It is Wednesday, Sep. 28th, and the rain is coming in successive bands from Hurricane Ian sitting on Florida's west coast near my in-laws. I've spent a hot minute with a shovel ensuring the deluge coming off my roof is moving out of my backyard like it is supposed to. Thankfully, everything here is cozy and dry inside. Since many of you may find yourselves stuck inside on this rainy day, the timing is perfect to do something I've never done before.
For a limited time, I am posting the first five (that's right, FIVE) chapters of Redemption's Grace here on the blog. It's roughly 30 pages of content to keep you entertained on this dull day and whet your whistle for the rest of the book. Feel free to share it with friends on social media by sharing the link to this post. I hope you enjoy it!
The kindle version of Redemption's Grace is available for pre-order on Amazon. If you intend to buy that version, I'd be ever so grateful if you'd reserve your copy by pre-ordering (you won't be charged until the release day). A successful book launch, much like opening weekend for a movie, begins with lots of sales the first day and week. It tells Amazon to keep the book higher in search results, even months after the launch, because readers are excited about it. If you will be buying the paperback version, those are, unfortunately, not available for pre-order. They will be available on the release day, November 3rd. Thank you for all the love and encouragement you have shown me and this series! The enthusiasm of my readers is more than I could've hoped for.
~ E. L. Cross
By E. L. Cross
© Erin L. Cross 2022. All rights reserved.
✦ Prologue ✦
TIRZAH December 16th I came to court to find a husband, not find a traitor. Yet as I press my ear to Lady Silla’s closed door, I fear there can be no other explanation for what I overhear. “Do you want the kingdom to burn?” Lady Silla exclaims. “What I do is for the greater good!” The unfamiliar man bellows. “It is abhorrent that the backside of a peasant should fill one throne while another is sullied by a Limban queen. That should have been your throne! You allowed two princes to slip through your fingers. Had you married either prince, you would have secured our family’s power for generations.” “I tried. You know I did,” Silla argues. “And failed! But now, when presented with an opportunity to redeem your worthless name, you balk.” I lean into the door trying to catch his fading words. “Honor your blood!” He barks, causing me to startle back, which is just as well since I hear his booted feet stomp toward the door. I scuttle into my adjacent room nearly missing Silla’s rejoinder, thankfully he opens her door allowing her plaintive words to carry. “I have cast suspicions elsewhere, you cannot ask more than that.” The man steps into the corridor. “Nay, I do not ask. I demand it.” He bangs her door shut, causing me to jump again. The older man pauses outside my door, permitting me a perusal of his face from the crack between the hinges. There is naught remarkable about him—lean build, average height, greying brown hair—excepting his frown that promises death to whomever crosses him. His head rotates slowly, glancing both ways down the corridor. Does he sense I watch him? His eyes meet mine. Pressing a hand to my mouth, I shrink back against the wall, praying the darkness covers me. My heart tries to escape through my throat when he sticks his head into the threshold of my room, peering into its black corners. No one. There is no one here, I silently plead. Be gone. Air whooshes against my face as he shuts the door, leaving me alone in the night shrouded room.
✦ Chapter One ✦
Winter Solstice Celebration, December 21st
The Queen of Malesiir is mad. There is no alternative explanation. For what other reason could she possibly think her hastily concocted scheme is workable? Mad. Utterly Mad. But as long as she holds up her end of the bargain and I am not affected by her lunacy, then I shall go along with it. And she scares you, I reluctantly admit to myself. There is something about her, a sharpness, a lethal edge to her personality that is frightening. Her lover has it too, but his is easier to explain—a short temper coupled with his imposing size. He is a man not to be crossed. But the queen is neither short tempered nor imposing in stature. There is something about her, however, that is different. If the noblewomen’s gossip is to be trusted, the queen has killed without remorse more than once. I glance back at the door to her office that has remained closed since I stepped out several minutes ago. She was detached, cold even, while she explained how it would be done. Not even her lover’s outrage roused her from that place. Only when I dared to question her mental acuity did she come snarling to life. Well done, Tirzah. Well done, indeed. This is the woman you spent the better part of a month heckling. In her own castle! But it was simply too much. In a blinding bit of unforeseen possibility, I was offered the chance at a future as the wife of the king’s Hand. But that vanished the moment the widowed queen arrived and stole his affections. I was angry at first, but I was not attached to him, and he vowed to make amends to me by bringing me to court where I could choose a husband from hundreds of candidates. That was more than possibility. That was probability. But the queen ruined it again. A week before I arrived, she came out of mourning. All that I have heard from the moment I arrived at court was that the noblemen were vying for her hand in marriage. Again, she is the prize. I am merely the beautiful object