Fog was creeping into the city, layering the grass in the early morning. Selera traced her name on the window absently as she surveyed the gardens. It never became too cold in Narayar, but fog was the first sign of approaching autumn. She pulled on her clothes slowly, watching an old gardener trudge through the frost-coated grass with a barrow.
Then she did a double-take, for Nicar emerged out of the mist behind the gardener – talking to, of all people, the Captain of the Guard. Wiping the fog from the window rapidly, she pressed her nose to the pane and watched with narrowed eyes. Nicar had been the first one who agreed that the Guard should not be told about this assassination conspiracy. Why, then, was he conversing so earnestly with the man? They walked the length of the garden – it took perhaps a minute – and then separated, the captain saluting Lord Nicar before walking briskly towards the stables. Nicar stuffed his hands in his coat pocket and stood, to all appearances, with his eyes closed for a minute. Then he walked back into the palace.
Selera sighed. She hated when she didn't know exactly what was going on. Someone knocked on the door – Rida, with her morning kaffee. The queen accepted the steaming jug of kaffee and the two cups (Rida always hinted that Selera should enjoy her morning drink with Mealc) and then sent the nurse out without even speaking to her. It had scarcely been a minute before another knock came at the door, a familiar peremptory rap.
"Your Majesty, it's Nicar." His voice was muffled through the door. "I have some – news."
His tone was bland, but she stiffened at once. Pulling on an overrobe hastily, she called, "Come in," expecting some tale of disaster.
Lord Nicar came in and closed the door behind him. Dark pouches rimmed his eyes; he looked very tired. For a moment, Selera imagined the reaction of her old governess if she imagined that the queen was in a closed room with an unmarried man. Nicar sighed and rubbed his chin. "It's Flin Cardif. He was shot yesterday, with an arrow – a poison arrow."
Selera stared blankly at him for a moment. Unconsciously, she drew her silk overrobe closer to her body. "What?"
"I know," Nicar said wryly. "He's fine though. Doctor Kenalbie bled him twice last night, and he has a fever now – a good sign, according to the physician. Can I sit down? I haven't slept most of the night."
"Of course," she said at once. "Do you want some kaffee? I was drinking –"
Selera turned to the little table by the window and poured steaming black kaffee into the extra ceramic cup, sensing that his eyes were on her. The simple domesticity of the task relaxed the atmosphere somewhat. Their fingers brushed together as she handed him the mug, making her leap back more abruptly than she had planned. He raised his eyebrow but luckily didn't comment.
She allowed him a minute to sip, and then said impatiently, "Tell me what's going on."
"Last night, Flin and Lissandra were out investigating. Lissandra managed to find out that the firebrands are not native Narayans, but apparently all other routes of investigation led to dead-ends. They were on Tailor's street at midnight or so, and some man – but neither of them saw the attacker properly, so even that is an assumption – shot an arrow at Flin and ran away. It was extraordinarily simple and nearly impossible to trace any ownership through the arrow."
"And it was poison? What type?"
"I forget the damned name, but it's from a frog that lives in the tropics down in the lowlands."
"A frog?" She stared at him incredulously. "Nicar, this is – what does this mean? Why would someone target Flin?"
"Well, as Flin helpfully pointed out, their investigations were hardly invisible. His idea was that the men they were probing – those troublemakers – thought he was being too nosy and decided to warn him off. The physician said there was not enough poison to kill, so we have to deduce that this was merely a warning."
Selera shivered. "Nic, I don't like this. Our opponent seems ruthless."
"Our opponent," Lord Nicar murmured. He took a long draught of kaffee and stared moodily at the dregs. "Yes, they seem to be targeting all of your allies, don't they?"
The queen abruptly changed the subject, hoping to startle an answer out of his Lordship. "I saw you down there with the captain."
"What?" Nicar said distractedly. "Yes, Osbeorn approached me about Danik. He was expressing doubts about Danik's presence. When I told him he was merely a precautionary bodyguard, he was displeased that the Guard was not consulted about this."
"I hope you nipped that in the bud. Osbeorn always was too self-important for my tastes."
"Not to worry, Selera. He will not be bringing that issue up any time soon. And – speaking of Danik – I'm expecting him any minute with a corpse. Well, ideally, it won't be a corpse, but he said if he tried it wouldn't be."
"You are babbling," Selera interrupted wonderingly.
He looked at her with definite humor in his eyes. The rare expression rendered him much more handsome and also rendered Selera breathless for a moment. "I haven't slept well for a while," Nicar said, his lips quirking.
For the third time that morning – it had to be a record – someone knocked at the door.
"It's Danik. I've got him."
"Ah, wonderful," Nicar said, standing elegantly. "Is he dead or alive?"
"Very much alive," Danik said grimly, throwing the door open and tossing a body into the room. "Very much unconscious, too."
"Did you have problems finding him?" Nicar said. He knelt and tilted the chin up professionally. "Ah, yes. You hit him on the back of the head?"
Selera tried not to feel disgusted, but there was a distinct stench rising from the man's tattered clothes, a mixture of stale whisky and horses. He did not seem to fit the description of any race. His skin was pale – which hinted at Western blood, perhaps Cliad or Haratan – but his eyes were slanted and his nose tiny and sharp. The Sorangese and the Yarrans usually had almond-shaped eyes, but it was the country of Yarr whose population owned sharp angular faces. Definitely he was not Narayan.
