Authors: Mercedes Lackey
Tags: #Fantasy, #General, #Fiction, #Fantasy - General, #American Science Fiction And Fantasy, #Action & Adventure, #Spanish: Adult Fiction
As usual, there were two blue-clad Guardsmen stationed outside the doors to the Royal chambers. She nodded to them, dark Jon to the right, wizened Fess to the left; she knew both of them well, and longed to be able to whisper her news, but that wouldn’t do. It wouldn’t be dignified, and it would absolutely shatter protocol. As Queen’s Own, she had the right of entry to the Queen’s chambers at any time of night or day, and was quickly admitted beyond those heavy goldenoak doors.
As she had expected, Selenay was already hard at work in her dark-paneled outer chamber; dressed for the day in formal Whites, massive desk covered with papers, and both Lord Orthallen and the Seneschal at her shoulders. She looked up at Talia’s entrance, startled, blue eyes seeming weary even this early in the day. Whatever brought those two Councilors to her side, it did not look to be pleasant...
Perhaps Talia’s news would change all that.
She clued Selenay to the gravity of her news by making the formal half-bow before entering, and that it was good news by a cheerful wink so timed that only Selenay noted it. Protocol demanded exactly five steps across that dark-blue carpet, which took her to exactly within comfortable conversational distance of the desk. Then she went to one knee, trying not to flinch as her bruises encountered the floor. Selenay, tucking a strand of gold hair behind one ear and straightening in expectation, nodded to indicate she could speak.
“Majesty—I have come to petition the right of a trainee to enter the Collegium,” Talia said gravely, with both hands clasped upon the upright knee, while her eyes danced at the nonsense of all this formality.
That got the attention not only of Selenay, but of both Councilors. Only highborn trainees needed to have petitions laid before the Crown, for becoming a Herald often meant renouncing titles and lands, either actual or presumptive.
Talia could see the puzzlement in the Councilors’ eyes—and the rising hope in Selenay’s. “What Companion has Chosen—and what is the candidate’s name and rank?” Selenay replied just as formally, one hand clutching the goblet before her so tightly her knuckles went white.
“The Companion Gwena has Chosen,” Talia barely managed to keep from singing the words, “And her Choice is the Heir-presumptive, now Heir-In-Right, the Lady Elspeth. May I have the Queen’s leave to enter the trainee in the Collegium rolls?”
Within the hour Court and Collegium were buzzing, and Talia was up to her eyebrows in all the tasks needed to transfer Elspeth from her mother’s custody to that of the Collegium. Elspeth spent the day in blissful ignorance of all the fuss—which was only fair. The first few hours were critical in the formation of the Herald-Companion bond, and should be spent in as undisturbed a manner as possible. So it was Talia’s task to see to it that when Elspeth finally drifted dreamily back through the gates of Companion’s Field, everything, from room assignment to having her belongings transferred, had been taken care of for her.
And toward day’s end it occurred to Talia that it behooved her to take dinner with the Court rather than the Collegium. The Queen might make dinner the occasion for the formal announcement of choice of Heir.
She finished setting up Elspeth’s class schedule with Dean Elcarth, and sprinted to her quarters and up the stairs as fast as her sore knees would permit. After a quick wash, she rummaged in the wooden wardrobe, cursing as she bumped her head against one of the doors. After making what she hoped was an appropriate selection, she dressed hastily in one of the velvet outfits. With one hand brushing her hair, half-skipping as she wedged her feet into the soft slippers that went with it, she used the other hand to snatch the appropriate book of protocol from among the others on her still-dusty desk. While wriggling to settle the clothing properly and using both hands to smooth her hair, she reviewed the brief ceremony attendant on the coronation of the Heir. She shot a quick look at herself in the mirror, then took herself off to the Great Hall.
She slipped into her seldom-used seat between Elspeth and the Queen and whispered “Well?”
“She’s going to do it as soon as everyone arrives,” Elspeth breathed back. “I think I’m going to die....”
“No you won’t,” Talia answered in a conspiratorial manner, “You’ve been doing things like this for ages. Now
may die!” Elspeth was relaxing visibly now that Talia was there to share her ordeal.