to dance with, to flirt with, even trifle with, but she is the one all the noblemen want. That is not fair. The door creaks open bringing me around in time to see Queen Erianna and Commander Ironforge striding from the office as though they are strangers. I fall into step with the queen, aiming for the great hall. How could she have gone from kissing him wantonly before the entire castle to questioning his fidelity within the span of a day? Mad. There simply is no other explanation. I cast a sideways glance at her. Torchlight warms her cold features that are presently flushed and her lips that are not usually so full or red. So the queen and commander are back to kissing. Unbelievable. Is there nothing he will not forgive her for? Not because I care about her, but because my reputation is balanced upon her addlepated plan succeeding, I say, “Press your lips together. They are too red.” The queen does so without comment. I feel all the eyes in the room settle on us the moment we enter the great hall. Though the winter solstice celebration is at its peak, a hush settles over the place. This is not the sort of attention I wanted when I imagined arriving at court. Being acquainted with the queen, a guest of the queen’s Hand, a friend to the prince’s wife and a bevy of the highest ranking military officers, I thought for certain I would be welcomed at court and have at least a decent chance of meeting one or a dozen eligible men. That did not happen. Now with this apparent scandal of which I am at the center, Thank you kindly, Your Majesty, I doubt I will leave with the hopeful acquaintance of any eligible men I should have stayed at home. Valor’s offer was too good to be true. I should not have accepted him, but I have become increasingly determined to marry. It is the only path I can see around my difficulties. I remain with the queen as she whispers something to Prince Lorennt and his wife, Lady Nev. Moments later, Commander Ironforge appears with Captain Anders at his side. The pair of men clear a path toward the vestibule by their imposing size alone. At the door, Valor turns back revealing a bleeding split lip and a contrite expression directed at the queen he loves. Her scornful glare given in answer drives him into the freezing night. If I did not know they had been kissing seconds before she split his lip, I would believe what they are purporting. Except for quivering when the door bangs closed, the queen’s act is flawless. Then the real cause of this scandal approaches the queen—Lady Silla. How the queen manages to speak evenly to Lady Silla, I have no idea. I am afraid I will give away the plot unconsciously by my expression alone. Never mind, speaking to her which I will be forced to do sooner or later. Cuyler Trent, Lady Silla’s deceived suitor, looks between me and the queen, trying to unravel the mystery. I avert my gaze from his inquisitive eyes and miss trouble pushing her way into our group in the form of our friend, Leelah Tareth. “Where is Valor going?” Leelah questions, grabbing for the queen’s hand. One glance at her swollen red knuckles has Leelah shouting, “Did you do that to him?” “I do not want to talk about it,” the queen murmurs coldly. But Leelah cares too much about all of us to let it go. “Erianna...” “Yes, I did that to him. I told him to leave the castle,” the queen snaps. “Tirzah?” Leelah turns to me for answers. I nearly reply with the queen’s flat tone, but recall I am supposed to be playing the victim. Fortunately, or rather unfortunately, I have a bit of practice in this role. I drop my eyes and hush my voice. “Can we talk about this later?” Leelah recognizes my tone and demands, “No, I think we need to discuss this now.” I look at the queen to see if now is an appropriate time to bring Leelah into our conspiracy. She nods her consent. Just as well. I would rather escape further scrutiny on this wretched evening that I expected to be one of the best of my life. Leave it to Queen Erianna to ruin this for me too.
“Start at the beginning,” Leelah instructs seating me upon the couch in her sitting room. Unlike me, Leelah is a favorite of the queen and was given a spacious room for her large family in the royal wing of the castle. Not that I am jealous of that. The room I was given adjacent to Lady Silla’s is larger than my entire cottage. “The beginning,” I repeat, wondering how far back I ought to go. How about to when you made eyes at the commander to irritate the queen? My conscience unhelpfully suggests. She deserved to be irritated, I argue with myself. After all, I apologized and told her I had no designs on Valor. Still she was rude to me and watched me like I might try to steal him away. “Well?” Leelah says impatiently. Best skip that part, I decide. “I overheard Lady Silla speaking with her father several nights past. It sounded as if they wished harm to Erianna and Nev. They also spoke of the kingdom burning. When I tried to tell Erianna, she would not listen.” “What do you mean she would not listen?” “I mean she threw me out of her office.” An exaggeration, my conscience nags. “Well, she asked me to leave,” I amend, “because she said that she trusted Silla implicitly. I told her it was a mistake and tried to wash my hands of it, but I could not. I was afraid for their lives. Thus, despite being warned away by the noblewomen, I told the whole of it to Valor this evening. He, at least, had the decency to listen. But then Erianna made a spectacle of us by acting as though Valor and I had dallied in the shadows! Can you believe that?” Leelah huffs. “Poor thing. She must learn to let go of the