~ Tolvaria, Lossar ~
Queen Ysonna Drakarien placed flowers on the sarcophagus.
“The Rundawalds will pay for this,” she whispered, but in the stone built crypt it carried like an announcement for the entire city of Lossar. Despite the courtiers accompanying her, eerie silence filled every part of the room. The king had been laid to his final resting place and there was nothing left to say. The only thing that remained was the shock from his abrupt departure.
Or rather – from his unexpected assassination. Ysonna used a handkerchief to wipe a single tear from her gracefully pale face on which time had not yet left its mark, framed with an abundance of black wavy hair that blended with her mourning dress. As she took in a few shaky breaths, her amber eyes settled on the two smaller sarcophagi on the right. Seeing the one in the back made her heart clench, and she felt the years of torment at the royal court rushing to the surface. She turned away before anyone could read it from her face.
“It’s cold in here,” she said in a defeated voice, rubbing her hands gloved in black velvet. “We should go back now.”
The cluster of dark-clad courtiers and priestesses hesitated, as if waiting for the king’s approval. Ysonna gave them a moment to collect themselves. Ralv Tolvarien the First, to whom they had attended for so many years, fighting to win his favour, was dead. Now they would have to direct their attention to the queen, and for many of them it wouldn’t be an easy change.
Ysonna suppressed a deep sigh and set off to follow a servant on the staircase where lanterns bravely fought the darkness. There was a reluctant rustle behind her. No matter how devoted some of the retinue were, each and every one of them wished for nothing more now than a cushy warm bed. Ysonna herself was desperate for her servants to take off her veil and untie the layers of black dress which felt extremely heavy today.
The king was dead. As far as she was concerned, it wasn’t the end of the world, but she couldn’t bear to think what changes would befall Tolvaria now. As she climbed the damp corridors, all she wanted was to close her eyes and drift away into oblivion.
The young queen finally stepped into the night as courtiers welled around her. The courtyard was quiet apart from an occasional sob or whisper. That’s why the following line, albeit hushed, was heard by every pair of ears.
“Your Majesty, the Rundawalds have yet another gold mine,” someone reported as three dark hats emerged at the queen’s right side. The retinue broke into fervent whispers.
Damned Rundawalds. Ysonna knew right then that she wouldn’t see her pillow anytime soon. She feigned a calm expression – the exact opposite of her inner feelings. “I would like to get some fresh air now,” she told the courtiers. “You may leave.” They bowed to take their leave, and though a few heads turned, they set off towards their bedchambers without objections. As the light from their lanterns was turning smaller in the distance, a wave of bitter envy washed over her.
She turned to the three men who remained rooted by her side. Regrettably, they didn’t seem to be in a hurry. Ysonna was left with no other choice but to take a short walk with them. “Should we not try to find the assassin first?” Rundawald gold mines were the last thing she wanted to think about right now.
The men hurried to match the queen’s pace, their shoes clacking on the stone tiles louder than her own. “May Your Majesty rest assured that we are doing all we can,” one of them started, “but alas, it seems the investigation will not be very fruitful.”
Ysonna threw him a precarious glance. “What do you mean? All we need to do is look for a Rundawald spy. Who else would have the audacity to attack the king in a heavily guarded castle?”
“The case seems to be more intricate,” another advisor added. “Indeed, the Rundawald king has countless coffers overflowing with gold, but that does not give his men the ability to vanish from a surrounded tower.”
That confirmed Ysonna’s fears – there was a new danger looming over the kingdom. As if the Rundawalds weren’t enough. The hem of her long black skirt rippled with each step as she headed for a vaulted passage leading to another vast courtyard. Until now, she foolishly hoped the blame for the King’s death could be passed onto Tolvaria’s arch-enemy, but that hope had now been shattered. Then again, neither option would have made her happy. “If the Rundawalds were not involved, then who was?” she asked, though she already suspected the answer.
“No one knows. The coroner has gathered a search party, but looking for the attacker will be like looking for a needle in a haystack. We have no leads and no description.”
Passing a gallery of paned windows, Ysonna clenched her fists. She was the regent queen now, yet she was completely powerless. Even if the Ancestors themselves promised to keep her safe, she’d be looking over her shoulder everywhere she went. What if the assassin returns? What if he gets his hands on her – or worse, on her children? She had already doubled the number of guards, but would they even be able to stop him?
“Your Majesty,” there was a long pause. “We should prepare for the worst.”
Ysonna looked up. She didn’t like where this was going. “Could you be more specific?”
