Author’s Note: It is a very thin line between the ugly reality of the queen’s situation and the horror of it. I have tried not to descend too much into that realm of horror and balance that with a realistic look at what she would be facing. Unfortunately, the balance could tip so easily if she made even one mistake, and I almost regret placing her in this position, but it was one of the original premises of the story, her marriage to the king, so I don’t know how I’d have a story without it.
Still… I feel a bit sorry for her, as I should, since I put her in this position.
“I think Agache is too easily distracted. He said we should strategize, but I do not think he offered any real solution to anything I am about to face. Again we talked of matters unimportant to this meeting or of things that I already knew,” the queen said, her head low as she walked toward the throne room. She did not want to speak at a volume anyone besides Anokii might hear, and she knew she’d already misspoken, having used Agache’s name when she should not have.
“One could believe that he is still feverish,” Anokii suggested. “Or that he is a poor leader. Or perhaps he expects you to know what he intends to discuss.”
“When you return, will you make him rest again? I do not think he is at all well, and he does not seem to want to heal. I know that what happens now with the king will mean a great deal in what is to come, but if he is not willing to stop long enough to let himself recover, he will not be there to see it if the king does happen to fall.”
“I suppose now I am telling you things that you already know.”
“I appreciate your concern for him. Most in your place would not care.”
The queen glanced at Anokii, hidden and suffering under that cloak in this heat, and shook her head. “You are used to the Biskane. They have no regard for anyone but themselves, at least those that I have seen. I think the commoners may have more heart than those of court, but I assure you, it is not like this in my land.”
“Would you know? As a princess, surely your reach there was as limited as it is here.”
She frowned, uncertain why Agache had not explained to Anokii and Gekin who the queen was, what being esibani meant. She did not understand his reasons for a great many things, though, and she would have to learn more of him if she hoped to guess at the way his mind worked.
Anokii moved forward, opening the door, and the queen turned her eyes to face the throne, holding her head up as she started down the carpeted path—of course the king could not tread upon simple stone, not ever—but she could only like the padding for the way it stopped the sound of her shoes from echoing. She hated making a lot of noise, since she was meant to be quiet and unobserved—at least, that was what the esibani were trained for, being the queen was something else entirely.
She stopped near the end of the carpet and dropped to a curtsey, bowing her head before the king, and she heard him laugh as she rose. She tried not to react to his mockery. He was the sort that demanded those displays and yet refused to acknowledge them with the same respect that he demanded they be given.
He grabbed her arm as she finished. “So, you have learned a bit of deference since I have been gone. Do I have Malzhi to thank for that?”
She glanced toward the minister, and he grinned at her. Bagquin. He was trying to get her killed, was he? She glared back before addressing the king. “No. His instruction was unwelcome and unnecessary.”
“And yet you wear a new trinket.”
“An old one. From my mother. The underside of the metal betrays its age if you should like to examine it.”
The king studied her, taking hold of her face in such a manner that she thought he might crush her jaw with only a few fingers. “There is still much defiance in you, isn’t there? There, in your eyes, I see it and not fear.”
“I suppose if we had been closer allies before this treaty, you would have heard many tales of the pretty princess Zaze and her prideful ways. It was quite the talk in my land.”
“You are considered pretty in your land?”
That made him laugh, and he let go of her face, moving his hand down so that she could take his arm. “Come. Those that remain of the new troops are to swear their oaths today, and you will be at my side when they do.”
She bowed her head, and he covered her hand with his, the grip almost as crushing as the last one had been. He wanted her to cry out, was that it? She did not know if that was what he expected—no part of her wanted to give that to him—if she had been able to get more out of Agache, perhaps she would know if she should be more docile and submissive, but if she was, would that matter? She did not know that it would fool the king one bit if she pretended to be scared.
She was scared, but she didn’t think it showed as much as he felt it should.
“You do not plan to have them swear loyalty to me, too, do you?”
The king frowned at her. “Now why would you ask me that?”
“I assume you to be a man that expects to be the absolute sovereign, and I think we both know why the treaty was made, don’t we? Surely such an oath would conflict with both of those goals.”
He reached up to put his hand on the back of her neck, leaning in to her, his breath hot against her skin. “I assure you—I shall take great pleasure in killing you when the time comes, my dear.”
She believed him. He would delight in it, since he seemed to enjoy killing as well as creating fear in all around him. He reveled in his cruelty, didn’t he? She knew he must, if everyone feared him more than they did Malzhi, and she had known before she came here that he wanted her dead.
The king dragged her close, getting a small cry past her lips before he covered them with his. She struggled to breathe in his hold, trying not to gag on him and whatever foul thing he had last eaten, not wanting to panic. If he went for more than a kiss, if he decided to exercise his rights as her husband, she could not stop him, but she had been holding onto the hope that he would not, and that, at least, had sustained her so far. If he took that away now, if he forced that upon her, she did not know that any sort of obligation to her people would sustain her already wounded spirit.
He let go, and she stumbled, her bad ankle twisting as she did. She straightened up and found his eyes roaming her body, as he shook his head in disgust. “They should have sent a prettier one. You are too thin. Too much like those damn birds you came from. Pity. There is something to your taste.”
“You mean I am enough like a raw bird for your enjoyment?”
He laughed. “You are a foolish, defiant thing, but despite that, you manage to amuse me. I think we shall have to train you properly, but you might be of use.”