One thing nagging at the back of my mind was that when I first accepted the position of Queen, I knew almost nothing about what was to be expected of me.
After I graduated from college and started taking job interviews, I would sometimes spend more time grilling the interviewer about the role than answering questions about myself. So when several days passed and nobody came rushing to me with urgent matters of governing, I began to do my own investigating into the specifics of the position.
In doing so, I learned much about the last Queen of Lentempia: mostly that during her reign, her title was entirely honorary.
Queen Isabelle Urias had little desire to assert herself into the tumultuous fray of politics dominated by Father Caollin, and was consistently ignored by her estranged husband, which left her with a lot of free time. Most of the servants were quick to fill me in about the late queen’s day to day activities, which involved attending parties and galleries, making appearances at public events, reading in the library, stealing off to the highest balconies to admire the views, and modeling new fashions and designs that she wished to deem ‘Royal’.
“You are the face of the Kingdom,” Mia told me one day. “To be loved and admired, this is your duty. The King and Church handle the rest.”
The Queen of Lentempia did not appear to be involved in any of the actual ruling of the Kingdom, as it turned out, so more than a few heads turned when I started appearing at the daily Royal Council meetings without an invitation. “My queen,” the high councilman with the mustache- whose name escapes me- said, the first time he entered the room and found me sitting at the long rectangular table. “Are you sure you wish to attend these meetings? We would not want to bore your holiness with the mundane matters of the Royal Council.”
I had smiled back at him with all the saccharine sweetness I could muster. “On the contrary sir, I find the day-to-day issues of the Kingdom quite fascinating. Please carry on, pretend I am but a shadow on the wall. If my tiny little brain becomes over-encumbered with boring semantics I will step out for some fresh air.” He had coughed nervously and continued with the minutes, although it was clear that my presence in the room was less than welcome.
On days when Malcolm was away, the council started varying the times and rooms where the meetings were held, in an attempt to conduct business without me to distract them. Through it all, Hendrik remained loyal, always tipping me off whenever the location of the council meeting had changed at the last minute. Perhaps he did it because he relished the disgruntled looks of the council members, and their attempts to pretend my attendance did not fluster them. Either way, I was grateful, because each meeting detailed a fascinating tapestry of connected issues that- when woven together- created a picture of a Kingdom on the brink of disaster.
By attending the meetings, I learned about the agriculture of the Kingdom, the majority of produce and livestock coming from the fertile soil down south, especially in times of drought, as was expected to be the case this summer. The handful of Barons that protected the farmlands in the South had been gouging the prices of their exports, and now severe food shortages were not a question of ‘if’, but ‘when’.
I learned about the Cult of Klay, a secret enclave as old as the New Church itself. The clan had remained dormant for thousands of years but had risen back to prominence as recently as ten years ago, the main headquarters of operations located within fifty miles of the Capital. The fortresses of the cult resembled giant ant hills, massive brown mounds of earth dotted with dark misshapen windows, hiding a massive network of underground mines and narrow tunnels that extended for miles underneath the earth’s surface. Members of the cult were said to kidnap unsuspecting travelers and put them to work as slaves in the mines below, digging deeper into the depths, until the day they perished, although what exactly they were mining was hotly debated amongst many of the council members.
I also learned that the Broken Prince’s army had nearly doubled in size since the Queen’s death, and that Caollin had taken nearly a third of the Royal army with him when he had fled in the night. Put these two facts together, and the Crown was ill prepared to mount a counterattack against the oncoming Prince until more reinforcements arrived from the Nameless City in the east.
And I learned that the two largest armies in the world were held by the New Church and the Baron Highburn of the Southlands, and that the two had enjoyed an alliance since the beginning of Malstrom’s rise to power. The same Baron Highburn whose sister Nadia had been snubbed by the King in front of every noble in the Kingdom in favor of a base-born Outsider. The Highburns currently had a standing army within striking range of the Broken Prince, but had promptly cut ties with the Crown and nullified the alliance the day after the new Queen had been chosen.
My eagerness to learn the politics of the Kingdom was only exceeded by my curiosity to explore the rest of the palace. One of the first things to note was that the skyscraper appeared to be an odd patchwork of classical and modern architectural styles, depending on which room you entered. The Great Library was massive and Gothic, complete with crystal chandeliers, paned glass, and varnished mahogany bookshelves that extended up five stories into the rafters. However, the room directly across the hall was a bathhouse modeled in a classical Roman style, featuring a large square bath the size of a swimming pool surrounded by white marble columns and high ceilings. And the crypts in the cellar looked vaguely Egyptian in nature, featuring old, faded Hieroglyphs of chipped paint, although I could not bear to stay in the dark empty vaults for longer than a minute or two before demanding to be taken back up to the comfort of the ground floor.
