Excerpt for Landscape Magic by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

By R.J. Price

Seat of Magic


Sit Pretty

Dark Spirits

Highest Lord

A Seat of Magic Novel



R.J. Price

Copyright 2017 R.J. Price

Front Cover Design by Masoumeh Tavakoli

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual events or people, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

All Rights Reserved. This book may not be reproduced in part or whole without written permission except in the case of small quotes for reviews, articles, or essays.

Chapter One

They sat in the war room in awkward silence.

The table they sat at was old. Some antique thing that was little more than a few rough planks nailed together and then into four feet. Time and use had worn the table’s surface to an almost smooth finish. The chairs they sat on were mismatched, from different eras.

Er and Url sat together, with Gamen across the table from them. Van sat near the opposite end, obviously feeling out of place from the warriors sitting at the table. Jer sat at the other end, almost at the head of the table.

Jer didn’t know how he knew that, just like he didn’t know why they were all sitting in awkward silence. He did know that the silence affected the warriors at the table, and Van, being a queen, simply remained silent because the others were also silent.

Van adjusted in his seat, which creaked under his weight as he moved. Jer turned to Van as the other warriors looked down the table at him. The Western Baron went red, then paled considerably and attempted to ease his weight back into the chair without causing more noise.

The war room hadn’t been used since before Jer was born. Possibly even before his father had been born. The last war that the palace had marched to had happened when Telm was a girl. It had been so long ago that the room had been overtaken by the servant women. They had grudgingly given it back to the warriors, but only after Jer had found Telm and had her command the servants to leave.

Because apparently being steward to the court and brother to the mate to the throne meant nothing to them.

The doors to the war room opened, and Av walked in, glaring at the doors as he went.

“Those things are supposed to creak,” Av growled under his breath.

Amused, Jer waited until Av made eye contact with him before he spoke up. “The women thought it frightening that it creaked when they came and went, so they oiled the hinges.”

Av pulled to a sudden stop, surprise playing over his features. Either he hadn’t realized he had spoken, or the women taking over the war room was news to him.

Behind Av, Aren walked in.

Even though Er and Url’s backs were to the door, the two stiffened at Aren’s entrance.

The queen walked past Av and to the table, pulling the warrior out of his startled silence. Av’s eyes watched Aren move to the head of the table and take the seat that should have gone to him. There was hunger in those eyes as they flitted from Aren, then to the others sitting at the table, looking for any sign of rebellion.

“Van, you surprise me,” Av said as he walked to Aren, stepping behind the queen and setting a hand on her shoulder. “Why wouldn’t you bring Ella with you? She does, after all, represent that which we need to discuss: War.”

“I am the Baron, thus I will speak for my people,” Van said quietly, though he didn’t sound sure of himself in the least.

This was a warrior thing. It was what they were bred to do. Queens only mucked things up, made things worse because they were always stopping to whine about innocents and commoners and how slaughtering one’s enemies was foolish.

“You brought Aren,” Van said in a higher pitch than he normally used, accusing Av of a double standard.

“And she knows that here, in this place, it is my word that is law, not hers,” Av said sternly.

Aren shuddered and pushed back into the chair. Av set his free hand on her other shoulder. So much could be interpreted from that silent shudder.

Jer tried to dismiss the motion, but found himself focusing on it the more he tried to ignore.

“It’s too late now,” Url murmured, keeping his eyes on the table. “At least for this meeting. Van can bring her for the next one, or the one after.”

“Very well, what are we discussing at this meeting?” Av asked. “Does anyone know how to plan a war?”

“Uh…” Jer cleared his throat and adjusted in his seat. “I have Laeder looking it up for us. Unless he marches onto palace land, we have to gather an army then march down on him. To do otherwise is stupid, foolhardy, foolish, and only an imbecile of the highest order wouldn’t at least try to make some military strategy before marching into war against commoners who have obviously been planning this thing for years and might do something like the anvil. Or, so I’ve been told.”

“What is an anvil in war?” Av asked.

“Like a smithy’s hammer strikes an anvil, so would the army march on the enemy,” Van said from the other end of the table. “Perhaps as the only one of us who is not a warrior, it was in my best interest to study matters of war and history. Jer is correct, commoners who march against ranks have plans and great numbers. Conscripts usually.”

“What’s a conscript?” Aren asked.

“A man forced to war by his lord,” Van said. “I have a small army of conscripts. All commoners, prisoners who would have been put to death otherwise. They serve in small functions against the western lands.”

“I thought palace lands were all there was to this land?” Aren said, sounding confused.

“There are lands outside of palace lands,” Gamen said sternly.

The Eastern Baron looked around the table as if asking the others if Aren were truly that stupid.

“No, I know there are lands across the sea,” Aren responded. “But there are other lands attached to what was once palace lands, that is what you’re telling me?”

“Yes, that is what I’m telling you,” Van said.

The two queens met eyes and Aren frowned. It was very much a look that Jer expected to see on the face of a woman her age. Confusion at learning something that changed her view of the world. It was incomprehensible to her that there were other lands attached to her land.

The lands.

Jer reminded himself that what had once been palace lands were split still.

“Then we need an accounting of men,” Aren said slowly. “Palace lands have few ranks. A majority of those ranks reside here, at the palace and the village an hour’s walk away.”

“There’s also the commune,” Av said to the table. “But those are queens and healers who were outed by Em. Many of them are powerful, but we would not want them going to war. They are too damaged to see the difference between the enemy and their own men.”

“I have many ranks,” Van said quickly. “Good, strong blood. Ella has made her wishes known. She will ride with the army.”

