If thou be'st born to strange sights,
Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand days and nights,
Till age snow white hairs on thee,
Thou, when thou return'st, wilt tell me,
All strange wonders that befell thee,
Lives a woman true and fair.
- "Song" by John Donne
The Siren's Name
At the end of the room, all she could see was blue. The sea outside the window was awash with sunlight, showing off all the spectacular arrays of blue that Marcell knew from experience that it held.
They called it the Star Ocean, but in the day Marcell sometimes thought it should be called the Sapphire Ocean. If there were stars falling during the day, they weren't visible. The Star Ocean was a place which Marcell sometimes--very rarely, mind you--imagined that she must have been insane to give up. Somewhere out on that ocean was the Witch's Name, on which the former King and her lover were happily residing after passing on the throne to Marcell.
There was a knock on the bedroom door, and Marcell sighed. Time to go back down. "Enter," she called, and the door opened.
"Majesty, the Princess of Atlion and her retinue are here." Her main advisor stood just inside the doorway. Willian Baves was a tall, wide man, strong of arm and stronger of mind, which was how he had managed to remain one of the former King's main supporters while most of the Council had been trying to eliminate Digory so he could rule and they could stop dropping into sinkholes. Marcell often wondered why he hadn't fought her for the monarchship; why he had just stood aside quietly when Digory had marched in at the head of a column of Thenalium's best naval officers with the long-lost sword of Thenalium and the Witch at her side, and promptly installed Marcell on the throne. Later, Digory had introduced them and the four of them had had a long discussion about whether Willian still wanted to be King, at which point he had surprised all three of them by avowing an oath he had sworn to Digory's mother: one, that he would never take the throne over Digory's body, two, that he would support her claim for the throne no matter what and three, that no one could know about the oath. Digory had been shocked, to say the least, and then Willian had deepened the shock by casually mentioning that he really had never had any desire to the throne; that he'd rather spend his time counseling the ruler and taking his father's place as advisor.
So now here they were, and Marcell stared at Willian, mind working furiously. "Here--now?" she sputtered. A Princess. The Princess. The Princess of Atlion, a country that shared borders with neither Thenalium nor any of its neighboring kingdoms. Hopefully that meant that its rulers--and hopefully by extension its rulers' daughter--would be open to a marriage alliance between their kingdoms. It hadn't been that she wasn't expecting the Princess's arrival, it had been that the whole notion of entertaining a visiting princess hadn't quite been real--at least until now.
Willian nodded. "They are unpacking now, and her chief lady-in-waiting has informed me that the Princess remains willing to have dinner with you and the nobles tonight."
"Good, good." Marcell nodded. Tonight's dinner would hopefully let her get a good feel for Princess Aliaga. She had already received a small portrait of the Princess, which showed the woman to be tall, slender, with long brown hair that reached past her waist--or would have if it hadn't been twisted up into a complicated confection of curls atop her head. Marcell's initial glance at the painting had left her with the impression of a young woman, almost a girl, but Marcell knew better, that the Princess was older than she looked as she had been painted. Another glance at the portrait where it sat on the wall of her study reaffirmed her desire to formally meet Aliaga. She was indeed lovely, with piercing hazel eyes, and the tall fleethound that sat at her side and the bow on the wall behind her promised that she wasn't shallow; it wasn't even close to everything Marcell was hoping for, but it was one of several qualities that she knew she would appreciate. The initial envoy that the Queen of Atlion had sent had mentioned that Aliaga was interested in hunting, which also boded well for Marcell. "The plans for our interaction over the next week, do they include hawking?"
"Yes, sir. Might I also suggest adding a formal dinner between the two of you on the third night of her visit?" Willian suggested.
Marcell wanted to tell him not to bother, that she wanted to get to know Aliaga before scheduling a dinner, but staring into his eyes, she didn't see a point. Willian had years more experience than she did at serious political planning, even though she and Digory had been inseparable since they had been little and she'd had all the opportunities she'd ever wanted to watch Digory maneuver around the nobles. "Why?" she asked.
"Because it will look good to her keepers," Willian said bluntly, "and show that you aren't just doing this to satisfy the Council. You are interested in finding a wife, Marcell--everyone at court knows that--but there is a difference between the women you date for show and the women you date because there is a chance that you might find a match in one of them. It's not blindingly obvious however--you're too much of a gentleman for that--and we need to work to sharpen those lines a little so the Council will stop throwing women at you right and left."
Marcell had to admit that the idea was a good one, but she didn't want to commit to spending too much time with someone she hadn't met yet unless she knew that she was attracted to, especially when that time involved an intimate dinner where it was just the two of them, instead of hunting or hawking, which required less sharing of personal information and wasn't overly romantic.
