Queen Sabara drew the wool throw over her lap and smoothed it with her crooked fingers. She was too old for the chill, her skin too thin now—nearly paperlike—and her lean flesh clung to her tired bones.
Two servant girls entered the room, crouching low and speaking quietly to each other so as not to startle her where she sat.
It was ridiculous, she thought. She was aged, not skittish.
One of them—the newer of the two—foolishly reached for the switch on the wall that would turn on the electric lights overhead. The other girl stopped her just in time, clamping her fingers around the girl’s wrist before she could make that mistake. Clearly, she hadn’t been there long enough to know that her queen detested the glare of an electric bulb, that she much preferred candlelight.
Sabara watched the pair cautiously—her eyes sharp as ever—as they added more wood to the hearth and stoked the flames. After a moment, she turned to gaze through the wall of windows overlooking the verdant lawns of her estate.
She had much to think about and her heart was heavy, bearing the burden of a country in turmoil . . . her country. She couldn’t help wondering what would become of her throne if the rebel forces were not soon stopped. Already they were doing too much damage, and her body ached in sympathy from the injuries they’d done to her lands, and to her subjects.
She wondered how much more an old woman could bear.
But she once again reminded herself that she had no choice. If there had been another to take her place, she would gladly have stepped aside. The bitter truth was, there was no one.
This body had failed her, and she cursed it for providing her with just one heir, and a son at that. One lowly male child.
Then she silently cursed her only son, whose seed was more plentiful than her own, yet not one of them female.
Fools, all of them. Weak and lacking the skills required to rule a country . . . unable to provide her with what she needed.
If only the whispers from the past could be proved true. If only she could find the One, a survivor to the old throne, the lost heir who could succeed her. But even if such a girl did exist, the queen would have to find her first. Before her enemies could get to her.
Until then, or until another suitable child was born, she must remain in power. She must stay alive.
She scrutinized the servants as they went about their work, never casting a single glance in their queen’s direction. They understood their place in this world. When her chief adviser crashed through the doors, he barely drew their attention.
Sabara watched as he rushed forward and bowed low
before her, waiting impatiently until she gave him permission to rise again.
She stared at the top of his head, drawing out the time longer than was necessary, knowing that it made him uncomfortable, knowing that age made his back ache.
Finally she cleared her throat. “What is it, Baxter?” she intoned, giving him the signal to stand upright at last.
He cast a suspicious glance toward the servants in the room, and two pairs of eyes stared back at him. But the moment his words slipped into the cadence of the Royal language, both sets of eyes shot downward, anchoring to the floor beneath their feet.
“General Arnoff has gathered his troops along the eastern border. If Queen Elena insists on siding with the rebels, then she’ll have a fight on her hands. And blood on her conscience.” He paused, just long enough to take a steadying breath, before continuing. “But I fear we have a bigger problem.”
Anger simmered below the queen’s cool exterior. She shouldn’t be dealing with such matters. She shouldn’t be listening to war reports, or deciding which troops to sacrifice next, or wondering how long until the rebel factions would have her palace under siege. These should be the problems of a new ruler, not a decrepit old woman.
She watched the girl servant—the new one—and she willed the girl to raise her eyes, daring her to break not only etiquette, but law, by casting her gaze upward in the presence of a language above her own.
The girl had been in the queen’s service for only a couple of weeks, but that was long enough to be noticed, and long
enough to understand that her queen was not a forgiving one. She knew better than to look up at this moment, and she kept her eyes focused on her feet.
“Well, what is it? Say what you’ve come to say,” Sabara insisted, knowing he wouldn’t have disturbed her if he didn’t have news. Her eyes remained trained on the girl.
“Your Majesty,” Baxter groveled, bobbing his head respectfully. He was unaware that he did not have his queen’s full attention. “The rebellion grows stronger. We believe their numbers have doubled, possibly tripled. Last night they took out the train tracks between 3South and 5North. It was the last remaining trade line between the north and south, which means that even more villagers will be moving into the cities seeking food and supplies. It’ll take weeks to—”
Before Baxter could finish his sentence, Sabara was on her feet atop the dais, staring down at him. “These rebels are simple outcasts! Peasants! Are you telling me that an army of soldiers is incapable of shutting them down?”
And it was at that moment that the servant girl made her fatal error. Her head moved, only millimeters. The shift was barely perceptible, but her eyes . . .
. . . her eyes glanced upward in the presence of the queen’s words. Words she was unable to comprehend, and forbidden to acknowledge.
And the queen had been watching her.
Sabara’s lips tightened into a hard line, her breath becoming erratic. She quivered with excitement that she could barely contain. She’d been waiting for it.
Baxter must have realized something was happening, for
he remained where he was, frozen in time as he watched his queen lift her hand slowly, regally, into the air, signaling for the guards who stood beside the door.
The girl appeared too stunned to do anything but stare, like an animal caught in the sights of a hunter. Sabara had her cornered.
She thought about dealing with the girl herself, and her fingertips tingled in anticipation as her hand began to curl into its telltale fist. Were she a younger woman—stronger—it would have been effortless, a simple clenching of her fingers. The girl would be dead in seconds.
But as it was, she knew she couldn’t afford the energy it would cost her, so instead she uncurled her hand and made a quick, flicking gesture toward the condemned serving girl instead. “Send her to the gallows,” she commanded, switching to Englaise so that everyone in the room could understand. Her shoulders were stiff, her head high.
The guards strode toward the girl, who didn’t bother to fight them, or even to beg for mercy. She understood her breach. She knew the penalty.
The queen watched as the men escorted the girl from the room. It was the most alive she’d felt in ages.
She’d just discovered a new sport.