I awoke disoriented. My body sank into perfect softness, my cheeks were pressed against smooth pillows covered with the best cotton gold could procure. For a wild, panicked moment, I thought I was in Ren's harem. Then, I heard the waves crash outside, the ceaseless roar of the sea and I remembered the strange events of the night before.
Opening my eyes, I propped myself on my elbows and slowly lifted a small portion of the curtains around my bed. After I had ascertained that no one was in the room, I sat up and swung my legs off the bed.
I walked to the large, carved doors of my chambers. The doorknobs were metal, shaped ornately in startling mimicry of the thin, scalloped shells children liked to collect from the sand. Futilely, I put my hand on one and turned. I was not surprised to find that it was locked. I'd tried it several times during the night. Just then, the doorknob turned on its own accord and I hastily stepped back as Duke Pryus appeared.
"You're awake," he observed, closing the door behind him. "Good." He walked around me and approached the window. The palace clung to the cliff that jutted into the water. Looking outside the window, it seemed as if we were standing in the middle of the sea. Despite the fact that no one could possibly be outside the window listening in, Pryus looked out, then hastily closed the curtains. The room instantly dimmed.
He turned to face me, crossing his hands behind his back. "You will be robed, and you will make an appearance in front of the court and the Deshretan dignitaries."
"And King Cicario—he will be there?" I blurted before I could stop myself. My situation was not so bad. I'd gone over the details again and again in my head. If I could just reach Amon or Cicario, if I could just tell them my predicament…
"Yes, he will," he nodded, speaking slowly as his eyes flitted over my face suspiciously. "But you will not be allowed to speak. I will speak for you." He approached me. Up close, I could see the thin imperfections on his face, the beginnings of lines between his brows—wrinkles from plotting, no doubt, I thought scathingly.
For a long moment, he simply looked at me. "It's remarkable," he finally whispered. His hand rose and rested on my shoulders, then grazed down along my arm. His gaze seemed almost tender. "You look so much like her."
"Are the servants not suspicious," I asked, flinching away from him, "that you are spending so much time alone in the Queen's chambers?"
"No," he said uncaring with his a shake of his head. "I am the Queen's Keeper. It's not uncommon for me to have private audiences with her. Anyway, any such vicious gossip as you're insinuating couldn't arise. Everyone knows the Queen is promised to another and that I stand to gain from the marriage. The Deshretan wealth, to be exact, which should be enough to check the desire of any man." His face was tense as he said this, his lips twisted in a wry smile.
"The Queen is promised to Cicario?" I asked slowly. "That's why he's here? To wed her?"
"If all goes well," he nodded. "It took much negotiations and diplomacy to have him consider a marriage."
"What happened to his first wife?"
Why send me a note at all, if he intended on being wed? Why pick open old scars for no reason?
He looked impatient. "The peasant girl has so many questions. You're almost as bad as Evalette."
He had no intention of answering my questions. It was in his best interest to keep me knowing as little as possible. After all, I was just a pawn to him, like I was to Ren, and a pawn that knows the game strategy would realize at a certain point that it'll need to sacrifice itself to advance the game. No wonder the real Queen ran. She must have been a pawn that no longer wanted to operate under this Duke's thumb.
"Just answer me this." I made myself as tall as possible. I was already rather tall. I'd grown since leaving Deshret. I could see the Duke eye-to-eye, looking into his brown eyes with my own. "What happens to you if it's discovered you replaced the real Queen?"
At worst, he would be hanged as a traitor to the country. At best, he would be hanged as a traitor to the country. We were implicated in this together and I wanted him to know that I realized that.
He ran his eyes coldly over me, his face stony. At last, he smiled a small, thin, smile. "You're not as empty-headed as I thought," he began slowly. "If we're discovered, we would both die. You and I together. But," he paused here, "only one of us has the power to be rid of the other. You're not the only girl who has the Queen's stature. Step out of line and I will have you killed and replaced."
His smile widened at the thought and he brought his hand up and slowly tucked a lock of hair behind my ear, then traced his fingers against my jawline. "So pretty, just like Evalette," he murmured to me. "Now, I'm going to send my servants in and they will help you dress. We're going to hold court and the queen usually does not speak a word."
He turned and headed to the door, turning the scalloped handle and stepping out. He motioned lazily to the servants, and they came in a blur of blue dresses. The servants quickly began to ready me for court, combing my hair, readying royal green tunic and pants, dabbing perfumed oil at my wrists.
I was silent, thinking furiously. Five years ago, I may have been a sixteen year old girl who could only helplessly follow Ren's orders. But I was stronger than that, now, and I'd promised myself when I was freed as a slave that I would never again live life by someone else's orders.
I knew my time was short. Once they found the real queen, I would just be a loose thread Duke Pryus needs to snip. I needed to leave the palace. As my future betrothed, it couldn't be difficult to gain a private audience with Cicario.
The Queen of Mait walks with a veil over her face most times. I blew at mine and the white, thin fabric fluttered, then went back to tickling my nose.
"Stop that," Duke Pryus muttered to me sharply. He was walking a step behind me and we were surrounded by an entourage of guards. The palace was large, bright, with tall, arches and legends of the sea sculpted into the marble beams.
