Author’s Note: Not quite sure where this one came from, except that it was somehow Medie’s fault for suggesting I write Dragonsinger something about Heidi for her birthday. *g* This was also originally meant to be longer, but I ran out of time.
“Her Majesty, Queen Adelheid,” the herald announced, to the accompaniment of silver trumpets.
It would be easier if she could grant audiences in her bedchamber, Heidi thought wryly as four of her strongest servants carried the sedan chair that bore her into the throne room, followed by Claude, her personal valet and, unbeknownst to anyone but her, one of her most valuable spies.
Easier, yes, but she would never do it. The fall from her favorite horse might have broken her body, but she had no intention of allowing her mind or her courage to appear weakened as well by cowering in bed. She might be crippled, but she had still borne Nathan two sons, one of whom would grow up to be king. Receiving supplicants in the throne room, just as she always had when the king was away on matter of state, showed that she was still a force to be reckoned with.
Or at least she hoped it did.
Heidi knew there were rumors abroad in the kingdom that Nathan planned to set her aside: that a ruined queen who could not stand by his side or dance with him at important state functions was a liability, and if she could be quietly put away he would then elevate one of his mistresses to the throne. While Heidi didn’t want to believe there was any truth to said rumors, at the very least her stubborn refusal to disappear from public life would make it clear to not just Nathan but the entire kingdom that she had no intentions of going anywhere quietly.
The sedan was lowered to the ground, and Claude was instantly at her side. “Your Majesty,” he spoke quietly.
Thank the heavens for Claude. His ability to turn invisible and move unseen about the castle had kept her aware of and involved in the politics and gossip of the court even during the long months of her recovery, when she hadn’t been able to leave her bed, much less her bedchamber. He was one of her secret weapons, one that even Nathan wasn’t aware of.
The other, of course, was Matthew, captain of her personal guard and yet another of her most trusted spies. It was a dangerous game she played with her husband, protecting these two men from the law he himself had passed, outlawing the practice of magic. But taking that risk guaranteed their loyalty to her absolutely.
In a gesture that struck Heidi as oddly symbolic, even if no one else saw it, it was these two men who approached the sedan chair, allowing her to lean on both of them–oh, in more ways than one–so that she could at least appear to walk the distance to the throne. It may have been an open secret that beneath her heavy gown, her dead legs hung useless, but she was grateful to her people for allowing her this small illusion of independence.
Once she was seated, Claude stepped back, melting into the crowd. She knew he would move invisibly amongst them as soon as he could vanish without notice, harvesting information that might save her life one day. Matthew took his place beside the throne, keen eyes studying the crowd and his extraordinary mind listening for any thought that might betray one in the sea of faces as an enemy.
Heidi looked from the herald who had announced her arrival to the first of the day’s supplicants. “Bid her come forward,” she directed him quietly.
As he did so, she found herself considering Claude yet again. Small magics such as his were not uncommon in Yourik, even if the practice of them was against the law. Once, they had betokened royal blood. Once, even longer ago, so the stories said, the kings of Yourik had commanded powers to rival even the most skilled sorcerers. It was their birthright. But, over the generations, the bloodline had thinned, so that both her husband and his brother appeared to have no power at all, at least not of the magical sort.
At the same time, one too many royal bastards born the wrong side of the blanket had spread the trait, in its diluted form, into the general populace, so that now the peasant woman who approached her was equally as likely to have some small trick only he could perform as was a minor lordling like Claude.
“Majesty.” The woman dropped carefully to one broad knee. “My man passed on, nigh on a year ago. Since then, my boy and I have tried to keep up our small piece of land and tithe faithfully, but we’d only the one cow and a bull shared with two neighbors. Well, just this month past, the bull died. Our cow’s milk has dried up, and without a bull to get a new calf on her, we’ll have no choice but to slaughter her and hope the meat lasts through the winter. I’m a hard-working woman, Majesty, and I don’t like to ask for charity, but…”
Heidi held out a hand to gently silence her. She glanced to Claude. “Claude, do you think we might spare a bull from the royal herds?”
“Oh, I think we can manage with one less,” he agreed readily enough. “Just the one, though; we can’t go giving away bulls to every beggar as though they were alms.”
