Queen Mallory’s small private balcony was molded to the side of the looming gray castle. This castle was built for defense with inner and outer courtyards, parapets, and high walls.
During the late war bowmen had loosed arrows from the parapets, while men on the walls and men on the ground defended this very castle. It’s history was bloody at best.
The light flickered and disappeared into the shadow of its walls. Queen Mallory gazed down into the courtyard as she had done many times in the last twenty years. In her hand she clutched her current needlework of a phoenix burning in ashes just before rebirth.
Her long dark vibrant hair was hidden by a wimple. Her virtue was all she had now. She was a stranger in a strange land and a hostage to fortune. She had been wed to this king and she had failed at her one duty. She had not born a son.
Maria. That name made her want to stab her needle into the phoenix and rip the cloth. That little commoner mistress of the king’s had ruined so much. She had had a child and then she had died. The king had looked at the queen with disgust on good days. After Maria’s death, he wouldn’t even touch her.
So there was no child. If for a moment she had known that she wouldn’t have a child, she would have taken that newborn son of Maria’s…
The needle slipped from the fabric and punctured the queen’s finger. She set the needlework now. A maid hurried over and wrapped her finger in a white cloth. Then she backed away. The queen’s temper was legendary. The maid kept her eyes away from the queen and stood near the door.
The queen had listened to the insinuating hisses of her courtier, Rhali as he bowed to her. The mistress would gain power at the birth of a son, he had said as he leaned toward her. To her regret she had listened to him. He was so handsome and lean and had made her heart beat faster.
She hadn’t known that he was a snake. It was Rhali that had given her the tea that she had brewed for the pregnant mistress. In the end the mother died at her hand. The baby died soon after.
Instead of mourning and then turning to her for comfort, the king had spent the last twenty years insisting that his son was alive. He spent every last bit of his influence and power looking for that child. While he was obsessed, she had taken over the reigns of the government.
She knew how low the coffers were getting. She wiped her hands down her gown. It hadbeen more than a year since she had even had a new dress.
The king spent his days and nights tucked into a laboratory that he had built in the ballroom. She hadn’t seen the king or his magician, a lowly sneaky crow, in days. The magician was brewing a new potion that would help the king find his son.
Neither the needlework in her hand nor the scene of the mountains from the window captured her attention. She wanted to rub her temples to relieve the headache, threatening to become full-blown.
An under-servant cleared his throat. Just the distraction she needed from her thoughts.
“Your Highness,” he said. He bowed deeply.
She waited for him to face her. When she saw the carefully blank face of the servant, she knew something was very wrong.
“His Highness is calling for you.” The servant stepped back respectfully.
She picked up her skirts, ran through the door, and almost ran to the laboratory. She shook the door handle, trying to open one of the locked doors. The under-servant who had ran behind her, pushed in front and put his full strength to pulling the door open.
“It was open earlier,” he muttered.
She could hear the king calling. With another heave, the door finally opened. She stood at the threshold for a moment to survey in the room.
In the center of the room was a pentacle drawn in white chalk. The king stood in the center o f it. She could see drool dribbling down the corner of his mouth. His eyes had that lost dim look of a mentally deficient child.
As she walked closer to him she could hear the words he was mumbling. “I’ve found him. I’ve found him. I’ve found him,” the king repeated.
“Where?” she asked. But he didn’t hear her and continued repeating his message.
She brushed the chalk with her skirts and the king collapsed into her arms. The under-servant was there to take the full weight of the king or she would have collapsed.
“Guards. Guards.” She yelled. The guards took the king from her and the under-servant and carried him to his chambers. They wouldn’t drag his royal ass. A little bitterness colored her thoughts.
She had been more worried about the king than the supposed wizard. About fifty feet away from the pentacle, she found the wizard’s cold body. She checked this pulse. There was none. A wind rattled through the ballroom and it chilled her.
The papers around the wizard’s body blew through the air and landed into the fireplace at the other end of the ballroom. She tried to jump and catch them. The papers would tell her what these two idiots were playing with, but she didn’t have a chance.
The ballroom became so cold that she started to shiver. The under-servant grabbed her by the arm and dragged her out into the hallway. She looked up at the runes on the doorway. She hadn’t noticed them before. Now they were glowing red and they seemed to look at her.
