord?” Leander asked as he tried to catch up to him. “You seem rather – gleeful.”
“Am I well, dear boy? I am marvellous,” Hubert grinned. “I have been training for twelve years waiting for this! I could take on every priest in the Seven Realms if necessity demanded it,” he claimed.
“How about just the whiterobes for now,” Leander uttered with a struggle as he breathed deeply and followed the count outside.
The sun was near setting when Leander and Hubert passed through the district gate into the palace. The guards cast a few strange looks but had no intentions of stopping the queen’s cousin, regardless of his company. Once inside, they split up.
“Find the queen and bring her to the council chamber,” Hubert instructed Leander. “It has no windows, only one door easily defended. I will gather what men I can find and whom we can trust.”
Leander nodded in response and hurried onwards through the complex until he reached the royal wing. Stopping in front of Theodora’s door, he knocked repeatedly. Finally, the door was opened from within by the queen’s handmaiden. “Milord,” she exclaimed sounding shocked upon seeing him. “It is a very late hour to be banging on the door,” she reproached him.
“Theodora?” Leander called out, trying to peer into the room.
“Leander?” came the queen’s voice from inside the room, and she moved until he was within her sight. “What on earth is the matter?”
“Theodora, you have to come with me. There is something I must tell you.”
Hearing this, the young woman dismissed her lady-in-waiting who retreated into the chamber. “Leander, what is wrong? Tell me,” demanded the queen.
“Not here,” he urged her. “It is not safe. You have to come with me.”
“Go where? Leander, this is my bedchamber in the deepest part of the palace.”
“Please,” Leander said, extending his hand. “If you trust me, please, come with me, and I will explain.”
Theodora hesitated a moment. “I trust you,” she said and took hold of his hand.
He led her through the empty corridors towards the council chamber. On occasion they passed by a guard, and each time Leander almost flinched. Finally, as they reached the chamber, he pushed the heavy door open and ushered Theodora inside. An elongated table with numerous chairs around it was its only furniture.
“Leander, what are we doing here?” she asked impatiently.
“The safest place in the palace,” Leander explained. “We should not be overheard.”
“Leander, you are acting in a frightening manner,” Theodora said with an unsteady voice.
Clearing his throat, Leander began to elaborate. “Theodora, there are people plotting against you. They mean to strike first thing tomorrow.”
“The priests of Hamaring. The high priest and many others, their temple guards too, most likely. They will seize the upper circles, the palace included. They mean to depose you, Theodora.”
“Oh gods,” the queen said softly, falling down onto a chair. “Again? Are all priests nothing more than fiends wearing robes?”
“It would seem thus,” Leander said softly. “But we have time to stop them. They do not act until dawn.”
Before Leander could explain further, the count of Esmarch opened the door and stepped in. Behind him came a few more soldiers in palace livery, and out in the hallway they could spot a dozen more. Theodora leapt to her feet, instinctively shying away. “It is fine,” Leander said quickly. “The count is here at my behest. He is here to help you.”
“Help me?” Theodora said questioningly.
“I and my brothers of the King’s Blades are yours to command,” Hubert exclaimed. He strode through the room and knelt before Theodora. “We are sworn to protect the ruler of Hæthiod.”
“But you were disbanded,” Theodora said doubtfully.
“Oaths cannot be disbanded, Your Majesty,” Hubert responded. “We do not waver in our loyalty. We will kill any man for you, we will die for you.”
“But I have done nothing to deserve such loyalty,” Theodora protested meekly.
The count shook his head in reply to her protestation. “We are defenders of the realm, Your Majesty. The realm is you. Not these rebels and brigands at our door.”
“I hardly know you,” Theodora said, confusion plaguing her voice. “I only know your son, and trusting him was a mistake,” she continued, turning around. “And you are telling me the palace guards, my own guards are traitors as well? How can I trust anybody?”