The woman hung her head, her face flushing in shame at the word “beggar.”
“We have no intention of giving even one to any beggars,” Heidi corrected gently. As valuable as Claude was to her, there were times when she did not appreciate his bluntness. “However, surely we can spare one for this good, hard-working woman who doesn’t like to take charity. What is your name, Mother?”
The woman’s head bowed again, this time in gratitude. “Dee, Majesty. Thank you, Your Majesty.”
Careful, Majesty, cautioned Matthew’s silent voice; he had recently discovered that he could not only hear others’ thoughts, but make his own heard if he wished to. You don’t want to appear too lenient.
Thank you, Matthew, she retorted crisply without looking at him. I know it’s been a long while, but I have granted audiences in the past while His Majesty was abroad, and I’ve not bankrupted the country yet.
He shifted awkwardly beside her, and Heidi smiled fondly at the contrite tone of the thought that came back to her. Yes, Majesty.
Of course, she understood his concern. His fortunes and Claude’s rose and fell with her own: if she was deposed for some blonde hussy, she would no longer be in a position to protect them from Nathan’s Inquisitor, a man known only–and ironically–as Noah. Still, understanding the fear didn’t mean she had to indulge it.
The trumpets sounded again and Heidi suppressed a sigh when the herald announced the arrival of the Dowager Queen, Angela, and Nathan’s younger brother, Peter, Bishop of Manahatt.
“Adelheid, my dear,” Angela addressed her son’s wife in a pleasant and yet at the same time utterly patronizing tone. “What a delightful surprise to see you up and about. Are you sure you should be holding court, though? This endless stream of petitioners can be quite tiring for someone in your condition.”
Heidi clung to her composure, not about to let the Dowager Queen show her up. “I rather think ‘my condition’ makes me the ideal person to hold court in Nathan’s absence. I imagine it’s quite a comfort to our people to be granted audience with someone who won’t get up and walk away on a whim or because she gets bored.”
Angela looked startled for a moment before pasting a false smile on. “Of course,” she conceded with melodramatic magnanimity.
Behind his mother’s head, Peter flashed Heidi a sympathetic smile, which she returned. When she’d first come to Yourik as a young bride, Heidi had to admit she’d been afraid of how Peter would react. She’d had her head filled since childhood with stories of younger princes who murdered their brothers or nephews to gain the throne, but Peter’s ambition was of an entirely different sort. When her first son, Simon, had been born, Nathan’s brother had been ecstatic that the mantle of heir had been lifted from his shoulders, freeing him to pursue his true passion, the traditional calling of the second son: the Church.
Of course, that might not have been quite so easy a vocation to choose had the Church of Yourik, like that of many of its neighbors, required celibacy of its clergy, since Peter’s unrequited love for the daughter of Lord Devereaux bordered on legendary. It was the favorite gossip for the court’s romantic young ladies, all of whom desired to be the one to win the hand and heart of the handsome young prince away from his disinterested beauty.
Angela, on the other hand, had never made any secret of the fact that she intended to be the power behind the throne rather than allow her daughter-in-law to assume the role. In Heidi’s opinion, she already wielded too much influence over her son: the outlawing of even minor magics had been Angela’s doing. Heidi also had no doubt that if Nathan were to consider setting her aside for a physically whole but more docile queen, that it would be at Angela’s prompting.
She loved her husband and her country too much to give up either to the machinations of a woman who couldn’t let go. So as hard as it was, she could never visibly allow Angela to get to her. Even that meant turning her back on a woman who would gladly stab her in it, and trusting Matthew and Claude–possibly even Peter–to keep her safe instead.
She looked at the next supplicant: a dark-skinned man with curly black hair, in the dress of a scholar. He came forward and bowed gracefully, speaking with a voice that turned out to be as beautiful as his face. “Your Majesty. My name is Mohinder Suresh. My father, Chandra Suresh, enjoyed your Majesties’ patronage for his study into the nature of magic, and I crave your blessing to assume the mantle of his work in the wake of his recent death.”
Interesting that Nathan should have been sponsoring scholars to study the very thing he had outlawed within the boundaries of his realm. Intrigued, Heidi asked, “Did His Majesty elaborate on the purpose of his patronage?”
