Chapter 1: The Maid
Esme Warren followed the map that Rhiannon had scrawled onto the paper, and walked in the Queen's chambers, sighing at the mess, her books were scattered everywhere; browning papers, plans, maps, covered her desk; the midnight inks mismatched; her bed was unmade, with blankets and pillows flung haphazardly across the room; even her armour and weapons were randomly placed across chairs, tables, her bed; whoever had the duty of cleaning the Queen's room before her, had done a terrible job.
She moved towards the desk, where a sketch of a man, marred by charcoal stains laid. The Artist's note was at the bottom, claiming the drawing was of the Alpha Darius, Head Alpha of Ramifira, King Lazarus' kingdom and Esme's homeland.
"I told Rhiannon to stop assigning maids to my chambers," The Queen said, from behind her, watching as Esme examined the sketch. She hadn't noticed the royal's presence, jumping back in shock. She didn't let her mind wander as to how she could have been so blind, the presence and aura of a Royal were palpable, she could hear her brother reprimanding her for her blindness.
The Queen only smirked slightly at the alarm she was certain was written on her features. "You must be the new maid, Rhiannon told me of your arrival."
Esme bowed her head, she could be killed for examining the sketch too long. Claimed to be a spy, a traitor to the crown. Tortured and then executed. Ramifira was cautious about who they allowed into their castle, all the kingdoms must have been. She willed herself into the mask of the docile and submissive girl again, "I apologise, your majesty, I do not wish to intrude."
She expected the Queen to look at her with the raw calculation she so often saw. "I am familiar with wearing masks. Do not wear one with me." Esme waited for the Queen to hit her, to punish her and sneer. But the Queen did something unexpected, stepping away from the doorframe and smoothing out her blood-red dress, she smiled. "What is your name?"
"Esme Warren," she said quietly. When the Queen quirked a perfectly manicured brow at the name, she continued, "My family hails from Ramifira."
Esme had always heard tales of the Queen, they claimed her to be kind. She expected them to be lies or at the very least an exaggeration, but the Queen was real and warm when she smiled, "What do you make of the four kingdoms, Esme Warren?"
Esme pondered it for a second, it could have her killed if the Queen decided she wanted to grow closer relations with any of the foreign nations, but she spoke anyway, "Ramifira is a nation built on justice, and King Lazarus, while fair, he is not too kind on those who do not agree with him. Elentys while kind does not have the greatest justice system. Yetravik while lush with marble-carved cities and grand squares, forgets that the workers struggle and starve. Inkrivya is a place of beautiful scenery and vast lands, some places are full of grand palaces and others have smaller villages.
"But anyone who struggles is aided, and you are a Queen who is kind to her people. Noble or not, we all pay a certain amount of our income, even you give away wealth, and all of it comes back in the form of education, healthcare, everything helps the people. Even when they disagree with you, you listen to them, their voices are not dismissed. In this way, I think you are far fairer than King Lazarus, Inkrivya more prosperous than King Ryven's kingdom, and far kinder than Queen Alana."
The Queen watched her in silent contemplation, Esme prepared for the shouts and punishment for speaking against the foreign nations, but the Queen's voice was soft as she spoke, melodic but commanded her attention. "Thank you, Esme Warren. My fellow leader's domains are not my own, so I cannot police any injustices in them, but I always try to house anyone who runs from them, if I believe they are good in reasoning. You are a brave soul to speak so openly about the other kingdoms like that. To speak as you believe, even if it might not be what I wanted to hear. I wish you to know that when you come of age, you will have a place waiting for you in my palace."
Esme choked a little, she was only a few weeks shy of 18. "As your maid, majesty?"
The Queen cocked her head and smiled. "As a member of my Court."
Hours later, Esme bustled from room to room; cleaning but the voice of the Fire Queen remained at the forefront of her thoughts, she could still hear her warm voice as if she were standing beside her, you will have a place waiting for you in my court.
Rhiannon called her down to the meeting room. She prepared herself for the worst, even if she did not know what she had done wrong.
It had been nothing, a preparation meeting to organise who would help set up decorations and aid vendors with their stalls. The Summer Solstice, it had not been a matter of celebration in Ramifira.
Guards became harsher as the Solstice had drawn closer, curfew was introduced and the King had stayed locked behind golden gates at his palace. If too many soldiers and guards in the palace quit, conscription began in hordes, it was what had taken her brother. Even though she had always been safe. Men are better protection, her mother had claimed.
So which are better to protect her? Men or the Fire Queen? And what of Queen Alana? Or Commander Novakesmiva of the Huntress legions? High Witch Garvatisq of Inkrivya? Captain Uradina, the Fae captain of the Fire Queen's armada? The Lady Raminskia, the Fire Queen's spy?
No, she couldn't believe that men were better protection, not when so many powerful females lead their people through war and then rebuilt their cities from the rubble. Who told them they would prosper and instilled hope in all they met.
It took her a moment, but she realised how many names she had seen on that map of the palace; Novakesmiva, Garvatisq, Uradina, Raminskia, the Fire Court. Her court.
A Queen's court, the most powerful court in existence. Where the warriors of legend came home and the wisest leaders hailed. The court of the Fire Queen. Esme almost screamed right there when the Queen had announced her decision for Esme to join them, but a knock had come at the door, announcing Queen Alana had sent an ambassador.
Esme smiled, the Fire Queen offered her a place in her court. A few more months, and then she would have a place. She would make sure the Fire Queen understood her gratitude. Understood that she was willing to fight and die for her.