Hubert rose from where he had knelt and spoke again. “Your Majesty, I failed in my duty many years ago. No words will dispel the doubt from your mind. I can only prove myself through actions. I ask of you that you allow me to form the Queen’s Blades. Let us fight for you. Only thus can we prove our words are true.”
Theodora turned back and her eyes switched between looking at Hubert and Leander. “Perhaps I should speak with Aunt Irene,” she said hesitantly. “She always knows what is best.”
“No,” Leander said firmly. “I can already tell you that she will not trust me or Lord Hubert. Her decision will be to have us thrown out,” he continued. “But this is your decision, Theodora, you are the queen. Either you trust in Lord Hubert and grant him leave to do what must be done. Or else you tell us all to be gone, and you may return to your bedchamber and sleep.”
Theodora’s eyes examined Leander and Hubert’s faces once more. Finally, she took her signet ring from her finger, the sign of royal authority in Hæthiod. She extended her hand allowed the ring to fall into Hubert’s palm. “This will prove that you act upon my behalf. Go and arrest all those suspected of treason. Avoid bloodshed if possible.”
“I shall carry out your command to the best of my abilities,” Hubert said with a bow. “I will leave your cousin for your protection. And two Blades,” he added after glancing at Leander.
“Probably best,” Leander mumbled.
The count gave a short bow again and left, followed by all of his men except two, who took position outside the council chamber. Theodora sat down once again, but she could not keep her hands calm, wringing them, folding them, pressing them against each other.
“It will be fine,” Leander said quietly, sitting down.
“I have never been in this room before,” Theodora remarked, glancing around.
“I recall my father being in here from time to time,” Leander said, frowning as he tried to remember. “But it has not seen use in Irene’s time. She keeps council in her own chambers,” he remarked dryly.
“Maybe I should tell her,” Theodora contemplated with concern in her voice. “She should know.”
“I am sure she will soon enough,” Leander scoffed. “She has a remarkable gift for knowing everything that goes on in this palace if not the whole city.”
“Yet she did not know this,” Theodora pointed out. “I realise she has kept things from me before, but I cannot imagine she would have let the whiterobes get so close to carrying out their plan.”
“No,” Leander admitted. “I do not know how, but they must have fooled her. Irene does not take chances. She would not let it come to open battle in the city if she knew.”
“How did you know?” Theodora suddenly asked. “How did you find out where Aunt Irene failed?”
“That is a long story,” Leander mumbled. “It is a bit hard to explain.”
Before he could speak further, they heard the sound of footsteps down the corridor. The door to the chamber had not been closed, so from a distance they could recognise the short figure of a middle-aged woman. As she approached the chamber, the two guards stepped in front and blocked her path.
“How dare you?” Irene snapped. “Do you not care whether your heads are attached to your necks?”
“Let her through,” Theodora commanded, and the Blades stepped aside.
Stepping inside, Irene glanced at Leander. “I should like an explanation for what is taking place.”
“What are you wondering about?” Theodora asked.
“Why you are here, at night, in this dusty chamber. Why you are here with him,” Irene said with contempt as she nodded towards Leander. “What is the meaning of those guards,” she continued, looking towards the Blades at the door. “And why did I spot another dozen of them leaving the palace and moving into the city?”
“Those are all good questions,” Theodora said hesitantly. “Well, the thing is… What has happened… It is a bit hard to explain,” she said in echo of Leander earlier.
“There is a threat against the queen,” Leander said, standing up. “The guards are here to protect her as am I. The other guards have gone into the city to arrest the priests of Hamaring.”
“That was not so hard to explain after all,” Irene said coldly. “Except you are missing all the parts that yield sense. You have sent the palace guards to arrest the whiterobes?”
“Some of the guards,” Theodora elaborated. “It seems not all of them can be trusted. These are the old King’s Blades, they are loyal to me.”
“The King’s Blades? Who let your uncle, your predecessor die to blackboot scum?” Irene said incredulously. “You trust them with your safety? What, would you have Count Esmarch leading them as well since we are repeating past mistakes anyway?”