Er made a scoffing sound. “You have many ranks of different sorts. The North is where your army will come from, Av. Good strong blood, warriors mainly. Let Van provide the healers. We will provide the fighters.”

“Except…” Url said, glancing over at Jer.

War took time. Bringing an army together took months or even years. Av didn’t have the patience to sit about while men gathered. Jer was surprised his brother had even managed to come to a meeting to start planning a war.

“Except?” Aren asked.

“We are warriors, Lady Aren,” Er said quickly. “The relationship between queen and warrior is different in the North. Certainly, there are the youth who will demand to go to war and those warriors who call to blood more strongly than others. But if you want real loyalty, if you want men to follow you, you need to draw them in.”

“You—” Gamen gaped at Er from across the table. “You want her to do a calling?”

“That is how it is done in the North,” Er said.

“Yes, but your queens call your warriors to protect them. They march up to the men they grew up with, grab them by the ear and tell them that if a single hair is hurt on the heads of the commoner children, they will be held personally responsible. A queen from an outside land cannot call warriors.”

“Olea did,” Van said.

The table was quiet a moment.

“Olea is a queen above any other,” Gamen responded quietly, keeping his eyes on the table. He looked up only to glare at Er. “What you propose is taking an untried, unblooded woman north and praying that she can handle her magic enough to stand toe-to-toe with your queens. You pray that she will be able to draw warriors in. The girl can barely control the lights. She has no grasp of what it truly is to be a queen, and you want the fate of the lands to rest on her being able to call warriors? Are you mad?”

“The throne created me, just like it did Olea,” Aren said to Gamen. “I am her replacement, and if the throne found me lacking in any fashion, it would have simply used me to draw her here, then killed me and forced itself upon her. I do believe that your words be ignored.”

“Olea is not you, you are not Olea,” Gamen said. “That is a woman who walks into a room and commands attention, even when she was young, on her first visit to the North. You simpered in the corner and waited for a warrior to come and claim you. You, Lady Aren, are a damsel-in-distress. Lady Olea was given that label and cast it off, daring any man to try to place it upon her again.”

Aren’s mouth opened to protest. Then it closed again. Jer saw something pass over her features, but couldn’t tell what it was that she was thinking. The room felt darker, gloomier. Like a hole that would swallow them all, if they didn’t get out, and get out now.

Jer found himself standing before he realized what he was doing. He had to fight the instinct to run, to keep himself in place as the others looked at him for an explanation.

“Yes, Er, you’re mad for proposing the idea as if it were as simple as going north,” Jer said, then turned to Gamen. “But you’re a damned fool for saying such a thing to a queen. You grew up around several queens. Av making such a mistake, all right, I could see that. But you, Gamen? No woman deserves to be spoken to in such a manner unless she tells you outright that you’re an imbecile of the highest order, and even then, you do not use an emotional barb.”

Gamen looked furious, but they were all on edge. They had gathered to plan war, and they all knew that war was still a long time off.

The baron of the East gritted his teeth but forced himself to relax. “I apologize for my outburst, Lady Aren.”

“Now, that being said…” Jer turned to Aren and saw that she was on the brink of tears.

He didn’t understand why Gamen’s words had affected her in such a manner, but he knew he couldn’t focus on that. If he did, he’d end up attacking Gamen, and then Av would realize what was going on and probably hurt Jer in his attempt to reach the Eastern baron. Instead, he focused his attention on Av, who was watching Jer with that look on his face.

The one that made the guards check their weapons. The one that said that Av was very aware of his mate’s mood and whatever was said in the next few moments would determine whether Gamen remained amongst the living, or was borne to the spirits.

“It will be months before the warriors gather, and the two of you are newly mated,” Jer said finally. “I would strongly encourage you to visit the North, which has just rejoined palace lands. Speak with the youth there, see if they want to go to war and if you can rally them, by all means. But also just take some time with one another. If I recall correctly, the North has a tradition as such, yes?”

Er flinched when Av turned his attention from Jer to Er. The Northern Baron swallowed hard and ever so slowly turned to Av.

“Honeymoon, it’s called,” Er said to Av, keeping his eyes somewhere about Av’s shoulders. “I would be delighted to host the pair of you for it. It lasts a month, normally and, as Jer says, if you do rally the youth, then so be it. It would gladden many hearts to see the one who sits the throne walk amongst them rather than simply have her send commands.”

“I want to see my palace,” Aren said distantly.

“It’s mine, and you can’t have it back,” Url growled half-heartedly.

The growl drew Aren out of her mood. Anger replaced the sullen silence of before as she glared at the warrior who dared claim what she thought rightfully hers.

“I would just like to point out that we did not take the entire palace, just some of it,” Er said very quickly.

Van looked at Jer and opened his mouth to speak. Jer gave his head the barest shake. Van would direct them back to talk of war, and they needed to avoid that for the moment.

Talk of war would fuel Gamen’s annoyance and might drive Aren back to that point of tears. None of them needed to deal with that aftermath.

“Why don’t we draw this meeting there?” Jer asked, turning to his brother. “We can all come to the next meeting with actual numbers. You know,”—he turned to the barons—“those little symbols that tell others how many people will be in the army to fight the war?”

Except he was talking to three other warriors and an already irritated queen. Van glared at Jer as the other warriors growled at him.

“Jer’s right,” Av said. “We need to know how many ranks you will all be sending for this war. We may need to conscript commoners.”

“We wouldn’t conscript, we’d make a call,” Jer said. “Lords like sending their younger sons to battle and such, on and so forth.”