past.” For a moment, I think she is sympathizing with me, but she is not. She is sympathizing with her “best friend.” Never mind that Leelah and I are the dearest of friends or that we have known each other for years. Oh, no. As soon as Erianna arrived on her doorstep, she was Leelah’s “best friend.” “Well, I think she behaved abominably. It was wrong of her to mistrust Valor—not that he rebuked her as he should have. They decided that Silla and her father, Lord Hugler, are likely colluding with the Ruphiri to destabilize the kingdom. They think the Huglers had a hand in the attack on the west side of Malsihra a few months past and might even be hiding the Ruphiri on the Hugler estate.” “Almighty,” Leelah gasps in horror. “But Silla is Erianna’s spymaster. If she has betrayed Erianna to the Ruphiri then heaven knows what else she has lied about.” “That was their concern.” “Then Valor’s dramatic exit?” Leelah asks. I shake my head. “It was all for show. They do not want Silla or Lord Hugler to know what they suspect.” “So everyone will think Valor left because he and Erianna had a fight.” “A fight about me,” I grouse. “They want the court to think Valor tried to kiss me, that I rebuffed him, and Erianna threw him out of the castle for it.” “That is ridiculous!” Leelah exclaims. “Anyone who knows Valor will know that is not true. What makes them think this will work?” My conscience prods me again. I try to ignore it. “Well... Apparently, there has been some gossip about Valor and I. The nobility think that because Valor brought me to court and bought me a dress, it means he has designs on me. Some women were also saying it is Erianna’s fault because she is a cold lover. That is why the king took a mistress while they were married.” “What rot! Those despicable noblewomen will say anything out of jealousy.” “It is not a leaping assumption,” I point out. “Erianna is cold and haughty. Why else would the king have taken another mistress?” Leelah’s amber eyes flash. “She is no more cold than I am. Nor is she haughty. And you should know better than to listen to gossip. The king keeping a mistress had nothing to do with how warm Erianna was.” I shake my head. Of course Leelah would side with her. “If she would let you know her, it would be obvious to you that what you describe as ‘cold and haughty’ is only a mask to keep people from knowing how sensitive she is. But she is afraid of you, so you have not seen that side of her.” My guilty conscience must show on my face because Leelah fixes me with the look that causes her children to confess their misdeeds. “Tirzah. Does Erianna have any reason to fear you? I thought you did not have any particular affection for Valor.” “I do not.” Leelah pins me to my chair with her prying gaze. “But...” I cross my arms. “I might have been a bit coy with him a few times.”
“Intentionally so?” I shrug. “Tirzah, how could you!” Leelah scolds. “Valor and I have been chastising her daily for not befriending you! Why did you taunt her?” “She has been nothing but critical of me since the moment we met! And for what? She has everything a person could possibly want and still she watches me like I would have the indecency to try to take Valor from her!” “This is absurd!” Leelah jumps to her feet, throwing out her hands. “You are both jealous of each other without a bit of reason for it!” “Without reason? She will never know what it is like to live from hand to mouth and work hard every day of her life. She was born into a life of privilege.” “And she hates the shackles that came with that birth!” “She has the love of Valor and the attention of every nobleman in the kingdom! Not to mention that she is reasonably proportioned.” I gesture to my indecently curvaceous figure. “And she is jealous of you because she thinks you are more desirable than she is and because you can give a husband what she cannot!” “Oh? What is that?” I smirk and pat my bosom. “A nice pillow for his head?” Leelah glares at me. “I have had my fill of the both of you. You are both ungrateful for what you have and wanting what the other disparages. I will not be in the middle of it anymore.” We glower at each other for long moments until I relent. There is no point trying to change Leelah’s mind about Erianna. Like everyone else, she is unduly smitten with the queen. “Fine. But we all must pretend that Valor and Erianna have fought. She says that we must not correct any assumptions that the nobility make and Trent cannot be told the truth. Only you and Kragorn, Nev and King Lorennt are to know what truly happened.” “What of Trent? He is courting Silla. If she has betrayed us, he must be told.” I sigh. “They said it is too great a risk for him to know. They want to keep it all a secret until they know for certain what part Silla played in this.” Leelah’s brows shoot up in dismay. “But that could take weeks for them to discover all the answers.” “It could.”
“That is unacceptable. Trent’s heart is set on Silla. I have never seen him court someone like he has her.” “Maybe you can talk Erianna around on it then,” I suggest. “Do not think I won’t.” Leelah sets her mind to it. “But what is to be done about you and Erianna? What is everyone supposed to think where you are concerned?” “Apparently,” I drawl, “Her Majesty thinks she can protect my reputation by making nice to me in front of the court and pass me off as a victim of Valor’s ‘unwelcome advances.’ We are going to be taking meals together and spending time together.” Leelah gloats, “Well, it serves you both right. Had you been nicer to each other you could have avoided most of this unpleasant business.”