“Well,” Theodora said weakly while sharing a glance with Leander.
“I do not believe it,” Irene exclaimed, and indeed her face expressed utter disbelief. “The man lives in an abandoned house. His mind is less reliable than a knife made of clay and his wit less sharp!”
“You are wrong,” Leander said coolly. “Once the count returns, he will prove the queen’s faith in him justified.”
“Or it will show that you unleashed a madman on the streets, and we will have a massacre on our hands,” Irene bit back. “How do you even know these priests are guilty? That you have not instigated a bloodbath against innocent people?”
“How do you know, Leander?” Theodora asked when her cousin did not immediately answer.
“I became aware of their plot,” Leander mumbled. “And then I asked Count Esmarch to help.”
“That is no answer,” Irene sneered. “What would the motivation even be for the priests? High treason is not committed on a whim.”
“Their high priest wants to be court seer,” Leander explained in a faint voice. “And remove Theodora from power. I think some of the counts are involved as well. Noblemen who do not wish to see a woman on the throne.”
“But they would need a candidate for the throne,” Irene argued. “Somebody to replace Theodora with, who would give them what they crave. Somebody that would be accepted as worthy of the crown. Somebody…” her voice trailed off as she stared at Leander. “You. It was you.”
“What?” Theodora asked.
“I refused,” Leander said quickly, raising his hands in defence. “I have done everything I can to stop them.”
“Leander, what?” Theodora asked; her voice grew quiet as the answer to her question became apparent.
“Leander was their choice,” Irene sneered. “They would depose you, Theodora, and put your dear cousin on the throne. A man, Everard’s son, a puppet whose strings they hold.”
“Leander,” Theodora said hoarsely.
“I refused them,” Leander insisted. “I mean, I pretended to accept so they would not bash my skull in. But then I did everything in my power to stop them. Their plans have failed, Lord Hubert is arresting them now because of me!”
“You pretended to accept? Or did you get cold feet,” Irene said with disdain. “Betray your allies and save your skin. I would expect as much from you.”
“No,” Leander yelled. “I would never act in such a way.”
“I look at you and I see nothing of my husband,” Irene continued contemptuously. “He was the bravest man in the kingdom, and you are a pale, contorted, twisted version of his image. I would have born him courageous sons.”
“That may be,” Leander said, and his voice grew quiet, but it was clear and steady. “But at least I do not have one drop of your malice. Only one in this room has grabbed power beyond right, and it is not me.”
“Your mother has supplied plenty of malice, I assure you,” Irene retorted.
“Silence!” Theodora cried out, and the other two people in the room became quiet. “May I remind you that we are still facing a threat. This is not the time to pour poison into each other’s wounds.”
“You are right, Theodora,” Irene finally admitted. “What matters now is rooting out these conspirators.”
“When the Blades return, they will bring the priests with them. That will be the end of it,” Leander claimed.
“I have some passing knowledge of the whiterobes,” Irene said with an overbearing smile. “Coupled with their disdain for women is how they prize strength and courage. It is doubtful how many of them will surrender or what they will admit afterwards. Fortunately, there are other ways.”
“How do you mean?” asked Theodora.
“They have supporters here at court. Within the guards and no doubt the nobility. Thankfully not all my eyes and ears are idle,” Irene explained. “We will unravel this. For instance, who involved you, Leander?” Leander did not answer but simply stared at the dowager queen, who continued her line of questioning. “I have never heard of you even entering a temple. How did the whiterobes contact you?” Leander did not respond to this either. “Never mind,” Irene sneered. “I think I know whom to blame besides the high priest of Hamaring.”
“Who?” asked Theodora.
“Who could more desire to see Leander on the throne than his dear mother?” Irene smiled. “Someone who has been seen in the company of the whiterobes on more than one occasion.”