“Whatever it is he just said,” Av said. “You need to bring us numbers, and think. If you can’t do that, then you’re no use in war. And if you aren’t going to be useful, you will serve at the back of the army with the prostitutes.”

“Prostitutes?” Aren squeaked out.

“Yes, darling, prostitutes, or loose women in general,” Av said quietly.

“Breeders are very likely,” Jer said. “Those wanting strong blood for their children. Women following an army always happens and if we provide women willing to go to bed with the ranks marching on the enemy, there is a lesser chance of the warriors being—”

“Overcome by instinct,” Van finished.

“Do we have to feed them too?” Aren demanded of Jer.

“Um…” Jer frowned at Av, who looked up at the ceiling. “Not really. They earn their keep. The army won’t exactly have the coin to pay the women. We will pay them from the treasury but only if they return, and on the way, they have to earn their food.”

“That’s so wrong.”

“The men are earning their food by killing people,” Jer said.

“But they get fed all the way out,” Aren responded.

“If we hire prostitutes, we can talk to them about it then,” Av said. “Like anyone hired for a task, we will draw up a contract that is suitable to their desires as well as our own.”

“What about protection for them, should they change their minds?” Aren asked. “If they quit.”

She was asking a table of men.

“Or the women who might travel with them? If healers go, they will protect themselves, but what about the commoners who tag along as cooks and washers? Who will keep commoners safe when the army marches through? Who will hold the warriors to their honour? How many villages am I going to have to allow to be razed? I’d rather none at all. It is not the fault of the commoners that their baron has decided to go to war with palace lands.”

“The men will care for themselves,” Av said finally. “There would be no cooks, or if there are, they will be men.”

“Who will protect the squires, then?” Aren asked. “The young boys, the adolescents who are of legal age, technically, but far from home and no longer under their fathers’ protection?”

“No one is going to be seducing boys,” Gamen protested.

“Your boys will be going to war, Gamen. What if Jer becomes lonely and takes one of them to his bed?” Aren asked.

“Jer doesn’t do a one-night stand,” Av and Url said at the same time.

Then any other warrior in the army. You just said you need to put prostitutes in the army to keep the men from razing villages and I would forbid them from doing just that. You cannot send along an army of prostitutes to keep an army of men busy. There would not be enough women to go around.”

“By the spirits,” Van said in a disgusted tone. “I think she’s actually right.”

“I want to know who will protect the innocents when those who are meant to protect them fail at doing so.”

“I will,” Av said. “As well as the men sitting here at this table. As well as Lerd, who will no doubt join us, and Ella. And who knows how many other warriors who will follow us with loyalty beyond that of a promise to bleed a man of his life.”

“That is why a queen does the calling,” Er said gently. “In order to draw those who would do her bidding above all else. That is one reason why I want you to come north. Those sitting at this table, yes, would do their best. But those who call to a queen are a great deal more likely to stay loyal, and you have few loyal to you. Let me show you off to a land of warriors. They could all call to you and then there’d be no concerns about the innocents.

“Come north with us. See the land that has rejoined yours.”

Aren was quiet a long moment, then she said, “I will think about it.”

Chapter Two

Aren lounged in an armchair. Her back was against one side, bare legs dangling over the other. Av watched her, several feet away. His arms were crossed before him, irritation in every line of his body.

He wanted to touch her, but she hadn’t given him permission.

It wasn’t that they had agreed to do this, that she would give him permission to touch her. It simply seemed to have happened once they entered the room. Perhaps Av had picked up on her mood in the room when Gamen had called her a damsel-in-distress.

She didn’t want to be a damsel-in-distress. She hadn’t just waited around for Av to save her. She had had every intention of leaving the palace on her way to independence. He was the one who had stopped her and gotten in the way.

Aren sighed and looked away from Av.

“You’re naked,” he said pointedly.

“I felt the dress was constraining,” she responded, running a finger up her leg, then down it.

She liked how that felt. She wondered what it would feel like if it were Av’s finger on her, instead of her own.

Aren looked back at Av, whose eyes were on the finger as it trailed up her leg, towards her belly. She saw the intake of breath, the flush to his skin.

“Why are they sending us north?” Aren asked, lifting her hand and dropping it onto the back of the seat.

“Get me out of the way, likely,” Av said, shifting closer to Aren. “The last time Jer took me hunting I almost stabbed him, I was so eager to bleed something. War is, well, it takes time to organize, as he pointed out. It would be best to have something to do, and up north they would be better prepared to deal with one with my mood.”

“So this honeymoon thing that Er mentioned is a story?” Aren asked.

“Oh no, it’s very real. Nearly any lord up there will open his home to a newly mated couple. They get a private room, fed and clothed, and get to spend the next month or so worrying about nothing more than one another.”

“For year matings as well?” Aren asked.

“No.” Av shook his head. “But I think it would be appropriate for us.”

“But there’s Anue and Danya and—”

“I don’t want you to talk about other women when you’re naked,” Av said through gritted teeth.

“Oh?” Aren asked.

She trailed her finger down her leg and watched Av’s breath quicken. There was something about driving that reaction out of Av that delighted her in ways she could not put words to. Just before her finger touched her hip, she lifted it and set it on the back of the chair once more.

“Prostitutes?” she asked.

“Those are women.”

“Prostitutes can also be men,” she said pointedly.

“I don’t know about armies specifically, that’s a Jer thing.”

“You will be leading the army,” she said. “You need to learn how an army works.”

“B-but I don’t want to!” Av protested. “I just want to stab people.”

She groaned and dropped her legs off the side of the chair. “You sound like such a child.”

“I sound like a child?” Av demanded.