✦ Chapter Two ✦
TRENT December 22nd After breakfast I extricate Erianna from the group of nobility who have cornered her. The court rats try to hold on to her so they may continue harassing her for answers about exactly what happened between her and Valor last night at the solstice celebration. With a bow, a regretful smile, and a reminder about a nonexistent meeting, I offer Erianna my arm and set a course for the stables followed by her guards. The noble class will not venture into the frigid winter unless forced. Excepting Queen Erianna. But she is a wholly different class of noblewoman. She is as hardened as the ice glittering from the eaves of the castle and would never let a measly thing like chill wind keep her from what she wants. Which leaves me puzzled as to why she has let a misunderstanding separate her from the man she has pined after for years. There must be more to it. “Where has Valor gone?” I ask conversationally. “Elsewhere.” Her tone forbids further questions on the subject. “When will he return?” She pulls her heavy fur lined cloak tighter. “Eventually.” “That makes sense. You finally agree to let him court you for all of what? A week? And at the first misunderstanding you toss him out of the castle.” “Trent...” I do not let her beleaguered tone stop my conjecture. “There must be more to it. How did you convince him to go? It would take a sword to remove him from your side.” “Trent...”
“Whatever happened between him and Tirzah last night was not what the court thinks. He would never seek her favors.” “Trent!” Erianna jerks her hand from my arm and shoves me with it. “I do not want to discuss this! Not with the court and not with you! Just leave it be!” I hold my hands up, feigning surrender. Erianna proceeds toward the stables. “I am surprised you called a truce with Tirzah. Especially considering how she played coy to Valor.” Erianna draws breath to flay me. Then my words settle in. Strike a chord. She tries not to be drawn in, but cannot help herself. Tentatively she asks, “You think she has been coy, too?” “Too? Did Valor not perceive it?” I happen to know he did not. Silla has kept me apprised of all the developments where these three are concerned. But this is the only thread with slack to draw Erianna in. “No. Neither did Leelah.” I shrug. “That makes sense. Tirzah has no real interest in him. She simply wanted to heckle you.” “But why? I have been nothing but—” “Patronizing?” I supply. She glares. “Welcoming.” “Horse apples.” She snorts. “Which makes me wonder,” I lead her back around to my first question. “Why? What is this all about?” Erianna holds close her words. The warmth of hay scented air wraps around us as we stroll down aisles lined with the best horseflesh in Malesiir. I lift the iron latch and open the stall door to a hardy chestnut mare. Erianna passes me her cloak over the stall door after pulling it closed. Her guards take up opposite positions down the aisle where they may watch the doors. Her slender fingers grip the top of the door as she quietly admits, “Valor and I fought. Though there is more to it, I have not come to an understanding of my own feelings yet. Please do not press me, Trent. When the time is right, I will explain it to you, but it may be a few weeks until Valor returns.” Her weary expression is the glimpse of honesty I was searching for. Peeling back Erianna’s layers takes time. She does not show her true self to most people. That she allows me to know her and call her friend is not something I take lightly. Valor also entrusted me with his woman’s care while he is away. That makes me dually responsible for Erianna. “Alright. I won’t ask again. I am here for you, though, if you need to talk.” I glance about her mare’s stall where she will probably want to hide for a while. With snow still piled high in the city from the vicious storm two days past, there is little for Erianna to do besides wait for the streets to clear and daily life to resume. I whistle to a stable boy wheeling a barrow full of hay. He hustles forward. I pitch a pile of hay into the corner of the stall then spread Erianna’s cloak atop it. My peculiar queen drops onto her makeshift bed and pulls her knees up beneath her skirts. “I think I will loudly tell Silla that the queen is taking air on the ramparts where anyone may ambush her.” “Thank you, Trent. You are a good friend.” “Enjoy your solitude, Majie.” I reach over the stall door to squeeze her shoulder and add in a whisper, “Valor did not see Tirzah’s smiles because his eyes are always on you.” Her chin trembles, but she nods. Valor had better have a benighted good reason for leaving Erianna in a flurry of gossip like he did. If not, I will do my level best to beat the life out of him.