Talia had only taken meals with the Court a handful of times since she’d arrived at the Collegium, and the Great Hall never ceased to impress her. It was the largest single room in the Palace, its high, vaulted ceiling supported by slender-seeming pillars of ironoak that gleamed golden in the light from the windows and the lamp- and candle-light. There were battle-banners and heraldic pennons that went clear back to the Founding hanging from the rafters. Talia’s seat was at the table placed on the dais, which stood at right angle to the rest of the tables in the Hall. Late sunlight streamed in through the tall, narrow windows that filled the west wall, but the windows to the east were already beginning to darken with the onset of nightfall. The courtiers seated along the tables below her were as colorful as a bed of wild-flowers, and formed a pleasing grouping against the panels and tables of golden ironoak.
When the Great Hall was filled, the Queen arose as the stewards called for silence. It would have been possible to hear a feather fall as she began. Every eye in the Hall was riveted on her proud, White-clad figure, with the thin circlet of Royal red gold (it was all she would wear as token of her rank) encircling her raival-leaf golden hair.
“Since the death of my father, we have been with-out an Heir. I can understand and sympathize with those of you who found this a disquieting and frightening situation. You may rejoice, for all uncertainty is at an end. This day was my daughter Elspeth Chosen by the Companion Gwena, making her a fully eligible candidate for the position of Heir. Rise, daughter.”
Elspeth and Talia both rose, Elspeth to stand before her mother, Talia to take the silver coronet of the Heir from the steward holding it. She presented it to the Queen, then retired to her proper position as Queen’s Own, behind and slightly to Selenay’s right. She was pleased to note that although Elspeth’s hands trembled, her voice, as she repeated her vows, Was strong and clear. Elspeth caught her eyes and held to Talia’s gaze as if to a lifeline.
Elspeth was frightened half to death, despite her lifelong preparation for this moment. She could dearly see Talia’s encouraging expression, and the presence of the Queen’s Own gave her comfort and courage For one panicked moment halfway through her vows, she forgot what her mother had said just the instant before. She felt a flood of gratitude when she noticed Talia’s lips moving, and realized that she was mouthing the words Elspeth had just forgotten. There was more to it than just having a friend at hand, too—with her mental senses sharpened and enhanced by having been Chosen, Elspeth could dimly feel Talia as a solid, comforting presence, like a deply-rooted tree in a wild windstorm. There would be shelter for her beneath those branches, and as she repeated the last words of her Oath, she suddenly realized how vital that shelter would be to one, who as ruler, must inevitably face the gales; and more often than not alone. There was also, distinctly, though distantly, the sense that Talia loved her for herself, and as a true friend. And that in itself was a comfort. As she finished the last words and her mother placed the silver circlet on her head, she tried to put all her gratitude to her friend in the smile she gave her.
As the Queen placed the coronet on her daughter’s hair, a spontaneous cheer rose that gladdened Talia’s heart. Perhaps now the Brat could be forgotten.
But as they resumed their seats and the serving began, the unaccustomed dainties of the Queen’s table suddenly lost their appeal as Talia realized that there was yet another ceremony to be endured, one about which she knew nothing. As soon as the powers of the Kingdom could be gathered there must be a great ceremony of fealty in which the Queen’s Own would play a significant role. Talia reached blindly for her goblet to moisten a mouth gone dry with panic.
Then she took herself firmly in hand; Kyril and Elcarth, as Seneschal’s Herald and Dean of the Collegium, would surely know everything about this occasion—and just as surely would be aware that Talia didn’t. There was no need to panic. Not yet, anyway.
The meal seemed to be progressing with ponderous slowness. This was Talia’s first High Feast—and it seemed incredibly dull. She sighed, and the Queen caught the sound.
“Bored?” she whispered out of the corner of her mouth.
“Oh, no!” Talia replied with a forced smile.
“Liar,” the Queen replied with a twinkle. “No one but a moron could avoid being bored by all this. You sit and sit, and smile and smile, till your face and backside are both stiff. Then you sit and smile some more.”
“How do you manage this day after day?” Talia asked, trying not to laugh.
“Father taught me a game; Elspeth and I play it now. What are we doing this time, catling?”