“Leander, is it true?” Theodora’s eyes were was wide open as they possibly could be.
“Yes,” Leander muttered. “She was the one who met with the priests. Who had me meet with them.”
“Finally,” Irene breathed. “She made her mistake.”
Their discussion was interrupted by the arrival of several Blades. “Your Majesty,” one of them said. “Count Esmarch sent us ahead to bring word. He regrets to inform you that the priests decided to resist.”
“What a surprise,” Irene commented.
“He is leaving some of our company to keep watch at the temple. The rest, along with our prisoners, he will bring back to the palace when ready. He requests you keep at least two if not more of our numbers outside your chambers tonight until he arrives.”
“Very well,” Theodora nodded. “You have done well tonight.”
“It would seem our faith in the count of Esmarch was justified,” Leander remarked vindicated.
“How pleasant for you,” Irene said in a biting tone and turned towards the Blades. “Bring Lady Diane here. Now, wake her up if you must.”
“What are you intending?” Leander asked.
“She is involved,” Irene replied sharply. “This is her chance to confess.” The Blade looked towards Theodora who nodded in consent.
After the guard departed, the council chamber was silent except for the sound of retreating footsteps. Nobody spoke or moved. Neither Leander nor Theodora looked at each other, while Irene seemed happy to scrutinise Leander’s facial expressions. Leander ignored her, staring at the wall.
Finally, they heard the sounds of footsteps; one pair marching quickly, one pair being dragged and scuffing against the carpeted floor. “How dare you,” came the wincing voice of a woman. Reaching the door, the guard pushed Diane into the council chamber. She was wearing her nightclothes, revealing her attractive figure, and she did not seem troubled by any lack of modesty either; she simply glanced around the room, taking in the sight of those present. “What is going on?” she demanded to know.
“Mother, I am sorry,” Leander mumbled. “But I could not.”
“What have you done, boy?” Diane said in a rising voice. “No, do not tell me you have. You did not.”
“I had to,” Leander exclaimed with a thick voice. “You forced me to choose. I could not choose you.”
“You stupid boy! Everything was within your reach,” Diane burst out. “You fool!”
“Silence,” Irene sneered. “I think that is sufficient admission of guilt. Now I will never have to suffer the sound of your voice again,” the lady declared, walking over to stare into Diane’s face. She was shorter than her rival, yet Diane seemed to shrink, while Irene towered over her. “On his deathbed, my husband made me swear not to harm you or your son. All these years I have kept that promise because it was his dying wish. But you have done this to yourself,” Irene said triumphantly. “Take her away and confine her to her room for now. Until her fate is decided.”
Diane’s protestations turned into screams as the guard began to haul her away. Leander watched her, blinking a few times to keep his eyes clear, but he was unable to speak. “Guards,” Irene continued, “escort Lord Leander to his chambers and keep him confined as well.” Her voice was neutral except for when she spoke his title and name, which came out with an undercurrent of mocking.
“What?” Leander exclaimed. “No!” Theodora burst out.
“Regardless of whether you are guilty or not, you have been implicated,” Irene explained with a hint of a smile. “Until your guilt can be ascertained, you will be kept under lock. Be grateful it is your chambers and not the dungeons.”
“Irene, that seems unnecessary,” Theodora began to object but fell silent when Irene turned to look at her.
“Not now, Theodora,” she told her niece. “Guards,” she continued, nodding towards Leander.
“I can walk on my own,” Leander declared, raising his hand to keep the guard at distance. He began walking out of the chamber but stopped when he stood next to Irene. His mouth open, an insult was at the tip of his tongue. “No, I am not like you,” he ended up saying, swallowing whatever words had been intended, and continued walking tall out of the room.
When they were alone except for the guards standing outside the door, Theodora turned towards her aunt. “Surely this is unnecessary,” she said. “Leander did all this to save me. I do not think he is guilty.”
“The question of guilt is irrelevant,” Irene responded impatiently. “This is a question of threat.”