✦ Chapter Three ✦
TIRZAH December 24th The evening’s diversions extend later than usual with Prince Lorennt overseeing the evening. He seems to be enjoying his conversations with the other men congregated around the fire. I have long since bored of the card games the noblewomen play. They are far less intent upon the games than the gossip to be had. I expected them to tire of the same topics which they repeat night after night, but they do not. “Ladies, I fear that I am not equal to the length of this evening. I wish you all a good night.” The expected forced pleasantries follow my exit, but not a single word is genuine. Longings for my tidy cottage and the sincere friends I made in Parse Kítaran twist my heart. The glitter of court is not as bright as when I first arrived. I simply want to go home. I miss the niche I carved for myself in the valley. Though a tad lonely at times, the excitement of aiding the midwife and fulfillment of caring for the ailing members of our community gave me a purpose. I anticipate becoming a healer in full. That desire cannot become something tangible until I am rid of my brother’s guardianship. Until then, I am limited in the things I may learn and do. I honestly believed catching a husband at court would solve that and more of my problems. What a pointless venture I have indulged in. I set my hands to the productive activity of sewing before going to bed. This day ought to count for some measurable success, even if it is only a hem mended. In the corridor outside my room, Silla’s laugh tinkles. It always carries a note of falsity to my ears. The one thing I have not become accustomed to since being redeemed by the Almighty is the ability to hear lies. This discernment grows deeper with each passing year. For some, the gifting is deeper than others, but all possess it. The elders say it is no different than the gifts of peace and joy that also come from the Spirit of Truth indwelling our hearts. I like those gifts and many others. I like the discernment, too, but with it comes an awareness of lies. Lies unsettle something deep within me. Sometimes they feel like sadness. I feel it when I hear a lie. When I choose to tell a lie, it is even worse. Cuyler Trent’s genuine laugh blends with Silla’s tainted one. How could she have duped Valor and the queen for so long? Surely they can hear what I do. Salome’s admonishment comes to mind. Sometimes we ignore Truth’s whisper because we do not like what He has to say. It is always a foolish thing to ignore Truth. In the case of Silla, it is proving downright dangerous. Usually Cuyler bids Silla goodnight without delay. Tonight, he lingers. I feel a deep prompting in the core of my being. Cuyler needs to leave. I return to my sewing, whistling a tune to myself. It is none of my concern what goes between Silla and Cuyler. The unsettled feeling grows. No, I sternly tell myself. I will not interfere. See where it got me last time? I push the needle through the fabric and straight into my finger. “Woe’s sakes!” I mutter, sucking the pad of my finger while hearing Silla’s door open. Urgency adds to the prompting. “Oh, confound it!” I leap from my chair, dashing toward my door without any clue what I ought to say. I do not have time to consider it before my door is open and I am walking into the hall. Cuyler takes a startled step back from the threshold of Silla’s room. It looks like he meant to follow her inside. “Tirzah. Good eve.” His expression reads like a man caught doing something he shouldn’t. Silla is annoyed. “Tirzah. Did you need something?” I say the first thing that comes to mind. “Would you help me with my hair in the morn? I wanted to try something different.” She glares at me. “I am no lady’s maid. How dare you presume—” “Silla,” Cuyler chides with a note of astonishment. She masks her irritation in an instant and offers, “Perhaps I can send my maid over when she has finished with me?” “Thank you. I would appreciate it,” I reply. “I will say goodnight then.” I smile at Silla then look at Cuyler longer, letting him know that I know what he was about. His guilty countenance intensifies. “As will I. Good eve, ladies.” His boots echo smartly in the hall as he strides away. Silla fixes me with her sour dislike. There is nothing false in that.
I owe Tirzah a debt of gratitude. Her well-timed appearance saved me from doing something I would have regretted. Though the lady was willing. I roll the ruby studded ring between my fingers then return it to my pocket. Tonight would have been a mistake. When I first love Silla, it will be on the night of our wedding. Not before. I am done making mistakes with women.
✦ Chapter Four ✦
TIRZAH December 25th “You need to tell him.” I enter the queen’s office and declare with out preamble. “We have already discussed this. You know it is not possible. It would undermine all that we have set in motion,” she calmly replies. “It is not right. How would you feel in his place?” The queen’s flawless control slips. She flinches. After a measured pause, she looks at me with eyes far older than her twenty years. “I would feel betrayed. Heartbroken. Sick with myself for not seeing through the lies of the one I loved. Trent will feel all that whether I tell him now or in a few weeks. My hope is that Valor will find some evidence implicating only Lord Hugler and not Silla.” “You truly think she is not involved?” I know what I heard. She is involved. “No. But to what extent and to what end?” Queen Erianna’s loyalty to one who is clearly not loyal to her baffles me, but I hold my counsel. “How have you fared?” She asks. “Well considering. The attention seems to be on you and Valor.” “As hoped.” Erianna seems determined to not allow her prior distrust to infect her opinion of me. Still, it surprises when she asks, “Have any of the noblemen caught your eye?” I prop my hand on my hip. “Would you understand if I say that I am disenchanted with court?” “Perfectly.” The queen pulls her plaited hair over her shoulder, undoes the crossings and nimbly reworks them. “What of the castle guards?” “Being the wife of a soldier does not appeal to me. They are nomadic and notoriously unfaithful.” I made an exception when I considered a future with Valor because of who he is and his position, but I do not wish to marry a soldier. The queen raises a scarred brow but does not comment. The silence between us stretches uncomfortably. She returns her attention to the papers before her. “You are welcome to stay, but I must attend to this.” “Then I will not disturb you.” I incline my head to her, feeling dismissed. “If it would not be an imposition,” she rushes to say as I reach the door, “I could use help.” “My help?” I must have misheard. She pushes the papers toward me. “I am memorizing the words to the coronation ceremony. Would you listen while I recite? I must say them perfectly.” The humility in her request is directly opposed to the aloofness I have come to expect. Maybe she truly does want to call a truce on our private battlefield. “Certainly. I have the time.”
