He approached respectfully, cautiously. Warily.
She’d always been capricious, his queen. But of late, she was nothing less than unpredictable.
He knew why, of course: the new queen of Ludania.
He waited twenty paces from the throne, as was customary. She would speak first. Until then, his lips remained tightly sealed.
When at last he heard her voice—like the chords of a song, lovely and melodious—he knew her mood. Tolerant. Magnanimous.
Yet he couldn’t suppress the trepidation that always quivered in his belly during these brief encounters.
“Come closer,” she coaxed, and he found himself drawn toward her in the same way that some animals were drawn toward their brightly colored predators. “I can barely see you all the way back there. And I want so badly to see your face.”
He stepped closer, counting his paces in his head so as not to overstep that invisible barrier between respect and indiscretion, all the while allowing himself to fall prey to her seductive tone. “Yes, Your Majesty.” When he reached her, he had to quell the urge to bow, a habit he’d only recently developed. One that had been browbeaten into him in his new post.
Here, though, it wasn’t an action that would be tolerated.
Forcing himself to remain upright, he waited for her to explain why she’d summoned him.
“I hear she’s managed to take the throne fairly effortlessly.”
It wasn’t a question, and his mind grappled for the appropriate response, knowing full well he had best not answer incorrectly. “Not so effortlessly, Your Majesty. She still struggles with decorum and with balancing the new freedoms of her subjects. Not all are pleased by the changes she’s making.”
She considered his words and he could practically feel her mood easing. A knot unraveled within his own chest.
“I hear she has many who stand by her side, including Sabara’s own grandsons.”
His lips ticked up. He answered without hesitation, “They are male, Your Majesty. What does it matter if they support her reign?”
She smiled back at him, and he felt a surge of promise at having known the right response so quickly. He wasn’t stupid; he had only to trust his instincts.
“I hear,” the queen continued in her lilting voice, “that she is beautiful.”
At that he faltered. He knew what she wanted to be told, but to lie was unforgivable. He conjured an image of Queen Charlaina in his mind—her pale blond hair and shimmering blue eyes and skin that glowed even when she didn’t realize it was so. He tried to find some fault he could relay to his queen—something that wouldn’t reveal his forgery. Instead, he lowered his voice to a whisper, hoping she wouldn’t notice the apprehension hidden there. “Not half as beautiful as you, Your Majesty.”
That, at least, was not untrue. His queen was nothing if not striking.
And heartless, he realized, as she spoke her next words.
“I want her dead.” There was no change in her inflection; it was that same conversational banter. As if she were simply searching for information, prying for news, as she would with any good spy.
Yet even he knew this was no ordinary request.
He cocked his head, unsure what the proper reaction was now. “Dead,” he stated flatly, careful not to question the command.
Her lips bowed, ever so perfectly, making her look more like she was ordering dessert than an assassination. “Dead,” she said again. “You can handle that, can’t you?”
He took another step forward, no longer concerned with decorum. “And how do you propose I do that, Your Majesty? How do I get her away from her guards and her family and the contingent of soldiers who follow her every move? Are you expecting a suicide mission from me?”
“I thought you might ask that.” She raised her hand, a quick signal, and the door was opened. A young woman with tangled braids and dirt-covered clothing shoved her way inside. She was younger than the queen and himself, yet she carried herself with more confidence than both of them combined. She didn’t count her steps or wait for the queen to speak first.
She grinned when she saw him standing there. “Didn’t expect to find you here.” He couldn’t help noting that she sounded even less like their queen than the last time he’d seen her.
He bit his lip against the urge to tangle his hands around her braids and drag her up against him, yet he said nothing.
“The summit is approaching,” the queen responded, ignoring the brazen girl who stood insouciantly before her. “It’s been many decades since an invitation’s been extended to a queen of Ludania.” Her lips pursed, as if she were holding back a secret. “This year’s going to be different, however. This year the Vendor queen is to be summoned. And this year, she’ll have to leave the safety of her palace fortress to travel north.” She looked at each of them in turn. “I expect the two of you to find a way to stop her from reaching her destination. Understood?”
He didn’t dare hesitate, and he didn’t have any qualms about what he was being asked to do. It was an order, after all. “Of course, Your Majesty. Anything else?”
The queen’s gaze narrowed when she answered. “Keep her safe,” she explained, casting a quick glance at the girl with smudges on her face. “She might not want the part, but she’s still my sister, and a princess of this realm.”
The girl drew a razor-edged knife from her boot and flashed her teeth at the queen. “Don’t worry about me. I’m not the one who’ll need protecting.”