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Authors: Deborah Chester

The Queen's Gambit

BOOK: The Queen's Gambit
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

The Queen's Gambit

 

An
Ace
Book / published by arrangement with the author

 

All rights reserved.

Copyright ©
2002
by
Deborah Chester

This book may not be reproduced in whole or part, by mimeograph or any other means, without permission. Making or distributing electronic copies of this book constitutes copyright infringement and could subject the infringer to criminal and civil liability.

For information address:

The Berkley Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Putnam Inc.,

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

 

The Penguin Putnam Inc. World Wide Web site address is
http://www.penguinputnam.com

 

ISBN:
978-1-1012-0809-0

 

An
ACE
BOOK®

Ace
Books first published by The Ace Publishing Group, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc.,

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

ACE
and the “
A
” design are trademarks belonging to Penguin Putnam Inc.

 

Electronic edition: June, 2003

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author's Imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

The Penguin Putnam Inc. World Wide Web site address is
http://www.penguinputnam.com

Chapter One

Pheresa du Lindier was kneeling on a tiny embroidered prayer cushion, searching her soul yet again for answers, when a tremendous jolt threw her to one side. She landed on her hip with bruising force, her full skirts tangled about her. Overhead, the lamps swayed violently on their chains, casting wild shadows about the stuffy cabin. Her jewel-studded Circle flew from her fingers to roll across the floor. Pheresa tried to grab it, and failed.

“After it, Oola!” she ordered in vexation.

One of her attendants scooped it up from where it had slid beneath the tiny, bolted-down table, then hurried over to assist Pheresa to her feet.

She was already upright, brushing dust from her skirts with angry slaps of her hands. It embarrassed her to be rendered so clumsy. Oola handed her the Circle and began to smooth her gown for her.

“Is my lady hurt?” she asked with an anxiety that only increased Pheresa's feeling of irritation.

She was so tired of being fussed over, of being watched for
the least sign of discomfort or illness. She was never left alone for a moment, and the constant scrutiny and lack of privacy had her nerves in shreds. Yet she knew if she gave way and allowed her temper to escape the iron control she'd clamped over it, the news would be delivered immediately to the king as certain proof that she remained unwell and unfit. Her enemies were waiting for any excuse to pounce.

“My lady?” Oola asked, peering at her through the uneven light cast by the dim lanterns. “Are you hurt?”

“Nay! I'm well,” Pheresa said, and shifted her gaze to her other attendant lest her anger show. “Verine, look outside and see if we've docked.”

Verine peered out the tiny round window of the cabin. “Yes, I see the palace walls!” she called out excitedly. “We are here at last! Oh, my lady, think of it. Home!”

Pheresa shut her eyes a moment to savor the notion. Now she could hear a series of muffled thuds and shouts as the crew ran about their duties. The barge shuddered, forcing her to brace her feet to keep from being thrown off balance again. Oola clung to her, but Pheresa pulled away and stood gripping the polished bulwark that arched over her bed.

“My cloak and outdoor slippers, quickly,” she ordered. “Verine, finish putting my writing things away and extinguish these lamps. Let us be ready to disembark.”

The tortured squeal of wood rubbing against something it shouldn't made her wince. The barge jolted again, and they came to a complete halt. Pheresa, still unused to the peculiar rocking sway of the barge after the past three weeks of riding it down the Charva River's slow-moving current, found the sudden steadiness of the craft reassuring. Her heart filled with the knowledge that they were finally home. The ordeal that had begun last autumn was nearly over.

Tears sprang to her eyes, and for a moment she felt overwhelmed with exhaustion. So much had happened, most of it too dreadful to think about. And now, there was only the state funeral of Prince Gavril to endure before it was finished. She would rest for days afterwards, she promised herself. She would lie abed, or walk in the warm, tranquil gardens of
Savroix. She would renew her spirit and find peace of mind once more. She would move past her tears and confusion and find a way to heal her heart.

A thunderous knock on her door made her jump.