“You grew up on palace lands, of course, you haven’t actually grown up. You’re stuck in the adolescent mentality and not planning for the future. Why weren’t you finished in another land?”

“That’s for lords and ladies,” Av said with a growl. “I am neither of those things.”

Well, your parents should have sent you somewhere so that you could shed this stupid belief that stabbing people in the face is the way to go. How is it that Jer grew up and you never did?”

“He’s been through a lot,” Av protested.

“And since becoming a man the only thing you’ve done apart from him, the only difficult thing you’ve ever done, was put your mother on a pyre.”

“I take offence to that!”

“We’re going north,” Aren said with a shake of her head.

She stood and walked to the bathing room for the robe that hung on the inside of the door. As she pulled it on, she turned back to Av. The man was frowning at her.

“I will never understand women,” he said.

“I’m annoyed with you.”

“I get that. I don’t understand why.”

“You’d rather just stab people,” Aren said, then huffed out a breath. “I thought I had mated a leader, but apparently all I did was found myself a follower. Great, exactly what I need when I sit the throne.”

“I don’t follow anyone!” Av bellowed.

Well, you can’t lead without a thought between your ears.”

Av just stared at her. Aren moved around him, tying her robe furiously as she laid eyes on Wena standing by the door, eyes downcast.

“I didn’t realize you were there,” Aren said, feeling heat flushing her face.

She had just been naked; how long had Wena been there?

“If you’d prefer, I can knock upon entrance,” Wena said to the floor.

“That might make me think someone wants to visit,” Aren grumbled.

“I will think of something else,” Wena said.

“Good, because I don’t want to subject you to that again unless you are helping me with a bath.”

“How long was Wena there?” Av demanded from behind Aren.

“She is my servant, not yours,” Aren snapped back at him.

“Warriors start fighting when war is mentioned,” Wena said quietly to Aren.

“Then why did she start the fight with me?” Av asked.

“Do I look like a wise old woman?” Wena snapped back. “Do I really? I look like I’m older than I am, is that what you are saying, Lord Av?”

“Stop!” Aren said, stepping between the two of them. “Wena, go see Telm about us heading north for a month, see what we need to know about everything.”

“As you wish, Lady Aren.”

Aren waited for Wena to leave, then turned to Av, who shook his head at her and looked confused.

“First you argue with me, then she does,” he said with a motion to the door. “Is the entire staff going to beat me about the head every time we have a little tiff?”

“Probably, yes.”

Av swore.

“Since I was taken by the throne, I have had to do a great many things which I did not want to do. Such as staying at court, almost being mated to Laeder, being claimed by a warrior as if I had not a thought in my mind—”

“I told you that you could say no at any time.”

“And be subjected to another attempted mating to a lord I have no interest in?” Aren asked. “I am interested in you, Lord Av, but make no mistake, I had no choice but mate you. Now that we are mated I have expectations of you. I expect you to lead all the time. Not some of the time, all of it. Which means leading the army we are sending south to die for us. You cannot lead an army if you have no idea how it works.”

“I can lead, I do lead,” Av protested.

“Learn how an army works, learn why we need a cog and what it’s doing in that place, and then learn how much it costs and how cheap we can get it before its construction would be more trouble than the coin we saved.”

“You know I don’t have a head for numbers.”

“And you know that I never wanted the throne. We don’t always get what we want.”

“Don’t get to see you naked and I have to learn numbers,” Av grumbled. He stopped, still as could be for a moment before he whimpered out, “Did you fake it all?”

“What?” Aren demanded.

“The sex, did you fake that?”

“Oh, for the love of— no! I find you attractive, I am interested in you, but what did I tell you when I was first taken by the throne?”

“You had no intention of ever mating because you wanted to be free,” Av said. The warrior mulled over his words. “So you do like the sex, all of that is real, but if it feels like there’s no love, it’s because there isn’t. You had no choice but mate me, or live a very complicated life. That makes me feel very stupid.”

“You didn’t mate me for love,” Aren said.

“No,” he said slowly. “No, I suppose you’re right. I mated you because you are mine. Our vows said nothing about love. I’m glad we settled that out.”

“Don’t be crude,” Aren said. “Our vows said nothing about love because we don’t love each other. That doesn’t mean we won’t end up loving each other and it certainly doesn’t mean the honeymoon is over before it began. And certainly, we have more to build on than most couples do going into a mating. My father mated my mother to keep himself out of debt, and she mated him because he was the only one who would put up with her. And then they still had to have children.”

“We at least have lust, you mean?” Av asked.

“We could have a great deal more.”

“But only if I change things about myself.”

“Oh, Av. We both need to change. We both need to grow up. That love of myth and legend, it doesn’t exist. We aren’t country folk who have the option of falling in love and then falling into bed. We will make strong children one day, and that’s the best we can promise one another. Anything else is just extra.”

“I see,” he said quietly.

“What are you thinking about?” she asked. “I can’t tell, your face has gone all still, and you seem to be brooding something over.”

“I’m very, very confused,” Av muttered.

“You should have just agreed to learn how an army runs,” Aren countered.

“That part I get, if I had just done that we wouldn’t be having this conversation, but it’s one we still needed to have. I suppose I was chasing after what my parents have, but having that with you is impossible, I see that now.”

Aren felt a cold wash over her. “What are you saying?”

“That my parents loved one another devoutly.”

“Just because a mating doesn’t start with love doesn’t mean that love won’t grow.”

“Why are you panicking?”

“I’m not panicking,” she said quickly.

“Really? Because your wrist seems attached to the wall.”