"He was elusive at first," Danik answered. As he spoke, the man stirred and groaned. The queen just stopped herself from recoiling as he opened bloodshot eyes. The effect made him look slightly insane.
"Ah, good," Danik said heartily. "I knew I hit him in the right spot."
The three of them watched the thug as he gathered his wits, and then the fear surfaced in those red-rimmed eyes. "Who's that?" he said roughly, his voice slightly blurred.
"Your enemies, I believe," Nicar said quietly. "Why did you try to kill the man Flin Cardif?"
Panic flickered briefly in his face. "I'm a hired thug. I hain't got a thing to do with –"
"Who paid you?"
"Dunno," he said shiftily. Selera sensed that he was lying, and from the way Nicar shifted menacingly, she knew that he felt the same thing.
"It would be in your best interests to tell us," Nicar warned.
"Is one of you Queen Selera?" he asked abruptly, watching Selera with something akin to hunger in his face. "I gots a message. In case I were caught, I was supposed to say that your life is in danger."
"I had a suspicion of that," Selera murmured. Though one part of her was casual enough about it, another part shuddered at the fact. Your life is in danger. If she thought about it too long, she would probably go crazy with paranoia. Now, with Flin hurt and his attacker sitting in her bedroom, she felt fear gnawing at the edges of her consciousness. Fear was a threatening, overpowering emotion. She must not think about it, or else she would lose all her nerve.
Nicar was losing his temper. "Who sent you?" he asked venomously.
The man on the floor leered, baring yellow teeth with a coating that looked like green moss growing on a few of them. "She did, Lord Nicar. You's Lord Nicar, isn't you? Then you know who she is."
Selera looked sharply at the nobleman, noting how his lips thinned at this. "What is he talking about, Nicar?" she demanded.
"Queen Ha'nai?" Lord Nicar said, ignoring her and focusing on the captive. "Is that who?"
"Not called Queen any more, is she now? It's more like 'Empress,'" the man sneered, twisting his lips into a grotesque grin. "Yeh, she said you would know – she said you were intelligent. But that's all I can tell you. There's nothing else to be said."
Nicar's lip curled in disgust. "Danik, take him down to the dungeon. Perhaps a few hours in chains will loosen his tongue a bit more."
Danik lifted the thug by the scruff of the neck as easily as he would lift a child. Saluting Selera, he made his way out of the room. The man yelped shrilly as Danik accidentally – or maybe it was on purpose – bumped him hard into the doorframe.
"Clumsy me," Danik said unrepetantly, and then he left.
Selera grinned briefly, but her mind was on Nicar's extraordinary pronouncement. "Queen Ha'nai, of Yarr?" She turned and faced his Lordship, who was staring at the door with an unfathomable expression on his face. "Will you explain now, before I get very angry?"
"I had a suspicion that this assassination plot stemmed from Yarr," Nicar said remotely. He moved backwards and sat down on the couch again. "It was reinforced by what Lissandra told me of their discoveries last night. The fact that the troublemakers are foreign. And when I was in Cliadis, I got a sense that the Yarran diplomats – they were gearing up for something. Perhaps it was your assassination."
"They can't do that," Selera said, appalled. "They can't violate the terms of the treaty so blatantly."
"There is no proof yet," Nicar said, looking at her at last. He looked even more exhausted. "It's not blatant at all."
"Why do they want to murder me?" Selera asked furiously. "I don't understand."
"She's calling herself Empress Ha'nai, now. Her imperial ambitions are well-known."
"I know they've always been land-hungry, but this is ridiculous. There is no chance they can just get rid of me and march in to take over Narayar. They don't know that I've named you the temporary successor – a sort of regent – so if I die before having children, you will protect Narayar, anyways." She noticed that she was pacing feverishly around the room and stopped herself. "Why don't they go after Harat or something? They are much less stable than we are."
"Harat is also much less desirable. You realize that with those copper and gold mines we found a few years ago, Narayar is quickly becoming the wealthiest country on the continent? Our climate, our crops, our ports –"
"But it's so unrealistic," Selera interrupted. "Our army isn't just going to sit there and wait for Yarr to invade."
"Well, they don't realize that we might have suspicions of Yarran involvement. They've tried to make it seem as though all that discontent was coming right from Narayar itself."
"They haven't tried very hard at all," Selera disagreed. "That imbecile just blurted out her name."
"That's true," Nicar said, frowning. "Maybe it's a red herring. Gods, this business is bloody confusing." He gazed into space for a moment and picked up his mug of kaffee. From his glum expression, she guessed it was cold.
Selera's mood was rapidly developing into a bad one. It wasn't a very nice feeling when some crazy woman calling herself Empress was leading her country in plotting Selera's own death. She massaged her temples, feeling a headache coming on.
Nicar sat up with an exclamation. "Oh, and I forgot to tell you. Word came early this mornign that your cousin is coming."
"Your cousin, Artor Lekang. And, ah, he is bringing your parents."
And she had thought things couldn't possibly get any worse.
Thank you BarnAngel56, ForWhatItsWorth, Aestas Memoriala, and Jessica Wright..
Yeah, school starts on Tuesday for me. Gross! Sorry if this chapter was a little uneventful, but there was some info in there that needed to be given.
Aestas Memoriala: Yeah, I have read Crown Duel. It's one of my favorite fantasy books.