She felt some regret for what she had to do next. She sent the under-servant to get more guards. Then when he was gone.
When she was a girl, her mother had taught her the shape of runes for protection. She now regretted that she had never been interested in her mother’s craft. She tried to remember the shape of those runes.
White smoke started to seep through the door. She had to do something because the smell of brimstone began to intensify. She wanted to cough.
What hope did she have? She could give in again or she could protect what little belonged to her. She put her hand up, ignoring her head that was screaming at her that she had no power, and traced the runes for protection above the runes on the door.
As she traced, she saw the runes on the door glow green. She kept tracing and the runes on the door turned a fir green. A blast of sound reached her ears and she was thrown against the other wall.
The under-servant with the guards ran toward her. She took a deep breath or tried to.
The under-servant helped her up. She closed her eyes, took another breath, and sighed.
“Guard this door,” she told the two guards.
The under-servant walked her back to her own chambers. She wiped her hands down her dress. The pins in her hair had fallen out and she looked a mess. She straightened her back and walked into the chambers.
This group of women who attended her were a mess of spies from her enemies. The fact that she was disheveled wouldn’t go past any of these eyes. Still her ladies-in-waiting helped her into a new dress. They braided and pinned up her hair. Not one of them showed surprise.
“Send for the Castellan,” the queen ordered.
She didn’t have to wait long. Sir Robert Astru walked in without knocking. He glanced around the room, noting the tapestried, ladies-in-waiting, and her. He smiled, showing bright white teeth. He was a handsome man with dark hair and eyes who according to the gossips liked his paramours young.
“What are you doing here?”
“You asked for the Castellan. I am here.” One of the ladies-in-waiting put a hand over her mouth and giggled. Sir Robert bowed to the giggling girl. Queen Mallory eyes hardened just a little. She wouldn’t forget this slight.
“I asked for the Castellan.” The queen kept her voice even.
He looked at her with a slight sneer. “The one you seek is gone. I have taken his duties.”
So that was why some of her orders had been ignored and why some of the court would titter when she walked by. The ladies-in-waiting watched her avidly to see what she would say or demand of Sir Robert.
Instead she said, “Guards are posted at the ballroom. The king is in his old rooms and he needs a doctor.” She raised her eyebrows in anticipation of his disagreement.
“I will send my doctor to him.”
“As my queen wishes,” said Sir Robert. For a moment the queen could see why her court was fascinated with this man. He glowed with health and was a handsome beast. She kept her face blank, hoping he hadn’t caught her thought.
“Is there anything I’ve missed?” she asked him. For a moment he said nothing as if she had surprised him.
“I’ve will put the king next to your rooms,” he said. “Better to guard you and him if there is a need.”
If she hadn’t known when she first got here that Corsindorians liked intrigue, she would have figured it out after living here. Sir Robert Astru was a cousin of the king so he had been breathing intrigue from his birth. He was rubbing the scar on his right index finger, a scar given by a rival.
His normal mask slipped and his eyes looked thoughtful, “How dangerous is the ballroom?”
Queen Mallory bit her lip. What she said here would be all over the castle as soon as she finished. She sighed. They wouldn’t be able to keep this secret.
“It’s very dangerous,” she said slowly. “I traced a protection rune and it barely kept it contained. We need to watch the doors closely to make sure it doesn’t break the ward on the door.”
She didn’t want to reveal the next part, but he probably already knew. “Whatever it was, it was whispering in the king’s ear. He thinks he has found the prince.” Her throat closed up and she cleared it.
She felt relief when Sir Robert agreed with her. The court had become more and more unruly as the king slipped into madness. Sir Robert would be a good ally.
“I will leave the guards at both the king’s door and his ballroom.”
She wanted to sink into the floor with relief. Instead she tightened her knees and stood proud.
“You do know that it could overpower the guards.”
“I thought of that,” she said. “My doctor will give then an amulet that will give them enough protection to warn us before the door bursts. When the door goes red, the ward is breached.”
Sir Robert frowned, made an abrupt about face and marched out the door. It would be done.
The queen sighed and gracefully sunk into a padded chair. She casually glanced around. Rose was missing, the giggling girl who flirted with Sir Robert. At least she now knew who the snake was in her garden.