Aren turned to the wall, where the manacle was trying to latch onto the plaster. It couldn’t find purchase, but she could feel the magic reaching outward, trying to find something solid to latch onto. She snatched her wrist away from the wall and held it protectively against herself.

She had been panicking. She had been on the verge of some terrible feeling because Av said that they would never have what his parents had.

Why? Why had she felt like that?

“Did I upset you when I said that we wouldn’t have what my parents had?” Av asked.


“Why?” he asked.

“Because they loved each other, and if you can’t love me then no one can, and I’ll die sad and alone and—” And suddenly she was crying.

Why was she crying? Why couldn’t she stop crying? She would not cry over something so stupid. She would not cry.

Aren wiped away her tears and looked up. Av had come to stand less than a hand span away. The pity on his face made her start crying again, and she didn’t understand why.

“I hate feeling!” she screamed.

“I know, feeling hurts,” he said, pulling her towards him. “Van did mention something about relearning things and it causing confusion and frustration, but I expected things to melt, not for you to cry. All because you believe you’re going to die sad and alone and unloved?”

“Yes,” she said weakly against him.

“That’s kind of a stupid thing to think. Even if we had never met, Anue loves you. Mie loves you, like only a young warrior who hasn’t seen how dark the world can be could. I’m pretty certain Url has a very strong feeling towards you, but I wouldn’t quite call that love yet. I hope. Otherwise, I’ll have to stab him.”

Aren almost giggled despite the tears. She rubbed at her eyes, not liking the conflicting emotions.

“I need to talk to Danya.”

“That’s fine by me, but you have to know that she can’t come north with us. Someone might take pity on her and try to do what they think is the right thing.”

“What do you mean, the right thing?”

“She’s physically blind, and most people are stupid. I don’t want to risk her life taking her north, and I’m pretty certain Telm won’t allow it. If Olea has met her yet, oh goodness me, it would be a bloodbath just suggesting it.”

“But I need Danya, she helps me,” Aren said.

“You need her alive more than anything else. A month without her isn’t going to kill you, and I’m pretty certain she’ll tell you the same thing. You’ve spent longer away from Mar.”

“Mar can’t do what Danya can do. I’ve told Danya things, which I’d never tell Mar.”

Aren looked up and saw something pass over Av’s face. She wasn’t entirely certain what it was, but she was fairly certain that she could make the leaping conclusion without being too far off the mark.

“Oh no, you do not get to try to talk to her and figure out what we talk about.”

“I don’t need to talk to her to know because I’ve spoken with her before. She has a way of calming a body and pointing them to the truth.”

“Exactly, she helped me lots with feelings and stuff.”

“When you came back after the winter, you giggled. I’m not going to argue against you seeing Danya when you’re both in the same place,” Av said quickly.

“And you will not try to get information from her.”

“I swear I will not try to question Danya on what the two of you talk about. Considering the two of you haven’t spoken since coming back, not really anyhow, the exercise would be pointless.”

“That’s because I forgot about her for a little bit.”

“And for some reason, she didn’t take offence to that. So a month away will not be that difficult.”

“Maybe it won’t be...” Aren muttered.

“By the way, why did your wrist go to the wall?” Av asked.

“Nothing, no reason, just nervous habit is all.”

“Aren, if there’s another reason, I need to know about it, there’s no other way I can protect you.”

“There is no other reason.”

“If you say so,” Av said carefully, as if considering his next words. “I should probably see my father about making arrangements for him to look after Anue. You should see Danya and Anue. Probably see to Mie as well. If you leave without telling him, he will never let you forget it. I did that once, and the next time I saw him he punched me right in the crotch. Highly unpleasant, and I imagine with his strength it would also be unpleasant for a woman.”

Chapter Three

Jer sat across from his father, then turned to frown as his uncle sat beside him.

“Honeymoon makes it sound happy and festive,” Jer said accusingly.

He didn’t want, nor did he need, Aren and Av coming down on him once they discovered that the ‘honeymoon’ was to settle disputes outside of the view of friends and relatives. It would give them the time to become acquainted with the idea that they were now mated to one another and it had not been about love.

“They started fighting,” a female voice said from the door before it closed very quickly.

“Wonder what he said?” Ervam muttered under his breath.

“Why do you assume he said it?” Er asked.

Ervam gave Jer a questioning look. They hadn’t had a chance yet to talk about what had gone on inside the war room.

“As you said, they walked in united,” Er said, drawing the trainer’s eyes to him. “Aren was cleaved off when Gamen accused her of being a damsel-in-distress. I do believe the lady was blind to her own inaction, or at the very least thought she was standing for herself.”

“You don’t show her the cage,” Ervam snapped.

“Which is what your boy here pointed out, thankfully without showing her any more,” Er grumbled, adjusting in his seat. “Gamen’s on edge, the barons have always led their armies, and now they are only invited to war through me. Which usually means they serve beside me, but I won’t be going to war. And if anyone can find out why, that would be fabulous.”

“Probably the leg,” Ervam said quietly.

“How would she know about my leg?” Er demanded.

“What’s wrong with your leg?” Jer asked.

“Nothing,” the brothers said as one.

Jer hoped that when he and Av were their ages, they would be able to speak as one despite years apart. He also hoped that they could do it a great deal more convincingly rather than relying on a silent threat to keep someone from questioning further.

“What is up with that united front? Em and I fought like cats and dogs when we first mated, for ten years, constantly.”

“They are putting on a good public face. I’ll give them that,” Ervam said.

“They’ve only just started fighting,” Jer reminded the pair of them.