The palace exploration was severely limited by my lack of functioning legs, and I soon came to accept that I needed medical attention for my condition. On the day that I had received the letter from Cecilia, I paid a visit to the infirmary, which was perhaps the strangest room of all.
As I tried to make myself comfortable on the lumpy cot, waiting for the doctor to finish with his current patient, I realized that the infirmary was the brightest room in the entire Royal Palace, though it had no windows. It was also the only room I had seen that did not use torches as its source of light. Harsh yellow orbs hung from the ceiling, illuminating rows of hard cots separated by bleached curtains. The light from the orbs was so intense that staring up at one for longer than a second left an after-image burned into your vision. Hospitals in general were never pleasant places, but the palace infirmary held a special space in my heart under the category of places I never want to visit again in my life.
There were several things that put me on edge even more than the headache-triggering brightness of the orbs. Perhaps it was the sweet, sickly smell of formaldehyde. Or the head medic, a nervous, fidgety man that shuffled about the room so fast he often picked the wrong instrument off his table and had to return a second time to fetch the correct one.
No, I decided, it was none of these things. The reason I hated it most was because of the sounds. Constant moans coming from the cots concealed behind the curtains, filling the air, each a unique and somewhat bestial cry of agony. The wails cut through me like a cold knife, so I wrapped my arms around my torso and shivered, cursing myself for declining Hendrik’s offer to keep me company.
The curtain dividing me from the main hall shuddered, then parted, revealing the small pink face of the head medic, staring down at me through a pair of gold-framed spectacles. “Ah, your holiness, I had no idea you would be visiting!” His shifty eyes fell to the floor, like a dog that knew he was in trouble. “I would have come at once, had I known.”
“No, no, it’s okay!” I said. “Besides” -I motioned towards the cries of pain – “it sounds like most people here need your help more than me.”
“You have no idea,” he whispered. “Been working overtime all week and still don’t have an answer for half these men. The church has given me a week before we put them out of their pain.”
“What happened to them?”
He took a step closer to me and dropped his voice. “These are the men and women we found in Caollin’s Lab of Miracles, after he fled.”
Just hearing the name sent shivers down my arms. “Lab of Miracles?”
The doctor looked at me quizzically. “You mean you haven’t heard?” I shook my head, so he continued. “Caollin’s ‘secret’ research department, one that he oversaw personally. It was an enormous drain on resources here in the castle. He pulled scientists, mages and high intellectuals onto his initiative, once our Holy King Malstrom assumed the throne-” he stopped- “you want me to look at the paralysis in your legs, right?” I nodded, and he produced a tool that looked like a screwdriver handle with a small glowing orb on the end, and let it hover above one of my legs. “Anyways, Caollin’s experiments were rather secretive, and required a lot of…human test subjects. He used to clean out the royal dungeons and bring them to his lab in the castle basement. Eventually though, he had to move his shop to the basement of the West Cathedral.” He looked up at me through his spectacles, and I saw something in his eyes that made me nervous. “The screams were too loud, and it began to upset the King.” He motioned around the infirmary, “I suspect we’ll have to put down most of these poor souls. It’s the only mercy we can give them, at this point.”
The man turned back to his examination, and furrowed his brow, the folds on his forehead deepening. “Hmm…interesting. My queen, when was it that you last ingested the neurotoxin for the Trial of the Body?”
“It would have been…about three weeks ago now.”
He stowed the glowing instrument back into a pocket in his coat. “The blood in your legs still appears to be filled with the neurotoxin. As though you had taken the trial yesterday. You are sure you have not taken any more of the venom since then?”
“Yeah, of course not-” I stopped. The doctor’s eyes widened, as if he could read my thoughts.
I remembered the strange sulfuric aftertaste of the food in the palace. Was I being poisoned?
“Make sure you have someone check your food and drink from now on. You appear to have consumed a very large quantity of the poison…so much so, that I am surprised you are still alive. Had you not undergone the trial first, your body may have not been able to form a resistance to the lethal amount of toxin flowing through your veins at this moment.”
I nodded. “You can tell all that…from your glowing orb there?”
