It's Fiction Friday! That means you get a piece of my original fiction... for free.
It's the second chapter of "Rose & Blade," a serialized story that is filled with Easter eggs connected to my novel "Children of Aerthwheel" and my book of short stories "Prismatica." Of course, I hope you read all of them.
As the story progresses, the chapters will be collected in a special page you can access up above the post beneath the site's banner.
And now... chapter two of "Rose & Blade."
Rose & Blade
The course of true love never did run smooth...
He followed the Queen through the private hall like a subservient dog eager for scraps or affection. As she paced, he followed a few feet behind, careful not to tread on the edges of her gown. When she did not speak, he cleared his throat and offered his advice.
“Now is the time to strike, Your Grace. Azariel's army has anchored over Sol Harbor in observance of his archaic holiday."
"And we are to strike then?" the queen asked. She stopped walking and glared at the advisor as if he might have suggested she leap from the window of her chamber. "We strike when our enemy is most unprepared for battle? When they are in celebration and worship?"
"It is the only time," he snarled.
"Were we a kingdom of savages, your argument might have some strength," the queen said. She turned on him and began to pace once more. "But savage we are not. This kingdom, home to my people and host to the only remaining magic in this world, will not lower itself to the standards of beasts. We wait and we fight when the time is right. With honor."
"Then we lose our numbers," the advisor said. His name was Astul and his father had been a much more civil military advisor, present when the Queen and Azariel had ruled together as younger lovers. Astul carried the ancient Book of Engagement under one arm. The text, which defined the standards of war as it had been waged over the past several centuries, was rarely opened by his hands.
He cast a trembling finger towards the entrance of the hall and hissed, "The soldiers, even the priests, are losing their patience, your majesty. They speak of weakness, fear, forgiveness. There are even rumors that you have begun practicing the rites and rituals of the Old Order. These are not the traits of a warrior queen."
"And you seem to forget the traits of a proper military advisor, Astul," the queen said. "Though you have, no doubt, spent your life learning the varied laws of engagement, you behave as a power-swollen tyrant. Azariel will enjoy his holiday, as should we all. The killing will come later."
She paused and glared at Astul with deep green eyes.
"And my spiritual affinities should be of no concern to you, Astul. I merely learn what my ill sister has taught me, do you understand? Perhaps you have no affinity for the ways of the Old Order. But should you read any of the histories of our dying land, you will understand that the practices of the Old Order were but a means of preventing monsters like Namenlos from taking power. Had more people understood this, we might not find ourselves trapped in a divided kingdom.”
Astul sneered and said, “The ferocious ease with which Namenlos tore our world asunder should be proof enough that the Old Order does not bare any significance, Your Majesty.”
“Believe what you will, Astul, and I shall do the same. Though I rule as a single leader, I am inspired by the democratic ways of the old ones. To each his own. This is the way a civil kingdom would live."
"A civil kingdom, perhaps," Astul said, nodding and clutching at the tome under his arm, "but such civility might be deemed too passive. The Ascended are vulnerable now because of this holiday. Why not take the opportunity to disable his armies? There is word he is building a great weapon."
"Probably a patchwork of the old machinery, covered in rust and entirely impotent. My spies will take this opportunity to gain his army's trust," the queen said. She led Astul out of the private hall and into a corridor that curved and curled like a waiting snake.
She chuckled to herself and said, "Perhaps the assassins will come closer to achieving their goals, too."
"You sent assassins?" Astul said with a dreadful grin. "This is splendid news. We may yet see the traitor Azariel take his last breath."
"The assassins are not to touch Lord Azariel," the queen said. "Their targets are the monstrous generals of Azariel's army, those mutant beasts who seek only to kill in the name of innovation. They are the cogs in his broken machine. When they fail, he will have no power."
"Forgive the forward nature of my tongue," Astul said, "but to let Azariel live would be like pointing the knife's tip at your own throat."
"As would be second-guessing your queen’s demands," she said with a final and chilling glare. They now stood outside of her own chamber room door, which was carved from a single piece of enormous wood from some faraway and ancient forest. She waved a hand in Astul’s face and said, "You are dismissed, Astul. Hide in the belly of this castle and play war games with your fellow advisors. I will send word when we strike against Azariel."
"As you wish, My Grace," Astul said, bowing and slithering away as the queen entered her private quarters.
The voice drifted across the queen's chamber as if carried on the backs of sick butterflies. It belonged to her ailing sister Deliera.
"You argue with your own advisor?"
"No," the queen said. "He argues with his queen."