Mohinder shook his head. “If he did, then my father did not see fit to share the information with me. If Your Majesty will pardon me, though…I believe it was important work, that ought to be continued.”
For what it’s worth, he really does. I think he can be trusted.
Heidi nodded. “I agree. Perhaps if we understood the workings of magic, we would not have cause to fear it so much.” She extended her hand, which he came forward to press a fervent kiss to.
“Thank you, Your Majesty.”
She gestured for Matthew. “See to it that Scholar Suresh is given rooms at the university, along with whatever support he requires to continue his studies and sustain himself. If the King should choose to withdraw his patronage when he returns, then I give you the guarantee of mine.”
The young scholar looked stunned. “Thank you, Your Majesty. That means more to me than I can possibly express.”
For the next few hours, the scene was much the same. A supplicant would approach the throne and state their need, and Heidi would answer it as best she could, with advice from Matthew on the party’s worthiness to receive the boon they asked for.
Despite her best efforts, by the time the day was half over, Heidi had to admit she was tired. Closer to exhausted would be the truth.
You okay? Matthew asked, his mental “voice” sounding worried.
I will be, she reassured him.
Okay, that’s it. I’ll make up some sort of security excuse, but we’re getting you out of here.
She considered arguing for a moment, but had to reluctantly acknowledge that she really was too exhausted to keep going. One more, she compromised instead. One more and then I’ll go.
One more. And I’m holding you to that, he agreed in a firm tone. Really it was a tone he shouldn’t take with his queen, but Heidi knew better than to discourage her people’s protectiveness of her. Matthew cleared his throat loudly and made the announcement.
The crowd in the throne room was barely thinner than it had been when she began, and naturally a murmur of disappointment rippled through the room, but to her undying gratitude, most of them faded quickly.
Heidi nodded to the herald, who gestured for the young man at the front of the line to approach her. He was young, probably not much older than Peter, with the same dark hair and eyes as her husband and his brother, but then such coloring was not uncommon in Yourik–her own was not dissimilar either. Something, though, about this man caused a shiver of apprehension to run through her veins, even as he knelt and made obeisance just like all the others.
You and me both, Matthew chimed in uncertainly. I’m not getting anything from this guy. It’s like he’s blocking me, but he couldn’t be…
“Your Majesty. My name is Gabriel, son of Gray, the watchmaker.”
“And what boon can I grant you, Gabriel, son of Gray?” Heidi asked, just as she had all the others.
When he lifted his eyes to hers, the apprehension exploded into full-blown fear, because the look in them was that of a madman.
He spoke quietly, but the cold, calculated words were like daggers of ice in her heart. “You can tell the king, when he returns from Lasveg, to abdicate the throne that is rightfully mine. If he does, I will allow you both to live.”
Heidi couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “I beg your pardon?”
Matthew cursed silently, one hand flying to the hilt of his sword, but Gabriel ignored him. “You know your history, don’t you, Queen Adelheid?” he asked smoothly, with a sinister smile. When she didn’t answer, the smile grew broader. “If you do, then you know that the ancient kings of this land were sorcerers beyond compare.”
Matthew took one step forward. He didn’t get any farther.
Gabriel threw out one hand and the captain of her personal guard went flying across the room like a rubber ball, striking the stone wall with a sickening thud and crumpling to the marble floor.
The room exploded into an uproar, voices raised in anger and terror.
Gabriel ignored them all, rising to his feet and looming over her. “With that sort of heritage…how is it possible that we allowed ourselves to be governed by such a…weak bloodline? A king with no magic at all, and so afraid of the power of others that he outlaws even the simplest of gifts? The people of Yourik deserve better, don’t you agree?”
From four corners of the room, Matthew’s men charged him, but Gabriel threw out the other hand, wreathed in flame but the flesh not consumed by it. Fireballs shot from his fingers as he hurled several more of her men against the wall. “Certainly they deserve better than a queen who can’t even walk.” He faced her again, and Heidi realized only belatedly, with a start, that he had levitated her out of her throne. With no feeling below the waist, she might not have noticed at all if not for the change in perspective.
Peter started to surge out of his seat, but Angela held him back with a hand and a sharp cry: “Peter!”