Willian opened the door and ushered Marcell out and down the hall, back towards the throne room. As they walked he quietly informed her about additional supplicants who had come seeking assistance with their crops or homes, and matters that the travelling judges could not settle peacefully. Marcell sighed when he started describing a case about a pair of fishing villages who had failed to compromise on the matter of a hunted and beached whale. "Ye gods, I hate fishing villages," she murmured as they entered the throne room to a herald's announcement of the King's arrival.
Her arrival was greeted with general interest, but the tone was relaxed and less angry than it had been a year ago when she had first taken the throne. She had initially been greeted with anger, much of which had been directed at Digory for leaving her people without a ruler for so long, but some of it had been personal; after all, who was Marcell aside from a friend of the abdicating monarch, and what right had she to rule?
Winning over the people hadn't been easy, but it required less political maneuvering than daily life with the nobles did. Marcell had tried to win the hearts of her people, to be seen as a fair judge, and tact and watching Digory for nigh thirty years had made it simple. She had begun by beginning every session that involved settling disputes by ordering grievances by how she would need to act upon them. Complaints that required diplomacy, kindness, and understanding always came first in the day, followed by those involving money or theft. Next she would deal with larger issues between towns or nobles, but she always saved the harsher cases for last, to remind those watching that while she could be gentle and kind when the situation called for it, when needed she could be as ruthless as any. Today her last act was to pass judgment a horde of five raiders who had been marauding among the mining villages in the north, and as fit their crimes of rape and murder, she sentenced them to hang, and for the bodies to be left above crossroads near the villages they had plundered, as a warning to their fellows.
Her herald announced the end of today's petitions, and Marcell tensed, straightening up in her seat. "Princess Aliaga Yenmorn of Atlion, here to greet her Majesty King Marcell Seaster of Thenalium."
A tall brunette woman who greatly resembled the painting in Marcell's study glided across the floor. The way she moved gave Marcell the impression of grace, and her face greatly moved Marcell. She was indeed as lovely as her portrait, and as elegant and slim as a willow. There was no dog at her side, but the bevy of maidens who struggled to keep up with her testified that Aliaga was accustomed to moving swiftly. She dipped into a deep curtsey, bowing her head to display a small silver tiara set with emeralds. "Your Majesty," she said, showing off a husky voice that Marcell decided that she rather liked.
"Princess," Marcell said in return, straightening up a little more. "I trust you found your journey pleasant?"
"It was very enlightening, Majesty," Aliaga said. "Your country seems very bountiful at this time of year." One of her ladies in waiting leaned over and whispered something in her ear, and Aliaga's cheekbones darkened a little. "I also hope that this trip proves bountiful for both of our countries."
Marcell was nonplussed at what to say to that, and all she could manage was, "As do I, my lady." Marcell nodded at Aliaga, which signaled that the audience was over.
Aliaga and her entourage swept out of the Great Hall, and once the doors had closed behind the last of them Marcell gratefully stood, ready to go back to her rooms and prepare herself for tonight dinner. She wanted to look presentable, and though she hadn't been doing anything strenuous to make herself dirty, living on an ocean-locked ship for a seemingly interminable amount of time had rather cemented the notion that bathing very, very regularly was a Good Thing, especially when it involved soap and all the hot water she could want.
True to her wishes, she found a steaming bath waiting in her rooms, and after stripping she sank into it gratefully. The hot water eased her muscles where they had been tense with frustration. Why was it so hard for these farmers and fishing villages and miners to settle their own disputes without relying on the supreme word of the ruler to resolve things?
She scooped up a handful of soft soap from a ceramic dish that lay on the table near the tub and started scrubbing herself with it. As her fingers slid over her right arm, she hit a numb spot and shuddered. A white, ropy scar curved around her arm just below her shoulder, and below it much of her arm was numb in spots. Most people didn't know that when Marcell danced with a woman she couldn't feel the softness of their fingers in her hand, for her palm was numb, and that there were stretches of unfeeling skin from Marcell's wrist to the scar that varied in size. It made wearing silk and similar fabrics extremely annoying, for she couldn't feel the cloth touching her skin in the dead areas, and then it would slide across a live patch of skin and surprise her. The only sensations she could feel in the numb areas were extreme heat and extreme cold, and pressure. Simple sensations like the bark of trees being rough she could tell because it look longer to drag her palm across it, but the slipperiness of silk and the roughness of wool were beyond her. She could still grip a sword or draw an arrow on a bow, but she had to constantly remind herself to keep a tight hold. And all because of a stupid piece of slate. The best healers in Thenalium had looked at it and pronounced it as healed as it was going to get. They could try to cut it open again and reknit the nerves, but it had been deemed risky, and could cause more damage than there already was. Since there shouldn't have been any more fighting, Marcell didn't see the point in taking the risk for something she was already learning to live with. She dripped more soap onto her arm and watched it run over two dead areas. The soap slid across her skin and she couldn't feel it unless there was pressure behind it, pushing it into her skin. Marcell plunged her arm into the water and scrubbed the soap away. She washed all four inches of her hair, finished her bath and got out. A towel was warming on a rack by the fire and she used it to dry off, reveling in the feel of soft, warmed wool on her shoulders.