Adelia O'Hare of the Midland Plains, queen of a fractured kingdom, shook herself out of the oppressive gown and robes she was forced to wear while walking the corridors of her own castle. In privacy, she chose to wear a loose and comfortable shirt identical to the kind she had worn as a penniless child on the streets so many years ago.
"You dress this way for me, sister queen?" Deliera asked. "You wish to comfort your dying blood?"
"I wish to comfort you," Adelia said, "but not with my clothing. I cannot stand the feel of these majestic garments. They have all the comfort of an old sheep's skin."
She sat on a dragonwood chest beside her sister's bed. The only physical link between them was the color of their eyes. Adelia's were the color of midyear foliage, green and deep. Deliera's were a softer green, and in the proper light, they seemed ringed by silver. Deliera's once-golden hair had gone white in her sickness and her skin was covered in a purplish patchwork crowded by miniscule blisters.
Healers believed she had taken the Elder’s Curse, a curious and eager disease that seemed to tear its victims apart from the inside. Many of the old ones had died of this very illness during and after the fracturing of Prismatica.
"Dear sister and truest advisor,” the queen whispered, “is there an end to this festering war? What do the spirits show you?"
An acrid odor surrounded the women as the queen stared at her sister’s soft green eyes. The hair on the queen’s neck went stiff and she felt gooseflesh ripple down both arms as Deliera took in a deep breath. Finally, the dying woman spoke.
"Perhaps the smoke is clearing," Deliera said. "My eyes, they don't see the outer realms as they once did. The sickness has blinded me in many ways. But I sense an end coming."
"As do I," Queen Adelia said, "and for that reason, I am frightened to the soul."
A hollow and thunderous knocking sound startled the queen to her feet.
"My queen," a servant said from the other side of her chamber door. He gasped for breath, "A package has arrived. It is for your eyes only. It is written for you on the parcel."
"Enter," the queen said. Her servant, a short and pale young man with no hair on his head, stepped into the room carrying a wooden chest. It might have held a full grown goose.
The queen expected nothing as pleasant.
"It comes from Azariel," the servant said.
She examined the exterior of the box quite carefully, then said, "The engravings are his own personal touch. Glyphs of the old machinist’s language. He always felt obligated to write in that archaic tongue. Crude, but to the point."
"Should we open this package, my queen?"
"Of course," Adelia said.
"You would do this by yourself?" Deliera asked.
"I have you at my side, sister. Surely your spirits’ eyes will guide me," the queen said. "And here we have a decent servant. I do not fear this gift.”
The sound of frantic footsteps filled the corridor outside the chamber room. Astul, out of breath and red from neck to forehead, marched into the room with two large armored guards following close behind.
"Boy!" Astul cried, grasping the servant by one arm and shaking him like a rag doll. "You bring this unknown parcel to the queen without any kind of preparation? No security? No guards? Are you daft?"
The servant winced and whimpered at Astul's scolding.
"Leave him be," Queen Adelia said. "If it is my fate to die this day, then I die. The course of my life is drawn before me. I follow the path of the wheel gladly, even to my death."
"Well, then," Deliera said with a great sigh, "let us open this box, sister. These theatrics are boring me."
The servant shook loose of Astul’s grasp and placed the box upon a granite table. He reached for it and then glanced at the queen, who simply nodded and smiled. He carefully worked each of the four latches. Taking a deep breath, he pulled open the wooden lid.
Inside, on a bed of old rose petals, was the severed and pale head of Ishmael Sundar, an armorer from West End.
The servant’s mouth went slack and he fainted where he stood.
Sundar's eyes were clouded white and his mouth was stuffed with a cocktail of withered eyeballs. The parcel’s sender had doused the head with a copious amount of perfumes, masking the stench that only now began drifting from within the box. A square of parchment was pinned to Ishmael's leather forehead.
"What does it say?" Deliera asked.
Astul plucked the message from the box and read it aloud.
"To My Sanguine Mistress: This man is a traitor to your cause and sought to belittle your name. I have taken the pleasure of ensuring that the lies on his tongue will be spied upon for eternity. You may thank me for this good deed when we meet again."
"Is there anything else?" the queen asked.
"Just his name," Astul said. "In machinist’s letters and written in dried blood."
The queen glared at the severed head and said, "The end, then. Astul, prepare forces to attack at the end of Azariel's cherished holiday. After the celebrations. Let him savor his stolen wine, at the very least."
"Yes, my queen," Astul said, bowing away and slipping into the corridor. The two guards removed the unconscious servant along with the severed head.
Queen Adelia leaned against the western window of her chamber. She closed her eyes and let the sun drench her face, warm and meticulous.
"Your love for him still burns?" Deliera asked.
The queen sighed and stared out into the western badlands of her kingdom.
"No true love is ever put to rest."