The intrusion was the dulcet tone of a female voice.
“Your Majesty – Walter, wake up.”
A hand nudged me gently, and I felt my body sway with the rumbling motion of whatever I was inside.
“We’re almost there, Your Majesty. Wake up.”
The nudge was firmer this time. I blinked my eyes open. Who is this ‘Your Majesty’? I wanted to ask as I turned to focus on the woman who’d been trying to awaken me. My eyes bugged when I saw who it was. Yvonne. A queenly Yvonne. A medieval queenly Yvonne. She was dressed in an Anne-Boleyn-like dress of rich ivory-white brocade, shot with silver lace. Around her slender neck was a chunky necklace of sapphires and diamonds, and ivory-coloured suede gloves sheathed her hands from her fingers to her elbows. Her dark hair was pulled back and adorned with gold hairpins and a jeweled diadem that flashed a myriad of colours when the rays of the sun coming through the window of the carriage hit her head.
Wait – a carriage?!
The vehicle juddered slightly as its wheels moved over – what I assumed, from the gravely sounds, were – cobblestones. The inside was furnished with rich colours of scarlet velvet and gilt-framed edges. My bewilderment deepened as my eyes settled on another woman seated on the couch facing us. It was Edeeth, clad in a dress that was just as voluminous and well-tailored as Yvonne’s, but the embroidery and her adornments were simpler. A simple, gold necklet hung from her neck and her hair was an elaborate, unadorned upsweep.
“Your Majesty…?” Yvonne said again.
I turned to her. She was looking at me. I blinked rapidly. ‘Your Majesty’ is me?! I thought with mounting incredulity.
“You look a wee bit flummoxed,” Yvonne continued, laying a gloved hand gently on mine.
A wee bit flummoxed… Who still talks like that? I thought wrathfully. And why wouldn’t I feel a wee bit flummoxed, what with finding myself yanked out of the 21st century and into this Henry-Tudor-esque era. Riding in a mechanism Henry Tudor would ride in. Sitting beside a woman dressed the way Henry Tudor’s wives would. And –
And wearing the clothes Henry Tudor would wear! I realized as a fresh swat of horror slammed into me. I was staring at the flowing, fur-lined cloak that stretched from my shoulders, fastened in place on my chest by a single, gold brooch, embedded with tiny, flashing diamantes. The tunic I wore underneath felt silky and close-fitting, with embellishments adorning its collar, and a gold girdle cinching it around my waist. The knee-length boots strapped over my feet gleamed darkly in the shadowy interior of the carriage.
Who am I for chrissakes?!
“Your Majesty,” Yvonne began.
Ah, yes. I’m ‘Your Majesty’. Apparently.
“Yes…ah…” I stuttered, mentally flailing for what to address her with.
Her elegantly-shaped brows lifted a fraction of an inch. “Yvonne,” she supplied.
“Yes, of course, I knew that.” I could feel Edeeth’s curious stare on me. I wondered briefly, from the richness of Yvonne’s attire which equaled mine, if she was supposed to be my queen.
She continued, “Well, I just wanted to let you know that we are getting close to the town square. Finally, the moment is at hand.” She took a deep inhalation, clasped her gloved hands together, and expelled the breath. She turned a wistful expression to the window on her side. “Today is going to be a big day for Sartia, my king. A big day for us. For me. To finally be unveiled to the people of Sartia as their new queen” – a feverish thread tightened her voice – “it is such a wonderful thing for us all.”
I was right then. She was my queen. I could feel the leaden weight of what I presumed was a crown sitting on my head.
The people of Sartia.
I was starting to like whatever this was that the Fates had thrust on me. The feeling of confusion and apprehension which tightened its hold on my insides earlier began to unclench.
I reclined on my seat and looked out the window, at the scenery we were cantering past. There were people milling about. Some were selling goods from off the backs if carts, bread and fruits, fresh from the countryside. There were fat women bartering sharply for the goods, vying against the quicker-tongued sellers angling for a fair price for their provender. Pageboys lounged in attendance to well-dressed courtiers, who strolled along, mingling with a phalanx of the poorly-clad peasants. Everyone, however, paused to watch in awe as we rode past, many of them shouting their plaudits and cheering with words like: “God bless the king!”
I turned away from the sights and faced the other woman before me. “So, Edeeth, what is it you do around here?”
The reactions I got were unexpected. Yvonne drew in a sharp breath. Edeeth’s eyes widened briefly in a startled expression before she ducked her head and muttered, “Your Majesty…”
“My lord,” Yvonne interjected sharply, “you really shouldn’t address the help.”
“Excuse me?” The look I turned to her was rife with my budding outrage. I was king, was I not?
“I mean no disrespect, my lord. It’s just that…Edeeth is my lady-in-waiting, and you are not supposed to enquire about the welfare of the ladies serving in my court.”
“Why is that?”