She looked at the water clock and realized that she still had an hour before she was to meet her higher nobles, the envoy from Atlion, and Aliaga and her retinue for dinner. There was a set of clothes laid out upon the bed; she assumed that one of the servants had brought it in while she'd been bathing in the other room. She eyed the fireplace that connected the rooms and wondered how she hadn't heard the woman. Shrugging, she decided to put on part of the outfit now and finish the rest later. She put on the black pants and white undershirt and left the coat. The servants probably wouldn't come in to usher her downstairs until a half-hour before the dinner, so she decided to relax for a while and not put on the undoubtedly uncomfortable coat. It was rather heavy with gilding and stiff with being pressed as well, and she wondered brei. Her desk in the other room held several books that she had been meaning to read, but between portraits of this Princess and Councilors wanting to push their own agenda and her own general exhaustion, she hadn't been able to spend much time perusing them.
The portrait on the wall drew her eyes, and she wondered again about Aliaga and what the woman was like outside of playing the role of a Princess. What did she want? Marcell knew what she herself wanted, and it wasn't to have to spend endless days dealing with a Council that had barely stopped fighting her every order. She enjoyed ruling Thenalium, and making good on her promise to Digory that she could be a good monarch who tried to be her best for her people, but she wanted something more for her. She wanted courtship that didn't involve an endless line of portraits, lineage, and interests being paraded before her, along with the sighs that came when she turned them down--Oh how it was such a bother finding Princesses that would be willing to be courted by another woman, even one such as Marcell, and couldn't she just try a little?
But what she wanted--oh, what she wanted most of all--was a woman--a partner, really, who wanted her for who she was, not the crown that sat upon her head. Marcell wanted a partner who she could call her own; someone who would be as much of a partner as a lover, and someone who could take care of herself. She didn't want to be just some stupid portrait to these women who were coming from all the Kingdoms beyond the pale, or someone with a crown to all the women who were coming from in-Kingdom.
Most of the Councilors were probably fervently praying for a match between Marcell and Aliaga. It would mean better trade opportunities; even though Atlion didn't border Thenalium, it would give Thenalium access to several of the trade markets to the east, and if there was ever a war it would mean that Atlion would be obliged to help defend Thenalium. The intricacies of what the Council wanted warred with what Marcell herself wanted, and she felt a headache coming on.
The couch in her study seemed to call to her, and she resigned the books to another time and sat down, sinking into the lush pillows gratefully. The day's exhaustion seemed to hit her then, and she decided that taking a little nap would be a fantastic idea.
A hand on her shoulder shook her into wakefulness, and Marcell jerked awake, wincing. Her left shoulder was sore from the way she'd fallen asleep on it, and her neck hurt, too. It was a wonderful way to start the evening. Willian eyed her. "Tired, sir?"
"Marcell, please, Willian," Marcell groaned as she pulled herself away from the too-comfortable couch. Willian helped her up, then gestured a manservant forward. The man was holding out the stiff coat that Marcell had foregone before, and she was suddenly grateful she hadn't fallen asleep in it; it would have been terribly wrinkled by now.
Sighing, she turned her back to the man and he helped her into the coat. He had to help her with the fastenings across the front; with the fingers on her right hand next to useless for dexterous work like this, it would have taken her thrice the time it took him to fasten the dolman across her front.
With the coat on, she had to admit that she looked handsome, unless the mirror was lying. Her manservant fussed over her hair and nails more than she ever had in her life, but the end result was attractive, and Willian was clearly satisfied. She glanced out the window; it was past twilight now. The Star Ocean was remaining true to its name; even the short glance Marcell was giving it now rewarded her with the view of a bright trail of a falling star and she wished it luck in its journey. She gave herself a last once-over in the mirror before nodding at Willian, and the two of them left the room for the main dining hall.
A/N: You may have already guessed, but this is the sequel to The Witch's Name. This probably isn't going to pull heavily from it, but if you want to read about how Marcell's arm got injured and you want to find out who Jill and Digory are, it's a good place to start.