Er shrugged. “She’s been told she can’t act the way she wants without a mate; she now has one. He’s been told many times that without a queen a warrior cannot act in the fashion in which he wishes to act. Now he has a queen and is mated to her. I’m certain that we will see a change in them.”

“The court thought Aren was firm when she came back from the winter?” Ervam said with a chuckle. “Wait until they see him act at the slightest rebellion.”

“Should I be warning the servants?” Jer asked.

“Goodness no, they know,” Ervam said sternly. “Telm would as well. And Av will settle down eventually, but for now, he has a new toy that no one else has.”

“As long as they make it through the honeymoon,” Er grumbled. “Once the flurries settled and Olea realized we were mated, she nearly took my head off. The only thing that stopped her was Ervam here. Put her through a wall.”

“Please tell me it was a paper wall or something,” Jer said.

“Thin wood,” Ervam muttered. “Er’s the one who then attempted to put me through an actual wall.”

Queens like the chase and the whole mating bit. But when the dust settles, they realize their chosen mate didn’t bring them flowers or trinkets, he didn’t sweep her off her feet in a non-literal sense, that they’ve never danced or introduced one another to the other’s parents, didn’t do what women do with their lovers. They get angry,” Er said sternly. “I don’t blame them, not one bit. But the one man who wooed one of my daughters had weak blood and no place mingling his line with ours and no actual desire to do so, he was false. The instinct a queen has at hopping into bed with a man is a clear indication of how long their relationship will last.”

“Technically Aren didn’t hop into bed with Av,” Jer said. “Av threw her into bed, and she just neglected to voice consent. We know she didn’t have a problem with it because he’s still alive, and Telm…um…Telm did that thing she does.”

“Starts eyeing the young men as if she’s going to bite them,” Ervam said, filling in for Er. “After so long with her, I think that’s her sex-face.”

Er grimaced. Jer made a face as well at the thought.

“Given her history with men, it wouldn’t be a wonder that she looks like that,” Jer muttered.

“Have you ever heard of the warrior tossing the queen and not the other way around?” Ervam asked his brother.

“You and Mirmae?” Er asked in response. “Let’s face it, you were trying to run in the other direction, and that woman had her eye on you despite every other warrior trying to get in her way. We tell our boys she did the tossing, not you, as a lesson that with the rise of the queen rank amongst our people, they will not always choose warriors and the rest of us must learn to stand back and let them.”

Warrior tossing a queen, you just gave an example of a queen tossing an entirely different rank!” Ervam bellowed.

“Oh, right,” Er said with a frown.

“Why do you want to talk about Mother?” Jer asked his uncle.

“Must have been Gamen’s comment,” Er said.

“He compared Aren to Olea,” Jer said pointedly.

Ervam sighed loudly. “He didn’t.” The trainer made a disapproving sound as the two warriors turned to him. “Av. He must have compared their relationship to mine and Mirmae’s. Er’s always been a little more sensitive to a queen’s moods.”

“Olea says that’s why we have such a good relationship,” Er grumbled defensively.

Av walked into the room without knocking. “Good, you’re all here. We’ve agreed to head north. She has concerns about Anue and Danya. She seemed to say that she wanted to bring Danya with us.”

“What happened?” Ervam demanded.

“We argued and all of a sudden she started saying she was going to die alone.”

“Everyone dies alone,” Er said.

“I didn’t tell her that, that’s madness,” Av said with a snarl. “I told her that there were people who loved her. The problem was that she started weeping over this idea, which I didn’t tell her, that she said herself. When I asked her why, she repeated it and started crying again. By the spirits, what did I mate?”

“A half-broken queen,” Jer said.

“Who is learning to feel again,” Ervam said. “She’s shut out her emotions for so long that there are bound to be explosions as she does feel.”

“Olea cries if she thinks you meant anything about her not being good enough,” Er said cautiously. “Doesn’t matter that you didn’t. Just bursts into tears.”

“It got better over time, didn’t it?” Ervam asked his brother.

“Certainly, it doesn’t happen as often, but she decided to deal with the emotion by getting angry,” Er said. “Sometimes that’s a good thing. Sometimes it’s a bad thing. I can definitely handle an angry woman better than a weeping one, but still. Why do they cry at the drop of a word?”

“Women!” Av said loudly.

“Women from disturbing pasts,” Ervam said pointedly.

“Please,” Av said. “You had a disturbing past. Jer had a disturbing past. I don’t see him weeping any time someone mentions that he’s sad and alone without Em.”

“I’m not alone,” Jer said in his defence.

To which, three sets of identical eyes focused on him. He should have known better than to leave off the sad portion of his words. Ranks picked up on that sort of thing, and while it was usually queens who would pick apart the words, warriors sometimes caught on when their loved ones were involved.

“What?” he said, deciding to play stupid.

“Please tell me that you don’t cry because Em is gone,” Av demanded.

“She was a large part of my life, Av. Despite everything, we had a child together. We spent most of our days together. There is a great deal of history there that cannot simply be forgotten.”

“You have Laeder!”

“Whom I love dearly, but my mate has been dead only a season. Mother died more than ten years ago. I don’t see you getting upset with Father.”

“I did,” Av said.

“He did, and then he broke a rib,” Ervam said with a growl.

“That was not because you were still grieving, that was because you were stupid,” Av said sternly.

“He broke your rib?” Er demanded. “A warrior broke the rib of a trainer? Ervam, have you been to see a healer yet? A proper healer?”

“I’m fine, Nae saw to me,” Ervam responded.

They were all silent for a long moment.