“We’re back to animals,” Elspeth replied, as her mother nodded to an elderly duke in response to some comment he’d mumbled. “You try and decide what animal the courtiers most remind you of. We change each time. Sometimes it’s flowers, trees, rocks, landmarks—even weather. This time it’s animals, and he’s a badger.”
“Well if he’s a badger, his lady’s a watchdog. Look how she raises her hackles whenever he smiles at that pretty serving girl,” Talia said.
“Oh, I’d never have thought of that one!” Elspeth exclaimed. “You’re going to be good at this game!”
They managed to keep straight faces, but it wasn’t easy.
Talia sought out Kyril the next day before the thrice-weekly Council meeting to learn that she had three weeks in which to prepare for Elspeth’s formal investiture. He and Elcarth pledged to drill her in all she needed to know, from protocol to politics, every day.
The Council meeting in itself was something of an ordeal. She and Elspeth had seats on the far end of the horseshoe-shaped Council table, almost opposite Selenay and the empty place beside her. That empty chair was the seat of the Queen’s Own, but Talia could not, under law, assume that place until she had passed her own internship. She and Elspeth had voice on the Council, but no vote. Elspeth’s own voting rights were in abeyance until she passed internship. The Councilors tended to ignore them because of that lack of voting rights—but not today.
No, today they interrogated both Talia and Elspeth with an ill-concealed eagerness that bordered on greed. How soon did Talia think she’d be out in the field—could the internship be cut back to a year? Or given the importance of her position, and her lack of experience, should it be extended past the normal year-and-a-half? Could Elspeth’s education be rushed? What should she be tutored in besides the normal curriculum of the Herald’s Collegium? Did she feel ready for her new position as Heir? And on and on...
From most of the Councilors Talia only received a well-intentioned (if irritating) eagerness to help “the children” (and she cursed—not for the first time— her slight stature that made her seem barely an adolescent). But from others—
Lord Orthallen, one of Selenay’s closest advisors (as he had been to her father) regarded both of them with a cool, almost cold, gaze. And Talia felt very like a prime specimen of some unusual beetle on the dissecting table. She got no emotional impressions from him at all; she never had. That was profoundly disturbing for one whose Gift was Empathy— and even more disturbing was the vague feeling that he was not pleased that Elspeth had at last been Chosen.
From Bard Hyron, speaker for the Bardic Circle, she got a distinct feeling that all this was happening far too quickly. And that not enough caution was being exercised. And that he didn’t quite trust her.
Lord Gartheser’s feelings were of general displeasure over the whole affair, but she couldn’t pinpoint why. There was also a faint overtone of disappointment; he was related to Kerroc, one of the three other contenders for the position. Could that be all, though? Or was there something deeper in his motivation?
Lady Wyrist was downright annoyed, but why, Talia couldn’t fathom. It might have been simply that she was afraid that Talia would favor her own relations, the Holderkin, who lived in the area Wyrist spoke for. She could hardly know that there was small chance of that!
Orthallen was the one who bothered her most, but as the meeting broke up, she knew she would mention this to no one. She had nothing of fact to report; and she and Orthallen had bad blood between them over his treatment (and near-expulsion) of her friend Skif from the Collegium. She knew better than to give Orthallen so powerful a weapon if he was an enemy as to seem to be holding a grudge. Instead she smiled sweetly and thanked him for his good wishes. Let him think her an innocent idiot. Meanwhile she would make sure to have one eye on him.
But soon, very soon now, she would be gone, on her year-and-a-half internship, and that would take her entirely out of the current intrigues at Court. It would also make it impossible for her to deal with any of it. If Gartheser, Orthallen, or any of the others had deeper schemes, there would be no one near Elspeth who could detect the shadow of the scheming.
She would be gone—and who would watch them then?
Three weeks to the investiture. Only three weeks, but they seemed like three years, at least to Talia.
There was an elaborate ceremony of oaths and bindings to memorize, but that wasn’t the worst of it. Talia’s main function at this particular rite would be apparently to perform the original duties of Heralds, the duties they had held in the days before Valdemar founded his kingdom, to announce each dignitary by name and all ranks and titles before escorting him or her to the foot of the Throne.