“I have to do something!” he argued back fiercely.
What he could have done against such power, Heidi didn’t know, but thankfully they never got the chance to find out. From nowhere, a sword appeared through Gabriel’s midsection. Shocked, he jerked once, then twice before collapsing to the ground.
Heidi saw the ground hurtling towards her as well, visions of her fall from her horse threatening to swamp her with terror, but just before she hit the floor she felt Peter catch her and set her back upon her throne. Before them, standing over the still form of the watchmaker’s son, Claude became visible. A gasp of shock–another one–rippled through the assembly and Heidi stared at him in dismay. Oh, Claude…
“Well,” he stated ruefully. “I suppose that’s it, then. Ought to go hand myself over to the Inquisitor, shouldn’t I?” Before she could interrupt to argue that he’d saved her life, all of their lives, Claude cut her off. “Forgive me, Your Majesty. I shouldn’t have kept you in the dark, but when a man’s very nature is against the law, what’s he supposed to do, eh? Still, never meant to make you party to breaking His Majesty’s command, even unknowing.”
What was he talking about? If there was one thing she had never been about Claude’s gift, it was “unknowing.” But before she could say so, Heidi was shocked to hear Peter’s voice in her mind as she had so often heard Matthew’s.
Heidi, let him. He’s protecting you. Let on that you knew and it’ll give Mom the excuse she’s been looking for to get rid of you.
It was a struggle not to look at him in shock. Since when was Peter–Peter, for God’s sake–mage-gifted? And stranger still, with the same gift as her Matthew?
Matthew! Oh, God, please let him still be alive. But if she didn’t play along, she might not get the chance to find out.
“Claude, I…I don’t know what to say. But thank you for saving my life. In spite of your crime, I think when His Majesty learns what you have done for me and for all the people here, he will grant you leniency.”
Forget leniency. When Nathan got home, she was going to have a word with him about repealing that damnable law. If he didn’t, there would be no one left to stand against the next Gabriel. And speaking of…she looked down at the still form.
“Does he live?”
One of the guards rushed to the man’s side, to check for a pulse. “Yes, Majesty. Would you like me to kill him?”
It was tempting, but… “No.”
“Why on Earth not?” Angela exclaimed in an incredulous voice, and from the looks on the faces of those assembled, she wasn’t the only one who felt that way.
“He’s dangerous alive, Majesty,” the guard–Diyel, she thought his name was–pointed out.
“He’s dangerous conscious,” she corrected. “Ply him with drug and drink to keep him in a stupor if you must, but tend to his wounds and keep him alive at least for now. I need to discover who this man is, and how such power could fall so far from the royal tree, before another like him comes before us.”
The guards bowed low, then moved quickly to remove both Gabriel and Claude (oh, Claude…) from the throne room and transport them to the dungeons. Heidi, meanwhile, twisted around as best she could to look in Matthew’s direction. To her surprise and gratitude, the scholar she’d given her patronage to earlier–Mohinder–was kneeling beside him. “Is he all right?” she asked.
Mohinder nodded. “Yes, I think so. Thought it probably wouldn’t hurt to have the court physician see to him.”
Heidi nodded. “Would you accompany him and then report to me on his condition?”
Mohinder stood and made a low bow. “Of course, Majesty.”
When he and another group of guards had departed, carrying Matthew with them, and the rest had cleared the throne room except for Angela, Peter, and a few servants, Heidi finally allowed herself to relax. Closing her eyes, she sat quietly until her heart stopped thudding with fear.
While she was sure Angela would have gladly remained to tell her daughter-in-law everything she’d done wrong in handling the surprise crisis, after Peter spoke to her in low tones that Heidi couldn’t hear, she too reluctantly left, escorted by her younger son. Heidi let a silent Thank you float to the top of her thoughts, and though he didn’t acknowledge it, she felt sure that Peter had heard it.
In some ways, that was the most incredible part of the whole extraordinary day; the fact that Peter could be an illicit mind reader. How could Nathan not have known about this? And if he did, why on Earth had he enacted that stupid law?
One thing was certain. When Nathan returned home from Lasveg, the two of them were going to have to have a very long, very honest talk.