“Threat?” Theodora repeated.
“Theodora, certainly now you must see this. We were on the precipice of a revolt tonight,” Irene said insisting. “They wanted to dethrone you so they could put Leander in your place!”
“But that was not his fault,” Theodora tried to argue. “I do not think he wanted this.”
“I find it hard to believe the bastard son of a king would not wish to succeed his father,” Irene said dryly. “Finally attaining the respect denied him. Again, Leander’s wishes are irrelevant. If this revolt had gone through, you think his objections would have mattered? He would have become their puppet king, and you would have been executed.”
“But it was stopped,” Theodora continued her objections. “They are dead or in chains.”
“There will always be more,” Irene shook her head. “The mere fact that you are a woman galls them. As long as a male heir is alive, living here at court as a daily reminder, some people will prefer him to you. They will consider you the weaker choice, and if you spare Leander after this blatant threat, they will be confirmed!”
“But he is my cousin,” Theodora said faintly. “My friend.”
“We need not decide his fate this instant,” Irene told her niece in a more soothing tone of voice. “If execution seems too harsh, he can be imprisoned securely somewhere, or exile under pain of death. There are options.”
“This does not feel right,” Theodora complained.
“Politics is about being pragmatic, not about being right,” Irene said dismissively. “The fact remains that some will always consider Leander’s claim stronger than yours. If for no other reason than it will suit their needs. A wise ruler does not suffer rivals. Now get some rest before the sun rises.”
Obedient, Theodora left the council chamber, accompanied by the remaining Blades. As she walked through the hallway and passed a window, however, she saw the faint twilight heralding the coming day and that the night was all but spent.
Having sent Theodora to her chamber, Irene left as well. She did not go to her own chambers, however, but to the court seer’s quarters and found him asleep. “Wake up, you incompetent fool,” she called out, and the bewildered priest opened his eyes, blinking heavily.
“Who is there?” he asked in a drowsy voice. In response, Irene took a jar of water from a nightstand and threw it in his face. “My lady,” Dominic exclaimed. He tried to give some sort of bow, but all he could muster was an awkward nod.
“Do you have any idea what has happened tonight? While you were snoring?” Irene snarled at him.
“I confess, my lady, I do not,” Dominic shivered.
“Tonight, half the whiterobes in Tothmor are dead, if not more.”
“Dead?” gasped Dominic. “Is the mob killing priests?”
“No, you spineless sod, the royal guards are. The whiterobes were going to attack tomorrow, take control of the palace.”
“I have not been told of this.” Dominic rubbed his eyes while wiping water from his brow.
“Exactly,” Irene hissed. “You were supposed to watch the priests. You were supposed to know, yet you utterly failed, you ignorant, foul, little pus boil of a man!”
“My lady,” Dominic stammered, “please forgive me. I was deceived, it will not happen again.”
“Do you enjoy wearing this?” Irene asked, picking up a necklace with a heavy pendant; it was the symbol of the court seer. “Then I suggest you consider how to make up for this, or I will remove not only the necklace, but your head along with it,” she all but screamed and threw the necklace against his head.
“Yes, my lady,” Dominic mumbled weakly as he raised his hands to cover his face. The pendant hit him and fell down into the bed. The court seer looked down to find it and pick it up; when he had done so and looked up, Irene was gone.
As the new day dawned, it revealed that few people had rested well after the night’s tumultuous events. Forgoing sleep, Theodora had simply sat in her chamber ever since returning from the council room, dismissing or ignoring all attempts by her handmaiden to interact with her. There was a knock on the door, and when opened, it revealed the queen’s mother.
“Daphne, would you give me some time alone with my daughter, please,” Beatrice told the handmaiden, who bowed and left the room. Walking inside, Beatrice spotted Theodora sitting in a chair. In her hands, she had had sewing equipment. She was not using it to make much progress, however, but rather idly occupying her hands with it.