“No, Danya cannot come north with us, at least not until she is better situated with using her magic to see,” Er said quietly, changing the topic. “Anue should stay here. Stability is key for a young queen, especially one who has been removed from a home. We’ve done rescues before. Moving them about, even for visits, can lay the foundation for a life of believing they belong nowhere.”

“There’s no question about Anue staying here,” Av said. “She’ll be safer here. I think Aren’s concern is raising her sister. I also think that she doesn’t believe that she and I raising Anue is acceptable.”

“Aren is going through a lot right now, and burdening her with an impressionable child is not going to help her or the child,” Ervam said quietly.

“Well, the only ones we trust that much would be yourself and Telm,” Av said in response.

“That’s fine. I can care for Anue at least until the pair of you get back from the North, and then we can revisit the issue.”

“Er just said she needs stability, you’re already raising her,” Av said.

“I never wanted a daughter,” Ervam countered. “They’re mean, manipulative, violent, and the queens tend to make things even more uncomfortable when they start using magic. And then I have to deal with the boys trying to get her into bed and the men trying to mate her when they’ve no damned place doing anything of the sort.”

“Mm, well, you’ll be looking after Anue, so get used to the idea,” Av grumbled.

Av sighed and dropped into an available chair. He stared off at nothing as Jer watched him struggle with something.

“She thinks I act like a child,” Av said finally.

“You do,” Er responded.

“She thinks it’s because I grew up on palace grounds and have never seen the outside world,” Av responded, turning to the baron. “That I’ve never done anything difficult in my life and so never grew up.”

“It’s very possible,” Er said quietly. “When I get together with my childhood friends, we still cause havoc, and Olea has, more than once, said that we’re worse than my children. Did you also get a lecture about being a leader?”

“She called me a follower and then questioned what sort of children I might produce,” Av said through gritted teeth.

“Why?” Ervam asked. “Your blood is excellent, producing strong warriors generation after generation. The few queens who have been born were also good, strong queens. I was considered the runt of the family, and I produced two strong warriors.”

“One that’s stupid and the other was cowed by a woman and then the court,” Er grumbled.

“I’m not stupid,” Av snapped.

You were cowed by a woman and then the court!” Er shouted back.

“Did you just call me stupid?” Jer demanded, not believing what he was hearing, not understanding how he had somehow been dragged back into the conversation.

“And Aren hasn’t cowed me,” Av protested.

“Em cowed you, then the court did once she died,” Er responded sternly.

Av was quiet a moment, then he nodded. “I suppose I deserve that.”

“I’m still not stupid,” Jer shouted.

“You are, you’re a moron,” Er said dismissively before he focused on Av. “What did you say to her to start this?”

“She said I had to know how an army worked and I said I just wanted to stab people,” Av said.

Er flinched and sucked a breath in through clenched teeth. “She’s right, you do need to learn that. No doubt you said no because of the numbers involved.”

“And the reports and reading,” Av said, looking frustrated. “I can read, I can do numbers, but not that well.”

“That’s why queens and warriors are supposed to work in tandem,” Er said. “I’m not all that great with numbers, but Olea is. However, if I didn’t know that I needed wheat to feed the army, she’d tell me the same thing. We can work on that while you visit. It will settle her mind if she sees you learning from someone who has seen battle, even if it was more skirmishes than an actual war.”

“I don’t need to know how many bundles of wheat I need, do I?” Av asked.

“It would be helpful to at least have a rough idea,” Er said. “If your second comes to you and says you need to raid a village because you only have so much food left, you need to know whether you truly need to raid that village. And if it’s an enemy village, you need to know when to unleash the bleeders and when to trade.”

“What’s a bleeder?” Av asked, frowning at Er, then looking around the baron to Jer, who could only shake his head in response.

“Palace warriors may call them something else, but they are the warriors who haven’t quenched their bloodlust. There are always bleeders in a group, and you need to be able to pick them out and know when to let them loose in a village, even if it means a few commoners will die. Don’t let them off and they’ll go home and murder their own families, ravage their village, and start civil uprising before they can be put down. It’s a balance.”

“Jer didn’t know what a bleeder was either,” Av said, motioning to Jer.

“I am steward, not mate to the throne,” Jer growled through gritted teeth. “I know about how much wheat we need and how long it should last, as well as how to transport it so that you can make it to the other side and be able to stab people.”

“Bad food means sick men, means a weak army,” Er said to Av sternly.

“Who doesn’t know that bad food means sick men?” Av asked.

“The concern isn’t knowing that, it’s knowing how to prevent that. Just as you know getting stabbed is a bad thing for your health, but you need to know how to stop it from happening.”

Av mulled over Er’s words. The room was quiet as Av focused on the floor, a frown creasing his brow. Finally, Av looked back up at Er.

“This seems unnecessarily complicated.”

“When you’re fighting against a commoner army which will, without a doubt, be larger than your own, you need to think before you strike. They count on you striking blindly and plan accordingly.”

“So we make it look like we’re striking blindly but instead sweep in behind them. Destroy the hammer and then attack the anvil.”

“Only works if a queen goes into battle,” Er said. “And there are not enough queens to risk such a manoeuvre. Van may supply us with a few, but none of them would be strong enough.”

“The hammer is made up of men on horses,” Jer filled in for Av because his brother was looking confused again. “A queen, if she knows what to do, can cause widespread panic amongst horses and cause them to buck their riders, then stampede.”

Av blinked at Jer, wide-eyed. “A queen can do what now?”

“You need to learn about military history,” Er said sternly. “If you do, you will learn a great many uses for a queen. Especially in battle.”