TRENT Erianna and Tirzah engage in what seems earnest conversation with each other throughout dinner. I am seated too far away to overhear their conversation, but it piques my interest. I know the court’s suppositions on recent developments are false, but I cannot sort out the truth of the situation no matter how many plausible explanations I concoct. That alone irritates me. What does that say of me as a spymaster? “What do you make of that?” I ask Silla. Silla discreetly glances at the high table. “Oh, do not think it is so complex. Erianna is compensating for her guilt. She accused Valor of infidelity, and he left because of it. She probably hopes he will forgive her if she makes nice to Tirzah.” It is the most plausible explanation, but it only takes into account Erianna’s actions. I know how completely Valor loves Erianna. Only if she forced him to leave would he go. Even then, I cannot believe there is anything that would take him far from her side, yet I learned he has left the city. “I am not so sure. And what of Tirzah? I did not think she liked Erianna anymore than Erianna liked her.” Silla titters. “Oh, Cuyler. You are naive.” I rest my arm across the back of her chair giving her my full attention. “How so?” She leans against my arm. “You fail to account for a woman’s calculation. Tirzah and Erianna do not care for each other in the least. They are simply using each other. Erianna wants to make amends with Valor. Tirzah wants an advantageous marriage. Ingratiating herself to the queen makes for a short step to the choicest noblemen.” “Is that why you called a truce with Erianna? You needed to make an advantageous match?” She daintily shrugs one shoulder. “Would that be so wrong?” Her light eyes tell that she does not mean a word of what she says. My lady likes to play games. “I suppose that depends on your definition of ‘advantageous.’” “That is an ambiguous statement? Very well, I shall define it.” She taps her lips thoughtfully. “He should be well-off, possessing vast holdings. He absolutely must cut a fine figure.” Her finger moves from tapping her lips to draw a line across my arm. “I could not abide a man I did not like to look at. Besides that, he must be somewhat intelligent and able to carry a conversation. Not that I expect him to be as keen as me.” I smirk. “No one is.” “Exactly. He must be capable of making me swoon from his kisses.” My fingertips stroke her shoulder. “That is a lengthy list.” “Fortunately for me, I have found such a man.” She sighs dramatically. “If only Lord Ormount would look my way... I am afraid that I will have to ambush him in his bed if he is going to take my interest seriously.” I laugh loudly. Lord Ormount is a dullard, a glutton and on the edge of poverty from his overindulgence. Silla would not look his way in a thousand years. “Your standards are high indeed, my Lady.” “Rightly so,” she sniffs. “I am quite desirable.” I pluck at the brocade sleeve of her gown, rubbing it between my fingers. “Excessively desirable.” She smiles flirtatiously. “But I wonder. Are you negotiable on any of your criteria?” Namely the bit about being well-off with vast holdings. I am well paid, but not by noble standards. I am also landless. “Well...” Silla sighs. “I suppose I could set aside my hope for swoon worthy kisses.” “I think you can leave that on your list.” Her brows pinch slightly. “I will not sacrifice his appearance. He must be handsome.” She is not lack-witted. She is teasing me. But since she has told me before that she finds me attractive I am not worried about that either. “That is understandable. I also hope for a beautiful wife.” Just saying the word “wife” to Silla makes me nervous. She does not alleviate my anxious thoughts when she says, “What else would you have me remove from my definition?” I look hard into her eyes trying to judge if she is tormenting me or being serious. I truly have no idea. My quick tongue fails me, and I back away from the topic. The ruby ring feels like a lead ingot in my pocket. “You will have to decide that for yourself. I only hope you won’t be too harsh with Lord Ormount if he does not meet all of your high standards.” She turns away, lifting her goblet of mulled wine to her lips. “Perhaps he will find a way to give me what I want.” I pick up my own goblet, wondering if there are any modest estates for sale that I could purchase. Likely not within my means. Not with half of my earnings going to my support my widowed mother and siblings. Maybe it is time to ask my older brother to take on the responsibility of them. As the eldest they are his responsibility, especially since he is to inherit the small family farm. Unless he were to turn the land over to me... That would save me the purchase of property. I try to picture the immaculate lady seated at my side feeding my mother’s flock of chickens from the backdoor of our dilapidated farmhouse. I cringe. Perhaps I could knock the old house down and build a new one. Having been involved with the reconstruction of the west side of this city, I know what such an endeavor would cost. I could reasonably undertake it, but the home I could build would not be grand by anyone’s standards. Certainly not worthy of the title of “estate.” My original plan was to purchase a furnished home here in Malsihra. Silla would be able to attend court as much as she likes without living on the generosity of the royal family, which is fine for now, but not something I could ever stomach for my wife. I will provide for her on my own merit, not from the coffers of another, no matter how good of friends I am with Erianna and the rest of the Rodiharians. I toss aside the idea of purchasing an estate. My original plan still seems the most sound. I only hope Silla agrees.