“Theodora?” Beatrice said cautiously. “I have been informed of what happened. Count Esmarch was kind enough to explain matters.” When she did not receive a reply, she came closer until she could sit down in a chair next to Theodora. “I can understand if you have been left shocked by last night’s events,” she continued saying. “And the new guards make sense, even if some of them seem a little rough around the edges. I suppose that makes them more intimidating,” Beatrice remarked.
“I am not shocked,” Theodora suddenly replied, turning her head to look at her mother. “I have been thinking. On what to do.”
“Is there anything you have to do?” Beatrice asked. “If you would like to take a few days to rest, none would blame you. I am sure your aunt Irene can handle things for you.”
“I am sure she can,” Theodora commented a touch acerbically. “If I leave this in Irene’s hands, what are the odds she will have Leander executed?”
“Oh dear,” Beatrice exclaimed. “It is not so common in Hæthiod to execute people, dearest. A northern habit we must have picked up. Exile is most likely, or…”
“Or?” Theodora pressed.
“The salt mines, I expect,” Beatrice admitted reluctantly.
“Does Leander deserve that?” Theodora asked.
“My dear, Leander is a sweet boy. There is not a deceitful bone in his body, I believe that,” Beatrice said earnestly. “But Irene is right in many things. He poses a danger to you, and he always will while he remains this uncertain factor. If the choice were between him and you, I would choose you. So would Irene, and so should you.”
“It seems unreasonable that circumstances of birth should doom a person,” Theodora pondered.
“It is entirely unreasonable,” Beatrice granted. “But we cannot change the rules of society, dear. These are the rules we must live by. Fate would have it that your circumstances made you queen.”
Theodora sat quiet for a moment. “I think I know what I must do. Mother, would you summon one of the guards for me?”
“Certainly,” Beatrice said, sounding a little confused but complying nonetheless. She walked over and opened the door, telling one of the guards to step in.
“Find the court seer,” Theodora commanded. “Tell him I wish to see him immediately.” The guard inclined his head and left swiftly.
“Theodora, what are you intending?” asked Beatrice a bit worried.
“I will tell you later,” the queen informed her mother. “But there is something you can confirm for me. Given that I was four years old at the time of my coronation, I presume certain legalities concerning my age had to be amended.”
“You had to be declared of age, yes,” Beatrice nodded. “Otherwise you could not have inherited the throne until you were twenty-one.”
“And a lord protector would have been instated rather than Aunt Irene’s invisible hand,” Theodora muttered. “But in the eyes of the law I am of age, then. With all the responsibilities and rights such entail.”
“You are,” Beatrice confirmed. “Theodora, why are you asking?”
“Not yet,” Theodora replied. “I will explain in due time.”
A little while, there was a discreet knock on the door. “You may enter,” Theodora granted, and the black-robed high priest of Rihimil walked in with his court seer’s pendant hanging around his neck.
“You desired my presence, Your Majesty?” Dominic said questioningly.
“I did,” Theodora nodded. “I have a few questions for you. Do you enjoy being court seer?”
“I do, Your Majesty,” Dominic answered cautiously, his eyes darting around the room.
“And at whose behest do you serve as court seer?”
“Yours, Your Majesty,” Dominic replied, licking his lips.
“Now think carefully about this question, for I will hold you to your answer,” Theodora said, leaning forward slightly and folding her hands under her chin. “If given an order by me or my aunt Irene, whose order would you follow? Whom would you choose?”
The priest stood with his lips parted, formulating an answer but without sound being expressed. He closed his mouth, swallowed, and opened it again to give his response. “Yours, Your Majesty.”
“Good,” Theodora said, leaning back. “I will have need of your services tonight, so be prepared. Do not speak of any of this to anyone. Am I perfectly clear?”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” Dominic bowed deeply.
“Very good. You may yet prove worthy of your position for many years to come. Now leave us,” the queen bade him. Dominic gave another deep bow and backed out of the room.