“Nay your majesty, I have the gift of electromagnetic influence. Electro-mages, we are called. This tool simply amplifies my abilities, as well as the orbs above us. Given proper concentration, I can look through the flesh in your leg as you would look through the pane of a window.” He smiled at me. “With our skills, we make for good medics.”
An electro-mage, as I would find out, was a very rare type of magi who had some control in manipulating the electromagnetic fields surrounding them. The glowing orbs decorating the infirmary had all been personally crafted by the doctor, and could be used as sources of power or weapons, although each orb was fragile and took even the most skilled mages years to create.
“My kind is evaluated by the number of orbs in our possession,” he explained. “The larger the number, the greater our powers are amplified, so we are encouraged to horde them. In older times, we were known to hunt and kill one another for our orb collections, so we had to stow them away somewhere safe, and practice in secret. Times have changed though, and under royal protection, we have more freedom.”
He held the instrument with the glowing orb out for me to examine. “I was chosen to be head medic of the Royal Palace for one reason; I was in possession of the second largest known stockpile of electric orbs in the entire Kingdom. The only electro with more orbs than me was assigned to Caollin’s Lab of Miracles, as is the case with all the most gifted mages in the Kingdom. Pays very well, the high priest.”
I turned the instrument over in my hand, as the yellow light pulsated gently. I poked at the head with my index finger, and a shower of sparks erupted from the point of contact, sending a shock through my hand like a pin-prick. “The strongest ‘electro’, may I speak with him?”
“I’m afraid not. He vanished the night Caollin left the capital, along with many of the other gifted mages under royal employ.”
“So why did you stay?”
“My contract is simple,” the doctor clarified, as he helped me back into my wheelchair. “I serve whoever sits the Sky Throne, not that priest.” He rubbed his chin. “Besides, I’ve always held the belief that miracles involved healing the sick, not creating weapons of destruction.”
“He was creating weapons down in his lab?”
“There were always rumors…but honestly, nobody was allowed to talk about it…so who the hell knows.”
I was halfway down the hall to the lift shaft when I heard rapid footsteps approaching from behind me.
“Jillian!” came a call from the same direction. “A word, if you would?”
I turned around to find the High Priestess Margaret Velton marching towards me, her chin held high and maroon robes dusting across the floor as she walked. Her watery blue eyes squinted down at me, two bright specks burrowed into endless folds of wrinkles, as if nothing in life displeased them more than the sight of myself.
The New Church had appointed almost a dozen new priests to assist the Royal Council in the wake of Caollin’s departure, but Margaret was the only female in the lot.
“There’s only one reason why the Church would place a woman priest on the council,” Hendrik had said, the first day we saw her sitting at the table at the front of the group, her lips pursed and her posture stiff and upright. “She’s a bitch.”
“I swear to god Hendrik-”
“It’s not meant as an insult. It’s just the general archetype of the few females that rise to the top of the New Church’s hierarchy. I’d wager she has twice the fire of any of those old stuffy men sitting next to her. Take pains not to let her walk all over you, because she is sure to try.”
I hated to admit it, but Hendrik’s assessment was not far off. Margaret’s code of ethics was as rigid and unbending as her posture, and she was willing to use that code as a blunt weapon to brow-beat any of her weaker-willed colleagues into the fetal position. The only man that could make her hold her tongue was my husband, and with him away, she was free to set her sights on me.
She rushed over to block my path to the lifts, waving a piece of parchment in front of my face. “May I ask, just what is the meaning of this?”
I snatched the paper out of her hand and traced a finger over the familiar print. It was the letter I had written in response to Cecilia. I folded it and looked up at her accusingly. “How did you get a hold of this?”
She crossed her arms and glowered down at me. “In all my years serving the Gods, I have never-never I say- seen anything as vulgar as this letter. And how did I come across it, you ask? Well it just so happens that it is my sworn responsibility to monitor any official communications leaving this palace that are affiliated with the Faith. That includes anything vile spewing out of our King’s little ‘Angel’ as well. To think that the King sees you as the image of purity and innocence.” She clucked. “My, oh my, what a mess you’re about to make, dear.”
“The giantess made a threat on my life, I’m not going to sit silently and pretend it didn’t happen. Besides, this is a personal letter,” I said. “It does not concern you.”
“Nothing is personal when you are queen. That letter is full of petty rage and can be used as propaganda against the Crown. Now throw it in the fire and rest easy knowing you have refused to dignify a mercenary with a response.”