She replied flatly, “It is simply not allowed.” Then she gave me a pointed look and added, “I was once a handmaiden in the court of your former queen, remember?”
Her meaning was impossible to miss. A momentary awkward moment fleeted by. Then I said, “My former queen?”
“Eketi, the mother of your children.” She made a face, as though saying the words was equivalent to chewing on something sour. “a woman who has refused to retire into the quiet life of a courtier ever since you had her queenship stripped from her. Instead, it seems she has incited a band of rebels to fight her cause. They call themselves the MEND.”
“The Movement for Eketi’s New Dominion. A rascally group that regularly disturbs the peace of this kingdom. Remember the estate in North Sartishire, which you took away from her brother, Lord Mesi, after he challenged the dethroning of his sister? The property you handed over to Lord Kaynna after you made him the new Duke of Sartishire?”
“The rebels invaded the estate. They slaughtered the duke’s cattle and burned his crops.”
“The duke is in a fair snit over that.”
“As he should be.”
“And the rebels have promised more distress unless Eketi is reinstated as queen.” Yvonne’s eyes narrowed and acid leaked into her voice as she continued, “But we won’t be dictated to by scum now, would we, my lord?”
My Adam’s apple bobbed with a hard swallow. This woman was starting to scare me. I answered, “No, we won’t.” I had a feeling any other response from me would be disastrous.
“That is why we should take a more definitive action.”
“Like?” I wasn’t sure I was going to like what she had to say.
She shrugged, effecting a gesture of ladylike nonchalance. “Well, if Eketi were to be taken care of…ah, permanently, then the rebels will have nothing to fight for.”
“Taken care of? Permanently?”
“Yes. These rebels are criminals. She’s allied with them. That makes her a criminal. And all criminals face the sentence of death at the guillotine.”
I gaped in horror. “You want me to have her beheaded?”
Again, the shrug. Again, the feigned look of I-couldn’t-possibly-care. “If the rebels don’t have anything to fight for,” she said silkily, “we will have peace in the kingdom.”
“But – but – you…” I spluttered, “you said yourself that she is the mother of my children. How can I rid the children of their mother?”
“About that,” Yvonne interjected, picking a tiny lint from her dress, “we have agreed that her children will have no claim on your throne, haven’t we? We can’t have them as heirs to the throne when I intend to have children of my own. I will not have mine haggle with hers over who gets to rule when you are no more.”
And now, she’s already looking ahead, past when I’m dead, I thought, not a little miffed at the thought. I was starting to wonder what frame of mind I was in when I made this scheming, grasping woman my queen.
She was still talking. “You really should think about what I said about dealing with Eketi. Today, she has radicals in her employ. Tomorrow, she could reach into the Dark and form an alliance with the dark sorcerers who seek to destroy this kingdom.” Her eyes widened fractionally as a thought thrust its way into her mind and she husked, “She might even form an alliance with your cousin.”
“The rogue wizard, Uzo-einy – who you had to banish from the kingdom last year…” She stared quizzically at me. “Why do you not remember all this, my lord?”
“Oblige me,” I replied curtly.
“We have to fortify ourselves and the castle with some more of Eme-orgause’s enchantments.” She turned to Edeeth and said sharply, “Remind me to inform the sorceress of that, will you, Edeeth?”
“Yes, my lady.”
Yvonne’s expression cleared and she continued brightly, “But all that worry will have to wait for now. What matters today is that I am your new queen, my lord.” She smiled coquettishly at me, tucking a gloved arm into mine. “And soon, the people of Sartia shall know my reign.”
For some reason, I felt a frisson – not of delight – horripilate through my skin at her words. Before I could dwell on them however, carriage came to a stop and moments later, the plum voice of a man burst out loudly, “Good people of Sartia, I present to you your beloved royals, his Majesty King Walter and his lovely wife, your queen, Her Majesty Queen Yvonne!”
An uproarious cheer exploded throughout the length and breadth of the square as two liverymen, one on either side of the carriage opened the doors to usher Yvonne and I out of the vehicle. And into the sight of the adoring public. Edeeth clambered down after Yvonne, snapping open a parasol over her mistress’s head, following behind her until she came to stand beside me. A body of soldiers clad in heavy chainmail stood like brooding bastions around us. From our perch, we waved at the people and soaked in their adulation.
“Long live the king!”
“Long shall you reign, Your Majesties!”
“The queen is so beautiful!”
“All hail Queen Yvonne!”
A cherubic-faced child darted out of the crowd toward us, her small hands clutching a messy bouquet of flowers. She tottered to us and stretched out her hand. Yvonne squatted, her face flush with pleasure, her skirts billowing out around her.
“Dis ees for yuu, kween Yevon,” the girl said.
“Oh my, thank you.” She planted a kiss on the child’s forehead and took the flowers from her. The girl promptly ran back into the crowd.
“Witch!” Just then, a strident voice cut through the din like a whiplash.
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