“Theodora,” Beatrice began to say, but she was silenced by a raised hand from the queen.
“Another time, Mother. For now, leave me be. I am tired and I would like to sleep.”
Being confined to his room, Leander was not allowed to receive visitors. He was brought a few meals, but otherwise the monotony of his day was not interrupted. He attempted to sleep a few times without luck. His room was not in the royal wing, but rather in the western-most wing, and his windows faced in that direction. They had heavy bars set into them to prevent entry by outsiders, which was now convenient to serve the opposite purpose; still, the windows gave him a measure of time as he could watch the sun approach the horizon and in the evening fill his room with fading light.
As it dissipated entirely, Leander shortly after heard the dissonant tolling of several bells announcing nightfall; there was no longer the full number of six bells, however. It was not hard to guess which temple had silent towers or domes with no acolytes to pull the bell rope. Leander finished eating an apple and threw the core out between the bars of his window; then he leaned as much as he could onto the windowsill and stared westwards.
The quickly approaching darkness soon covered everything his eyes could reach, and instead he gazed upwards towards the faint stars. Since the bars kept him back, however, he had to gaze at an awkward angle. He could make out the belt of the Swordsman, but not see his torso. If other constellations were visible, he would never know, for his astronomical observations were interrupted by a knock on the door.
The person opening and stepping inside was Count Esmarch. Leander’s face lit up briefly in a smile, but the count’s blank expression caused it to fade away. “Appearing after nightfall,” Leander mumbled. “I wonder what cause you might have to be here.”
“The queen has summoned you,” Hubert replied. “I am not at liberty to reveal why.”
“Not a request I can refuse, I take it,” Leander smiled sardonically. “Very well,” he answered and went to his closet, picking out a doublet. “Wherever I am going, I intend to be well-dressed,” he said, putting it on.
“Follow me,” Hubert said, stepping outside. Once Leander joined him in the corridor, the count took a strong grip on his arm and led him away.
They walked through the hallways of the palace, which were empty apart from the Queen’s Blades. Hubert paid them no heed but marched briskly forward, forcing Leander at the same pace. Finally, the count stopped and glanced in either direction of the hallway. Finding it empty, Hubert opened a door and pushed Leander inside before following himself and closing the door behind him. Inside, Leander found the queen, the queen’s mother, and the court seer turning to look at him. They were standing near an altar with a statue that Leander could recognise as Rihimil.
“I admit, this strikes me as a rather odd arrangement for an execution,” Leander remarked.
“Leander dear,” Theodora said, walking towards him, “we are not gathered for such an occasion. Rather on the contrary. You and I are going to wed.”
She was rewarded with a perplexed look. “Pardon, I thought you – what? If this is a jest, it is in very poor taste,” Leander managed to spit out.
“Not at all,” Theodora shook her head. “I spent all of today considering options. I am told you are a threat to me, that some will always be interested in using you, putting you on the throne for their own gain. I intend to beat them to it and put you on the throne for my gain.”
“This is an absurd idea,” Leander protested. He glanced towards Beatrice and Dominic, but neither came to his aid. In desperation, he turned his head to look at Hubert behind him, but he found no sympathy in the count’s face either.
“On the contrary,” Theodora argued. “The realm is divided because both you and I have a claim on the throne for different reasons. This way, our children will unite our claims and conclude this divide.”
“Children,” Leander choked, his eyes widening.
“It is a perfect match,” Theodora continued. “Those who complain of my rule and would favour you as king will be placated. Whereas I will have a suitable husband that I trust, the only husband I could ever trust.”
“Theodora, I have absolutely no skill where kingship is concerned,” Leander insisted. “I would be horrible with responsibility.”
“How can you know? Have you ever been given any?” Theodora asked. When Leander was unable to reply, she continued. “I will continue to rule as queen regnant, obviously. You just have to support me in whatever I do and otherwise look handsome by my side,” she smiled, patting his cheek.