Verine hurried to open it, and Sir Brillon stood framed in the narrow doorway. The church knight was a tall, rawboned man, with a scarred face and zealous black eyes. Clad in chain mail and a distinctive white and black surcoat, the slashed marks of his order marking one shoulder, he stood with his spurred feet braced apart. One gloved hand gripped his sword hilt; the other fist rested on his hip. He and a small squadron of men had been assigned to oversee Pheresa's protection during the long journey southward from Nether. Pheresa had learned to consider him more a jailer than a protector, for he was forever watching her, forever making notes of what she did or said. She had caught him intercepting her letters, but her furious confrontation with him had come to nothing. Sir Brillon merely said he was obeying orders, his cool audacity leaving her red-faced and sputtering.

She glared at him now, resenting him for having forbidden her permission to walk the deck and take fresh air this past week. He claimed the weather was too inclement for her. She knew that this final stretch of the Charva was bordered with towns and trade centers. She'd heard the people cheering the king as the royal barges swept by. Sir Brillon had orders to keep her out of the populace's sight. Whether he answered to the king or to one of the cardinals, she had not yet learned. She suspected the latter.

“Sir Brillon,” she said in a strong, forthright voice, concealing her resentment of him as best she could, “ 'tis indeed wonderful to see Savroix at last. I thank you now for your service during this sad journey, and bid you good-bye.”

His black gaze flickered down during this speech, then flashed back to meet hers. “The king is disembarking now, my lady.”

She forgot her antagonism instantly, and gestured for Oola to place her cloak across her shoulders. “Then I must hurry and join his majesty.”

Sir Brillon held out his hand. “Nay, my lady. There's no hurry. You're not requested to join the royal presence.”

“According to whom? You?”

“Nay, my lady. I merely follow orders.”

She tightened her lips to hold back a sarcastic retort. “Of course.”

“The gangway is narrow, my lady, and the rain makes it slippery. We must disembark in seemly order. His majesty first. Then the coffin. Then the other passengers in order of their importance.”

Pheresa's head snapped up, and the small cabin suddenly fell silent. Verine and Oola exchanged looks and busied themselves tidying and packing. Her lungs felt compressed by an iron weight, and her temples were throbbing. This was as open an insult as he'd ever given her.

She drew on her gloves with quick, angry tugs of the supple leather. “I am betrothed to the Prince of the Realm,” she said with quiet steeliness. “My place is with the king.”

Sir Brillon bowed. “Of course, my lady. You are to precede the passengers, but follow the coffin. Or such were the orders given to me. I but relay them.”

“Then let us go.”

He stepped back from the doorway, and she emerged into the cramped passageway that smelled of pine tar, damp, and musty tapestries. Small lamps hanging from chains illuminated the way dimly. She walked briskly to the steps leading up to the deck. Fresh air, moist with rain, gusted down into her face, and she filled her lungs gratefully.

Sir Brillon followed on her heels as she ascended the narrow steps, his spurs jingling quietly.

Topside, she emerged beneath a small awning that sheltered the steps from the weather. A curtain of rain swept the deck in a sudden downpour, making the crew swear and scurry. The deck, normally staid and quiet, with a protected seating area for watching the scenery at one end, was now a scene of chaos. Courtiers stood in the way of the crew placing the gangway across the narrow span of water between the barge and the palace.

Savroix's walls towered overhead, and when she glanced up, Pheresa could see the faces of guardsmen peering down at them from the battlements. This was the oldest section of the palace, and the most fortified. Right now, the massive gates stood open, and officials in rain-soaked finery hovered just inside them.

A fanfare of trumpets announced the king's presence. Pheresa saw him striding across the deck toward the gangplank. Verence's handsome looks had worn considerably on this journey. His shoulder-length hair was heavily streaked with gray. His remarkable green-and-blue eyes, normally so keen and lively, looked dull and weary today. He glanced at her as he strode by, but did not smile.

Pheresa hastened to lower herself in a curtsy, her heart pounding in sudden anticipation. He had noticed her, had looked her way. She had not spoken to him in many days. Would he now beckon for her to join him? Would this be at last the moment when she gained his favor?