She tried to rip the letter back out of my hands, but my reflexes were faster, and I shoved it into my blouse. “Not your call.”
“’Is that right? What about the part in the letter where you said you would, ‘send a legion of troops to crush her little prince like a cockroach in the King’s Valley’? That, my dear, would not be your call either.”
During the last council meeting, the general of the Royal Army had advised us that meeting the Prince in open battle would be disastrous, and under no circumstances should we engage the enemy until the Church arrived with reinforcements, which could take more than a month to mobilize.
I swerved my chair around the priestess and resumed my path to the elevator, hearing the footfalls of her falling in step behind me. “You better start listening to somebody else besides that asinine bard,” she called after me, “else your term as Queen will be the shortest in the history of Lentempia.”
My hands wrenched the wheels of my chair to the right so that it veered around on the spot to face the woman. “Did you just threaten me, Margaret?”
“I’m not threatening you, I’m trying to help- against my better judgment, mind you. Keep acting out and see how the King deals with your behavior. You’re his little trophy angel, nothing more. You would be wise to remember that.”
“Funny, Father Caollin told me the same thing.”
She smiled. “Oh, Father Caollin isn’t done with you, dear.” She took a step closer to me. “Now, listen closely. If there ever comes a time when we have to negotiate a truce with him and his little faction, and you continue to behave in this manner, then I won’t vote against offering you up to him as a bargaining piece. A fitting punishment for a faithless, false angel.”
“You don’t mind if I use that quote when I speak with the King tomorrow, do you?”
The smile faded from her face. She turned on her heel and left without another word.
Is it you that’s been poisoning me, Margaret? I wondered. The priestess was a huge pain in the ass, but somehow, I doubted it.
Later that night, Hendrik and I sat in the Great Library, as he tried to teach me the card game that nobles enjoyed at banquets. His fingers flew in a flurry of deft movement as he shuffled the fancy deck of cards -dark maroon paper with outlines of gold leaf- and dealt me a hand. A small pile of coins sat on the table between us, a pot for the victor. Next to the pile was my letter to Cecilia, now folded and somewhat crumpled.
“You will be sure to see a game break out during the feast tomorrow, usually after dinner. A noble or two may ask for a quick game with you personally- it would be a great honor for them- so it’s well worth trying to learn now, and save yourself the embarrassment.”
Hendrik paused his shuffling to scan the letter a second time, as I studied my hand of cards. Each one had a small ornate drawing on it, hand-painted with painstakingly tiny brush strokes. I selected two cards from my hand without really knowing what they would do: one was a soldier wearing a dog-shaped mask, and the second a picture of the giant golem Bickle, staring back at me with his empty black-hole eyes.
Finally Hendrik handed back the piece of parchment and returned to surveying his hand. “It’s…interesting rhetoric. Especially for a queen.”
“But in the good way though, right? Figure I have to be strong and show people like Cecilia that I’m not intimidated.”
He looked like he wanted to say something, but shrugged and threw a few cards down. One of them had Malcolm’s face grinning up at me. The other was a picture of a blue tidal wave rising up from the sea. Hendrik fixed his eyes on the cards lying face up on the table. “My water beats your Bickle. I win this round.”
My eyes never left him. He was deliberately avoiding eye-contact. “Clearly you want to say something, Hendrik. Don’t be shy on me now.”
He raked in his winnings and busied himself by counting the coins. When he spoke, his words were measured and careful. “I just think that… maybe you should consider your public image before you send this letter out. Malstrom and the church are trying to sell you to the masses in a certain way, and well…exchanging death threats with a mercenary that likes beheading priests for fun might make certain people respect you, but it doesn’t exactly fit that image.”
My mouth fell open. “And what makes you think I care about my public perception?”
“If you are wise, you would care. You might be the first rational person to break into Malstrom’s high command, and you’ve even got his ear, but I have to say, you are a bit shit at playing the part and its going to eat at the King until you figure it out.”
“As opposed to what? It’s not like Mal is doing any better. His people hate him.”
“And yet, they are also scared of him. He has his role, and you have yours. I’d guess that Caollin and the King had been planning this Angel-queen image for a while; long, long before you showed up. For a time it even seemed like they had Nadia Highburn groomed for the role. Of course, I couldn’t have been any more wrong, though I still believe they wanted to put a sweet, caring, innocent queen by his side, one that people will fawn over and call their own. So far, you haven’t even bothered to try to align with that, which makes the high-command look disorganized and vulnerable. That’s probably why the Prince is marching on the capital now, to be honest.”