✦ Chapter Five ✦
TIRZAH December 27th I read the directions the queen gave me at breakfast. Despite living in the castle for the last month, I have explored a mere fraction of the vast premises. Turn right off the stairs of the fourth floor. Continue on this corridor until you see the picture of the royal family with sour expressions wearing scarlet clothing. Turn left at the next corridor. When you see the statue of Lorennt’s ancestor who thought much of himself, turn left again. The library is the third door on the right. I snicker at the bronze statue of a king in full armor who did indeed think much of himself judging by his idealized features and disproportionate attributes. Had she not told me which door was the library, I would have known it by the royal guards stationed outside. They merely nod at my warm greeting, but I am not offended. Her guards are a stoic lot. After answering the queen’s polite inquiries about my interests, she became eager to show me the collection of medical books in the castle’s library. A plethora are related to botany while another section is dedicated to the healing arts. Not possessing expendable income, my own shelf of medical texts consists of only four tattered books. As I step into the library illuminated by tall paned windows, I squelch jealous grumblings in my heart. The wealth of the royal family is summarily displayed in the extravagance of their personal library. Ceiling high shelves of books wrap the interior walls while cozy seating areas are tucked between the windows on the exterior wall. As if they had filled up the laddered shelves generations ago, two rows of chest high shelves were built in rows across the middle of the room. I could lose myself in here for weeks reading for pleasure and filling in the gaps in my education. What a privilege to live with access to all of this! When my shock wears off, I scan the room for the queen. It is the murmur of a man’s voice that leads me in her direction. I tiptoe along the shelves wondering what man would be allowed an audience with the queen without her guard present. I discover them sequestered in an alcove in the midst of an intimate exchange. She is tucked into a chair with the handsome Lord Sigure leaning over her, his face inches from hers, hands braced on the arms of her chair. I cannot see her expression, but I know why Lord Sigure was permitted entrance without escort. Besides being a relation of her deceased royal husband, he is the other man who was given permission to court the queen. Though she has steadfastly rebuffed his suit, with Valor away, has she secretly welcomed his advances? It appears so. How despicable! Just when I began to think she might not be altogether entitled and haughty, she compromises herself with Lord Sigure. Wait till Leelah hears this! She will be furious over the affront to Valor. And then she will stop acting as if any of this is my fault. I creep backward, leaving the queen to her dalliance and feeling nicely vindicated. All the ridicule she has received seems— “You deserve this.” My head snaps up at the malicious words spoken not by me, but rather issuing from Lord Sigure. “Is that why he left you? Because you are barren?” Barren? “You do not know of what you speak,” Erianna replies in a detached tone. “Don’t I? It makes perfect sense now. Why Leer kept a mistress... Why Ironforge brought his own woman to court... You cannot give them what they want.” “You are wrong,” Erianna’s voice is quieter. “Acting as though you are above my touch all the while knowing you are not woman enough for me. Deceitful, barren tramp! You deserve the humiliation of Ironforge’s scorn! You have wasted my time, and I am glad to see you suffer for it.” My own complaints against the queen shrivel at what I hear come from Lord Sigure’s mouth with such animosity. I wait for the queen to defend herself and put the brute in his place with one of her scathing retorts. She says nothing. “Was it truly Jaleh’s fault that you miscarried Leer’s child or did you blame it on her to hide you own failing?” Cold washes over me at the appalling accusation. Valor warned me that I did not possess the full story and should not be passing judgments on Erianna. I should have heeded him. Of all people, I ought to know better. And so should Sigure. Yet here he stands attacking his cousin’s widow for rejecting his suit. Hot anger propels me forward. “How dare you speak to the queen like that!” They startle at my sudden interjection and Sigure steps back from Erianna. Her face is stricken and pale. It makes my anger burn hotter. “Apologize and leave immediately!” I demand. Indignation darkens his countenance. “You have no right to make demands of me.” “Leave or I will fetch the queen’s guard!” Which turns out to be a needless threat because at my raised voice the door to the library opens admitting that man. “Do you have need of me, Your Majesty?” “Lord Sigure is leaving,” the queen says evenly. How she maintains her composure under this duress I cannot imagine. Yet she waits impassively for Sigure to leave which he does without a backward glance. To her guard she says, “Sigure may not speak to me privately again.” He bows his way from the room. My thoughts reel at the implications of what Sigure said. “I selected a few books that I thought might interest you,” Erianna intones. “What?” She lays a hand atop a short stack. “You are welcome to search for yourself. I can show you where the medical texts are located if that is your main interest.” The queen makes no move to rise. She stares vacantly.