“A war, Your Majesty.”
The word hit her like a brick. She stopped in her tracks, clutching her cloak tighter to her chest. “A war?” she repeated. In the vaulted passage it echoed with menacing intensity.
“I am afraid so, Your Majesty. We may not know who is behind the king’s assassination, but we do know that while the coffers of King Vallan are filling up, ours are depleting. Less and less households have regular meals on their tables, and more and more people would rather risk beheading for escaping into an enemy kingdom, than suffering in poverty. When this gets out – which is undoubtedly going to happen soon – does Your Majesty think the Rundawald king will remain content with some small skirmishes in Lower Tolvaria?”
No. Of course he wouldn’t. That old wolf of a man would charge at his prey as soon as he spotted a weakness. Ysonna stood still for a while, her gauzy black veil moving in the evening breeze like an apparition. She took a few breaths. “What would you advise King Ralv if he stood before you now?”
The men paused at the unusual request. “To call for the Royal Council.”
“Then I shall call for the Royal Council,” Ysonna decided. The thought of other people sharing the burden lifted some weight off her shoulders, but for reasons unknown, the advisors exchanged concerned looks. She felt like an outsider trying to meddle in things she didn’t understand. Things that could break with one wrong move.
“Your Majesty, the king’s death puts you in a perilous position. Some might think to use these unwonted circumstances to their own benefit. You will therefore need someone reliable in the Council. Someone who will advocate for you no matter what.”
Ysonna fixed her gaze on the stone vault above them. There weren’t many who would support her now. In fact, she could only think of one. “The House of Drakarien has always put family first,” she said in a tone which was anything but reassuring.
The advisors’ silence revealed what they were thinking before they even voiced it.
“Do you indeed mean to invite -”
The queen raised a hand. “I have no other choice,” she said in a resolute tone which no one dared to contradict.
Ysonna took in the scent of old books and parchments that filled the room. She sank into a chair with a towering backrest and heaved a great sigh. The late king’s office was a secluded quiet room where he used to sign charters, agreements and other documents. At times he would come here when he wanted to think alone – especially when he needed to come up with plans to best King Vallan of Rundawald.
From now on, it would be her office. Its austere and simple fittings instilled the feeling that this was a space to discuss serious matters. Ysonna’s golden gaze swept across the interior, which consisted mostly of shelves, chests and cabinets, a bench on both sides, some chairs, and finally the desk in front of her.
Ralv didn’t have a chance to tidy up. Yellowish candlelight illuminated sheets of parchment, several inkwells, quills, wax sticks, wax melting equipment, and …. a small framed portrait.
It was a fine brushwork, and a great choice of colours. Not the subject though. Ysonna’s pulse intensified as she set her eyes on the pretty blonde with rosy cheeks and a silver crown on her head. She raised a hand to touch the very same crown with two long thorns on each side, now sitting on her head. Staring at Ralv’s first queen, the masterfully painted eyes made Ysonna feel that they were staring back at her.
She snatched the portrait, pulled open the last drawer in the desk and threw it in, face-down. She shut it with a satisfying thud.
Much better. She couldn’t afford to lose herself in the past now. Ysonna took a steadying breath. Though the scribe had already withdrawn into his chamber and the light was poor, she leafed through the parchments to pull out a blank sheet. Then she opened an inkwell and picked up a striped feather quill.
“Dear uncle,” she muttered as she scribbled the first words. It was far from exemplary, but her hand resisted her will and she struggled to put her thoughts into written form. It wasn’t often that she wrote something on her own. What’s more, they didn’t even know each other, and the last time she saw him was at her father’s funeral. That was ten years ago. Why should he help her now? But if not her paternal uncle, then who? She had no one else left – at least no one wealthy. That, she reminded herself, was also thanks to the Rundawalds.
Bitter memories gave her courage to continue. The letter wasn’t short of polite phrases, but it was brief and to the point. Without the use of pressing words, it would convey the message that he was required at the Royal Court, something that would never happen if King Ralv were alive. As she finished the letter and read it to herself, she was impressed by the determination that seeped from the content. Her uncle surely won’t refuse to help the kingdom, even more so his family. Only time would show whether it was the right decision though.
She folded the parchment, enclosed it in an envelope, and sealed it with melted wax. She finished by pressing her seal ring into it. Before she knew it, the letter was ready for the royal messenger to take in the morning. Ysonna collapsed onto the padded backrest, as though it had cost her all her strength.
There was nothing else she could do now, but wait.