“I haven’t even had a chance to-”
Hendrik was laughing before I had even finished my sentence. My eyes fixed him in a glare. “Is this amusing to you?”
“You want the truth?”
“You’ve already had plenty of chances to damage your own image, and you’ve done so at every opportunity. Let’s review; you’ve tried to seduce the King before your marriage vows on multiple occasions-”
“How do you know about -”
“-you haven’t submitted to the molding treatment despite not being especially beautiful, and your first action as queen was to convince the King to fire poor old Father Caollin.”
My cheeks flared red. “You’re a jackass. And I don’t even know where to begin with that ridiculous assessment. Poor old Father Caollin?”
“People were outraged when they heard the way you had humiliated him.” He raised his hands as if bracing for the force of my retort. “Hey, don’t kill the messenger, Jillian.”
“Outraged? He’s a snake. A two-faced lying pile of-”
“You don’t have to convince me, anyone that has looked at him beyond the surface level can see the man for what he truly is. But there was an almost cult-like admiration for him from within the walls of the palace. At what he accomplished, starting as a poor man with so little, which is why half the guard fled when you dismissed him. They are putting their money on the man who has proved himself dangerously competent. Not a bad bet either, if you can look past all the moral boundaries he’s trampled in the name of his own ambition.”
“And what about his public perception? I’m sure everyone loves it when he arrests people straight out of confessionals that are supposed to be in confidence.”
“Willing to turn a blind eye, especially during times of turmoil. Most of those arrested were implicated with the plot on the King’s life or the detonation of the Queen’s casket. People were scared, and the church appeared to be doing whatever they could to bring those involved to justice and restore safety to the capital.” He sighed. “People liked him, Jill, you’re going to have to accept that. Even many of those that hated Malstrom and the Radical movement. He came across as a kindly and soft-spoken priest, personable and willing to speak with the common man, yet famously shy in front of crowds, which most found endearing. And he loved to preach about ending war and striving towards peace; he was even credited for brokering the marriage between Malstrom and Isabelle Urias. It was Malstrom that soaked up the hatred and resentment, not Caollin, who came across as the voice of reason in a time when hysteria reigned supreme. And now he’s gone, replaced by a shut-in foreigner queen that won’t even show her face to the public.”
“It’s not like I’m hiding,” I said. “My assumption was that someone else would be responsible for organizing stuff like that.”
“Caollin organized stuff like that,” Hendrik said. “He did everything. And then you kicked his ass out of the city because he made you uncomfortable.”
I threw my hand of cards down on the table. “What do you even know about any of this? This is all just your opinion, you know that? The opinion of a hapless, foul-mouthed jester who’s somehow found a spot at the adult’s table.”
Hendrik’s stare turned icy. “Adults? Is that what you call yourself, Malstrom, and Alynsa?” He laughed humorlessly. “I’ve never met a group of individuals better suited to run this Kingdom straight to hell.”
The bard’s remaining cards fell to the floor and he was gone with a swish of his cloak. If my legs were working, I probably would have chased after him and continued to shout him down. But I was tired of arguing and fighting with people about things I really knew nothing about. I began to shuffle the cards absentmindedly. Maybe I couldn’t play the part of the innocent queen like everyone wanted, but Hendrik and Margaret were right about one thing: A heavy-handed letter full of empty threats to Cecilia would do little to help my husband’s cause. If I wanted to take down the giantess, I would need to start playing my cards right.
Mia appeared out from behind an old twisted bookshelf. “Hendrik is gone, my Queen? You are ready to retire?”
“Almost,” I said. “I was wondering, could you have someone prepare a letter for me?”
“It will be done. For whom?”
“Nadia Highburn of the Southlands,” I said. “I’d like to have a talk with her, about reviving our alliance.” Maybe now that she had some time to cool off, I could have a talk with her, woman to woman, and bury the hatchet between the Highburns and the Crown once and for all. A little help from the standing Highburn army in the South, and Cecilia would regret the day she picked a fight with me.
Mia gave me a confused look. “Why would you send a letter for this? You may go and speak with her yourself.”
I frowned. “Hold on…she’s already come back here? Even after her breakdown a few weeks ago?”
The servant girl nodded slowly. “Yes. She keeps a room on the second floor of the palace, for easier access to the King for negotiations.” She looked down at the ground and kicked at a spot on the plush velvet carpet. “She never left.”