“The latter will be easy enough,” Leander admitted. “But is this even possible? You are sixteen years old.”
“When my dear aunt Irene had me crowned at age four, she pushed me into adulthood,” Theodora explained with another smile. “Legally, I have been able to marry for twelve years.”
“But sixteen,” Leander repeated. “In some places, you would still be considered a child.”
“I do not have the luxury of acting like a child,” Theodora retorted. “Really, I did not expect you to be so obstinate. What alternative do you think awaits you? Imagine what Irene will do if I cannot protect you.”
“When you put it like that,” Leander mumbled.
“Leander,” Theodora said, drawing near to him. She was slightly shorter and standing this close had to raise her head to look him in the eyes. “You were ready to die for me at some point. Would marrying me be so much worse?”
“No,” Leander said slowly. “I mean, yes, very well.” Very cautiously, a smile began to take shape on his face. “I will marry you.”
“Finally,” growled the count behind them. “I have seen soldiers charge certain death with less reluctance. What made you so hesitant, boy, the fact that your bride is beautiful or that she offers you a crown?”
“It is a little overwhelming,” Leander mumbled defensively as Theodora took his hand and led him towards the altar. Beatrice was already managing the facial expression between smiling and shedding tears that only the mother of a bride might produce.
“Are both parties willing and agreed,” the court seer said, clearing his throat.
“Willing and agreed,” Theodora confirmed, looking at Leander with a smile.
“Good. Hands, please,” Dominic requested of them. Theodora and Leander each raised the one closest to the other person, letting their hands touch in the air between them. “Step forward and touch the altar,” Dominic instructed them and moved away to allow them access. The pair moved forward and extended their free hand to touch the statue upon the altar while still keeping their other hands held together.
“Leander, born to Everard, whose title was king of Hæthiod, vassal to the Megas Basileus of Adalmearc, do you swear that you are here by your own free will and that to enter matrimony with this woman is your own desire?”
“I do so swear,” Leander replied.
“Theodora, born to Stephen, whose title was count of Lakonia, vassal to the king of Hæthiod, do you swear that you are here by your own free will, and that to enter matrimony with this man is your own desire?”
“I do so swear,” Theodora answered.
“You may step back,” Dominic told them, and with one hand still touching the other’s, they moved backwards one pace from the altar to allow the priest to take position in front of it again. Several things were lying on the hewn marble slab, which served as the base for the statue, and Dominic bent down slightly to pick up some of the items. In his one hand, he held a cup of wine; in the other lay grains of salt.
“In salt is life,” Dominic chanted while letting the precious mineral fall down into the wine. “In wine is trust,” he continued, swirling it around a bit and letting the salt disperse before he offered the cup to the bridal couple. They used their free hands to both hold the cup, and carefully they led it first to Leander’s lips and then Theodora’s. When they had both drunk from the salted wine, they returned the cup to Dominic. “May your union be blessed with both,” he finished and placed the cup back on the altar, picking up two pieces of string instead.
There were examples of far more elaborate pieces of woven fabric made specifically for this part of the ritual, but the improvised nature of this occasion meant that the strings were entirely plain; they looked as if they might have come from a sewing kit. The court seer tied one string around Theodora’s wrist and the other string around Leander’s wrist. Then he braided the loose ends from each string together.
When it was done, the priest pulled down. The enjoined parts proved stronger; the two singular ends of the strings around Theodora’s and Leander’s wrists broke apart, leaving only what had become entwined into one. Holding the small braid in one hand, Dominic took hold of the pair’s hands with the other, turning them around and letting the braid fall into their open palms. As a final gesture, he closed their hands around it.
“With this act, you have become one. Under the eyes of the dragon, the raven, the bull, the horse, the bear, the hart, and the eagle, your union is consecrated. Let no man dispute what the gods have done this day.” With those words, the ritual was completed, and Theodora and Leander were wed.