The king nodded to her, and walked on with his officers and entourage close about him. Pheresa's heart sank to her slippers, yet at the same time a corner of her mind berated her for indulging in such foolish hopes. Now was not the time for his majesty to announce his next heir. She must be patient. She was the best candidate to succeed Gavril as next in line for the throne. Whom else could Verence choose? Yet his son must first be buried properly, with the full honors of state. When that was done, the new Heir to the Realm would be chosen and announced. She must give Verence time to finish his grieving.

The blaring trumpets faded before a solemn drumroll. Gavril's coffin, swathed in cloths of dark blue and silver, was hoisted from the bowels of the barge and placed across the shoulders of six church knights. Careful of their burden, they walked the rain-slick deck toward the gangway.

Conscious of many eyes watching her, Pheresa curtsied to the coffin as it was carried past her. The stink of Gavril's corruption polluted the air, and Pheresa involuntarily reached for the small purse of salt swinging from her girdle. Although
Gavril's remains had been salted and frozen in preparation for the journey southward, it had been a long journey indeed, a slow journey, delayed by winter weather and other difficulties. He was frozen no longer, and the rot of him was nearly unbearable no matter how much incense was burned to conceal the smell in the barge hold.

Shuddering, she knew she would never forget the horrors she'd survived in Nether. She could not inhale that terrible stench without thinking of Nonkind. The images of the soultaker destroying Gavril were burned into her memory. His screams still rang at times in her ears.

Fighting away such memories, she clutched her salt purse even tighter and forced herself out from beneath the awning to follow the coffin.

Sir Brillon hurried beside her, crowding her much too close.

She glared at him. “Keep your distance, sir!”

Another downpour drenched her in seconds. He moved even closer and held up a fold of his cloak to protect her. The rain thundered down with stinging force, and Pheresa faltered a moment, half-tempted to turn back to whatever shelter she could find.

Instead, she moved forward. Sir Brillon shouted something in her ear, but she could not make out what he said. She crossed the gangway, her feet sliding a little in the water that bounced on its surface. Lightning flashed overhead, making her squint, and thunder boomed, echoing between the river and the palace walls.

Then she was across, breathing hard, her clothing soaked and heavy, her slippers ruined and leaking water. She hurried through the tall gates into the spacious courtyard beyond. Everything was confusion, with courtiers running to duck out of the rain. Pheresa paid no attention to who disembarked after her. Instead, she glanced around, saw the coffin bearers carrying their burden through a different door than where the king had gone. She drew up the hood of her cloak and attempted to follow Verence, only to find Sir Brillon's arm pointing to her right.

“That's closer, my lady. Hurry!”

She saw a canopy stretched above a doorway and headed for it, hurrying now, almost running. More thunder boomed overhead, and the day was nearly black.

Moments later, she found herself beneath the canopy, gasping for breath and wiping water from her face with relief. “Thod above,” she said, shaking out her sodden skirts. “What a—”

“Inside, my lady,” Sir Brillon interrupted. He gestured at the doorway, where a priest was beckoning. “We must get you dry and warm at once.”

“Yes.” She glanced behind him in hopes of seeing where her attendants had gone, but Oola and Verine were not in sight. More people were spilling into the courtyard, along with knights and the servants in charge of unloading supplies and luggage. Pheresa hurried through the doorway, unfastening the ties of her cloak as she went. “Any passage will lead to the Grand Corridor from here. I shall want—”

She broke off in order to respond to the priest's respectful greeting.

“A fire for her ladyship,” Sir Brillon ordered.

A page in bright livery appeared and bowed to Pheresa. “This way, my lady.”

With a smile for the child, she followed willingly. All she could think about was getting to her state apartments and changing out of her wet garments. It was so chilly indoors she could see her breath. Gloom filled the passageway, for many of the sconce lamps were not yet lit. She smelled the faint scents of beeswax, wool, and incense. Far in the distance she could hear the muffled intonations of chantsong, pure in its adoration, beautiful.

BOOK: The Queen's Gambit
5.52Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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