If the queen knows how to use her magic to do such a thing,” Ervam said loudly. “You all forget that this all is begun with the word ‘if’ which is much like saying, ‘if the sky turns purple then it will rain ale.’ Even if we had a queen we were willing to risk in battle, there isn’t one capable of doing such things. Not on palace lands and certainly not in the North, where the expertise of their magic is focused on keeping you warm and the lights going, on melting sidewalks and roads of snow and ice to allow the city to function.

“The way of the queen is, and will continue to be, one focused on improving the comfort of the commoners and ranks alike. One hasn’t gone to battle in centuries, if not thousands of years, and we will not press one into battle now. We’d be better off taking a damned lapdog into war, at least those buggers have sharp teeth to nip at the heels of our enemies.”

Chapter Four

“You’re beginning to become aware of what was done to you in the past, and that can cause a lot of tears,” Danya said as she and Aren walked through the gardens. “I used to cry a great deal, but I usually managed to hold them back until I was alone. Then again, I did spend a great deal of time alone. Rewel liked to go off and talk to the Others, even though they couldn’t talk back to him.”

“Does that mean I’m just going to start crying every time we get into a debate?” Aren asked, stopping at a rose bush.

The small buds had hardly begun to grow, but she knew the bush was a rose bush. So many in the front gardens were rose bushes, especially white ones. The bushes had been a favourite of Em’s, and she couldn’t bring herself to command they all be dug up and replaced.

She had simply told the gardeners that if a rose bush died, it was to be replaced with something they found appropriate for the area, something with colour if at all possible.

“That’s a very good possibility, but you have to remember to keep talking,” Danya murmured, fingering the leaves of the rose bush. “In my experience, when men see a woman cry, they believe they have won. They don’t understand that there is an entirely different thing going on, or that the tears might even mean that she wishes to crush their skull in her hands.”

“Now you sound like a queen,” Aren said with a chuckle.

“I like to think that’s simply the response of any woman when a man believes he has won because she begins to cry.” Danya hesitated, head cocking to the side slightly. “Telm is looking for you. She will be headed this way shortly.”

“Hopefully our time away will give you both time to recover a little more. Or for you to get your feet under you.”

“It’s also a good idea for you to visit the North,” Danya said pointedly, moving away from the bush.

Aren followed Danya, not certain why they were moving on when Telm was looking for her. Danya led her deeper into the garden, away from the palace.

“Yes, I’m told I should meet the people of the North and show them the type of queen that I am,” Aren grumbled, more to herself than to Danya. “But the North believes their queens a rank apart from those on palace lands. They run the water on purpose, not just linked in like I am here.”

“Queens across palace lands do the same thing for their homes here, but the magic is used in a small home and normally only for water, at least from what the healers have told me of the other queens they have met.”

“Only the oldest homes still have pipes though, few recall how to make them, and those few are booked up for decades, nearly their entire lives,” Aren grumbled again.

Danya stopped and turned to Aren, lifting an eyebrow in question.

“I went to ask about building a home before I came to see you. I was told I’d have better luck purchasing an estate than I would at getting the pipes necessary to build a home to my comfort level.”

“So build one without pipes.”

“That’s what I said!”

“But he balked at the idea?”

“He asked if Telm was aware that I was asking such stupid questions.”

“Asking what questions?” Telm asked, coming around the corner as if her name caused the woman to appear.

“Asked about building a house without pipes,” Aren said with all the annoyance she could muster.

“Pipes are expensive, and those who can lay them mainly replace pipes, not lay new ones. You would still have to choose an area where there were already pipes in the land for them to replace because how they work on the other end is something that is lost to us.”

Aren made a face at Telm. The older queen could only shrug in response.

“If you mean to find yourself someplace to live, there are a few estates which have fallen under the palace’s care because they were abandoned by the lords who were to maintain them, or sold to those owed debt who then died without an heir. Surely there is one that the court would agree to sell to you.”

“I don’t think I could afford their price. It’s not like I get paid to sit the throne.”

Telm cleared her throat awkwardly, causing Aren to sigh loudly.

“It’s not that you don’t get paid, dear, it’s that when there is a surplus in the treasury, you have free use of it,” Telm said soothingly. “Lady Em drove us deeper into debt. With the North rejoining, we might see some small increase in taxes, which will allow us to pay off a debt or two, but you will be an old woman before there is coin for you to spend. Unless you can somehow unburden the palace of one of the three great loans, which total over a million coin each.”

“A million is bigger than a thousand?” Aren asked.

“It is greater than a hundred thousand,” Telm responded quietly.

“How did that happen? How are those houses not broken themselves?” Aren demanded.

“There were small amounts loaned over time by the three great lines. The Praisiers live on the southern border and dealt water to the South for centuries, amassing a huge fortune. The Liffers to the south-west deal in wine, which can only be grown in that climate, one which lords and ladies purchase because it is rare. They also deal in teas, again, which lords and ladies can afford.”

“I had Liffer wine,” Danya said. “It tasted like piss.”

“How do you know what piss tastes like?” Telm asked.

Danya ignored the question and walked a little ways down the path instead.

“The lords and ladies pay for the wine and tea as a symbol of their wealth,” Aren said quietly to Telm.

“Yes, that they do. The third line is that of Lord Chorval. His family has dealt with beef for so long that they have begun to be referred to as the Beef Barons. They do fine in this economy, but not as well as in days past. Their land borders that of the North. With the land rejoining palace lands, they may see an increase in sales, which will allow them to pay more taxes, which is how we repay our debt to them.”

“Whatever they would pay us in taxes goes back to them to pay off the debt?” Aren asked.

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