I kneel in front of her and take her cold hands in mine. “Erianna. Are you alright?” “I just need a moment.” “You miscarried a babe?” I ask, suddenly wanting to understand. She focusses on me. “The gossips do not like that part of the story. It is sad and makes me less of a monster.” She sighs deeply and takes her hands from mine, wrapping her arms around her waist. “No. I did not miscarry her. Half-way through the pregnancy, I was poisoned with opium and pennyroyal.” “Almighty,” I gasp. “That could have killed you!” “It very nearly did,” she says. “For a long time, I wished it had.” I feel the worst sort of wretch for the hateful thoughts I fostered toward Erianna. “The pennyroyal...” She nods. “My physician believes I was rendered...” She retreats from the word Sigure spat. “I am damaged. Quite a problem for a queen who is supposed to produce heirs. Thus, we never disclosed my condition to the court.” I remember Leelah saying that Erianna was jealous of me for what she could never have. This was it. “But Valor...” “He knows. He wants me anyway.” She shrugs her brows as if she thinks he is foolish for it. “He loves you.” “He loves me,” she repeats to herself, touching a blue sash tied at her waist. “He did not leave me. This is real.” Her left hand makes a fist then she rises. “I am sorry for being maudlin. May I show you around the library?” Maudlin? That is how she describes what she feels discussing the murder of her unborn babe and ruining of her body for more children? No, I cannot believe she feels something as benign as self-pity. The ashen color of her cheeks and dull of her eyes that are usually sharp describe her emotions with better words. Words like devastated and heartsick. The Spirit of Truth takes this opportune softening of my heart to point out my culpability in the attack Erianna endured from Sigure. I only meant to nettle her for finding what I have not yet secured with one who might have been mine. Might have been mine only if this woman’s first husband had not been murdered after their babe, the sensible side of me further chastises. Isn’t the consolation of the return of her first love the least of what she is due? Aye. Never again will I begrudge her this present happiness that others persistently try to taint. “I am sorry, Erianna, for the part I played in our...” I struggle to find a word. “Our private war?” Erianna’s mouth smirks but her eyes are still sad. “Aye. Our private war. I am surrendering.” “It is called a truce when both sides accept their part in the fighting and lay down their weapons.” I smile and teasingly ask, “Ought we draw up a contract of some sort? Like a peace accords.” She returns my smile and extends her arm. “Actually, I rather hate paperwork. Shall we make it official like the men do?” I clasp her forearm and she mine. “There. It is official.” “Now then. If we are truly to come to terms, I can think of no better way to do it than to become acquainted over books. They make for good common ground.” If I am not careful, I could actually grow to be more than peaceable with the queen. I might even like her. “I quite agree.” Erianna tours me around the library and invites me to make use of it as often as I like, though she cautions me not to come alone as it is quite out of the way and someone of an ill-bent could seize such an opportunity. I nearly contest that someone in her castle would not dare do such a thing, but her own cousin just railed at her because of his own stupidity. We wind up sitting on the floor like children with a pile of books between us. Erianna’s humor is restored over an outdated medical text that details a range of cures for illnesses. Some of the recipes are more ridiculous than others. “Here, look at this!” Erianna points to a portion of text with crudely drawn diagrams. “‘If the child’s cough persists, pass the infant over and under a braying donkey as often as needed to steal the cough from his chest.’” I laugh and turn the page. “Oh! This is gruesome! ‘If the patient is light of head and suffering an imbalance, place leaches upon his temples to draw blood upward and restore balance.’ Can you imagine all those slimy things on your face?” I shudder. “You have never been leached?” “Have you?” She nods. “They are still used in Limba. It is not bad as long as you do not look at them.”
I gape. With perfect factuality she explains, “Limba is decades behind the rest of the Continent. There has been no social progress within King Arcto’s reign.” King Arcto? Is not the Limban king her father? How strange she does not name him as such. In due course, we come to a segment on treating broken bones. Erianna studies the page intently. “This is how bones are treated in Limba. Would you do it differently?” The illustrations depict properly aligning the bones, applying plaster, and reducing mobility for breaks that have not penetrated the skin. Detailed instructions follow the depictions. “Aye. That is still how it is done. Not much changed there.” I move to turn the page, but an inward nudge stops me. “Have you much experience with broken bones, Your Majesty?” Her privileged royal life could hardly have put her in the way of such dangerous situations to grant her that knowledge. She turns the page. “King Arcto holds no paternal affection for me nor I for him.” Her father... beat her? A princess? “How many of your bones did he break?” She shrugs noncommittally. “They were fractures mostly, not complete breaks.” I begin to construct a picture of Erianna’s life that holds more darkness than mine. In fact, hers seems to be a bleak study of darkness excepting a few brightly painted figures. One of them being Valor. Valor in whom I feigned an interest to make her jealous because I am jealous of the fictitious life I imagined her to have. All our friends warned me that I was judging Erianna wrongly. Even though she aided in my misperception, who can blame her for looking sideways at everyone with snakes like Lord Sigure hiding in the grass?