"Her Majesty, Queen Evalette of Mait," the sentries at the door announced. "His Highness Duke Pryus, the Queen's Keeper."
We walked into the throne room, with the nobles facing us, their skins all varying shades of dusky red, standing starkly against the white stones of the palace walls.
When I first arrived in Mait, I loved the feeling of anonymity, of not being gawked at as the slave girl from a faraway land, with the exotic colored skin. Now, their eyes were on me again, acknowledging my dark green tunic, and the slim, shining crown I wore, made of white, bleached whalebone, gilded at the ends with gold.
Following Duke Pryus' orders, I slowly walked the length of the room and ascended the throne silently. Turning, I faced the nobles and gave them a slow nod before sitting down. Duke Pryus stood beside me, and I took his silence as approval that I'd done my job well.
A woman came forth. She wore clothing in the style of Deshret. I imagined that she must have been the Deshretan ambassador. "The King of Deshret would like to present to Your Majesty some tokens from his home country, as a sign of gratitude for the hospitality you're showing him during his stay here."
"We welcome them," Duke Pryus replied. I was surprised that he could speak on behalf of the Queen, but no one else seemed to find this strange. It must be widely accepted that the Queen's Keeper is the real power on the throne. The woman nodded and retreated to the crowd.
The throne room doors were opened. My hands lay calmly on my knees, but I felt my breath catch in my chest and I could hear my heart thumping loudly in my ears. Duke Pryus had said that the presenting of the gifts was a short, customary procedure of visiting diplomats. In Deshret's case, it was to showcase their wealth.
I saw Cicario's figure appear at the doorway, appearing in royal white robes. He hadn't changed very much at all. His jaw was firmer, his features sharper, but his grey eyes remained the same. Amon followed him, red hair still untamed, looking as fiercely protective as ever. I tried to look for signs of worry, or dark circles on Cicario's face. After all, he was supposed to visit Aliana the night before, and Aliana had not appeared. I wondered if he was worried about me, or decided that I merely hadn't come. Through the veil, I couldn't see the details of his face very well, and I wondered how Queen Evalette liked having her vision obstructed at all times.
I stood as he walked forth, and he stopped at the bottom of the dias. I smiled, though I doubted he could tell. Damn this veil.
"Thank you...my Queen, and thank you to the people of Mait for receiving us. We are delighted to be in your country," Cicario began. He spoke haltingly, choosing to use Mait's local language over the common tongue. It was a fine show of diplomacy to endear himself to the Mait people, who knew their language was increasingly being replaced by the common tongue with each generation.
I grinned, knowing he couldn't see. I was always better at foreign tongues than Cicario, even when we were spending our time reading together in Deshret.
More servants from Deshret started filtering into the room. This time, they had thick arms, bringing with them cases laden with gifts.
"Gold, from new colonies," Cicario announced. He indicated the case that floated by. "Sweet wine...silk from temples…and dates...much sweet."
Cicario's language tutor was probably beside himself at Cicario's poor command of Mait grammar. I let out a chortle before I could stop myself.
"Dates not please your majesty?" Cicario asked, raising an eyebrow. He looked up expectantly at me. As a visitor to court, he must not yet have realized that all questions were directed at Duke Pryus, the Queen's Keeper, and not at the Queen in court.
Duke Pryus cleared his throat to speak.
"I know the Deshreti dates only grow in lands cultivated by your monks, using secret watering methods passed on through the centuries. I imagine they must be as sweet as caramel," I cut in, in perfect, smooth Mait. I remembered the candy that Cicario had passed into my hand, all those years ago, right before I rode away from him and from Deshret. For hours afterward, as I cried on horseback, I'd clung to them in my hand. I doubted Cicario would have forgotten my fondness for candy.
A soft murmur went through the court. Beside me, Duke Pryus tensed and I could almost feel his anger for speaking when he had expressedly forbidden me to. I may have acted too rashly, but I needed to draw Cicario's attention.
"Your Majesty knows much about Deshret," Cicario replied in Mait, before faltering and returning to the common tongue. "There is still much I have to learn about Mait, and I look forward to more opportunities to learn more."
"Perhaps an observance of the traditional plays of Mait," the woman whom I assumed was the ambassador suggested. She looked delighted at this new development and bowed toward Cicario. "The theater of Mait is renowned for its stirring masterpieces. Perhaps your majesty would like to attend and invite Queen Evalette to join. It would be a gesture to the people of Mait and garner goodwill should there be a joining of matrimony between the monarchs of our two great lands."
Cicario nodded politely, his face still poised in the perfect, practiced smile of diplomacy. "Of course, I would be delighted to attend." He turned to me. "And I would be honored to have Queen Evalette by my side to show me the wonders of Mait theater."
Duke Pryus's hand flew to the back of my throne. This exchange had grown entirely out of his control, but an invitation by the powerful, foreign King was something I knew he could not refuse for me, especially if it helped to seal the marriage to Cicario. "Of course the Queen will accept such an invitation," he nodded.
I inclined my head, just barely, my veil skimming my collarbone. "It'd be my pleasure."
The rest of the presentation of Deshret's tokens occurred without incident, and I sat silently in observance, stony-faced behind my veil. Meanwhile, from the tenseness of the Duke's body beside me, I knew I had his displeasure to look forward to once this was over.