I winced. I recognized the call immediately—after all, how could I mistake Kaldarte’s voice? Or her tone, for that matter. Even from the self-decreed solitude of my locked and mage-shielded bedchambers, I caught the hard-edged note of the Seer in her worst temper.
Apparently, I was not going to be permitted to continue my isolation. The intricate lines of my extended family were usually a blessing, but not always. Brial, who was not a patient man even by human standards, would have found a way to get through to Kaldarte once he’d realized that my door was barred even against him for the tenth day straight. Although I’d shared my sorrows with him for years now, this newest grief was one I didn’t care to discuss—with anyone. My body had strengthened; I felt better physically. But the anguish I’d undergone and still struggled with was too new, too raw and infected, to share even with him.
My enforced solitude was all that protected me.
I had two choices. I could either open the door for her, or I could let her work that fire magic-fed temper to a higher level by permitting her to beat against my shields for a while first.
I was a prudent woman. I sent out a quick burst of energy and opened the door.
By the time the Seer stormed into the room, I lay once more upon the bed, staring at the fog-shrouded window. The world outside our house in Geochon was draped in its mourning veils still, weeping for the dead god Phobetor’s passing. The weather fit my mood perfectly.
“Tamsen, what in the name of the seven hells are you doing?”
Kaldarte was as furious as I’d ever seen her. Even her hair seemed to be sparking with rage, crackling with livid energy as she broke my fixed gaze at the rain-drenched garden. I stared at her without speaking, letting my apathy speak for itself.
“Are you happy now?” Her words dripped acid. “Your husband has gone literally berserk. Mariol is losing his mind. Even Wilden is furious! Why have you locked everyone out while you sit here and pout?”
“I’m not pouting.” My own voice was raspy with disuse, ravaged by the days of uncontrollable weeping alone in my bower. “I’m healing…and mourning.”
“I can see that.” Her eyes were glittering with jewel-like hardness as they met mine, and then her gaze shunted off to the fading bruises with professional efficiency.
“I don’t want to be disturbed right now, Kaldarte. I just want to be left alone.”
“Oh, no, you don’t, my girl. You get up from that bed right now and get dressed. This has gone on long enough.”
“For whom?” I asked mildly. “For you? Brial? Perhaps so. But it hasn’t gone on long enough for me yet. I don’t want to act like nothing’s happened, and I’ll be damned if I pretend to just to make the rest of you happy.”
Her expression softened slightly. Perhaps she understood, at least a little, why I was so reluctant to play my part. I’d played many parts with my family over the years, parts designed to keep them comfortable and unconcerned about me. Usually they were screens to mask what I was really up to, but upon occasion I’d worried so much about what they thought that I neglected to see to my own needs.
“Tamsen, none of us are sure exactly what happened to you. It’s not that we don’t understand; it’s that we just don’t know. If you tell us, maybe we can help.”
“A god sacrificed himself to give me his power, Kaldarte. All of it.” I clipped the words off as if they stung. “He gave up his entire existence so that I would live. Forgive me if that’s a little hard to bear. I don’t want anyone’s sympathy. I just want to be left alone so I can look through all of the stupid things I’ve done in my life and wonder what was so important about me that a god killed himself for my sake.”
“That must be painful.” She didn’t try to sympathize. She just stated a fact.
“Look, I’m fine. I’m healing. I’m feeling better. Can’t you all just leave me alone until I feel ready to face the world again? Is that so hard?”
“Yes, Your Majesty, it is.”
And there it was—the killing ploy. The blow I’d expected for a week now. Your Majesty. The dual call to duty and responsibility, the one thing I could not ignore and must obey. My title hung between us like an accusation, which in a way it was. No matter how far away I was from Leselle, I was still the Queen of the Elven Realm and would be until I died.
Like in six months or so.
“What’s wrong?” I demanded. “Is Leselle being attacked again?”
“No, I don’t think so. You have had emissaries from both Tartarus and Hippolytos, and the Regent of Ansienne sent a messenger to urgently beg you to attend him at the Palace.”
I couldn’t even muster up the emotional energy to get angry. I just stared at her, waiting. She compressed her lips at my lack of response, and her eyes flashed again.
Finally, I capitulated. “Fine. Tell Colan to prepare my carriage. I’ll go to the Palace and see what Rontil wants and have the emissaries meet me here afterward. Do you know what the latest disaster to be laid at my door might be?”
“No, but it can’t be good.”
I rolled from the bed. “Colan! Get my carriage ready at once! Bryse!”
Looking back over my shoulder at my fuming foster mother as I stalked to the wardrobe, I asked, “Better?”
“Much.” Kaldarte made her way out, her skirts ominously silent as she went. Once in the doorway, she looked back over her shoulder.
I bit my lip against the stab of pain that surged from my damaged conscience and threw the wardrobe doors open. I pulled the gown I’d worn for Dantel’s funeral from the stack of clothes and laid it over my arm.
“I will be here for you when you need me, my daughter,” she said in a soft voice. “I’ll grant you the time to work this out for yourself, but I’ll be the only one who will do so. You should be prepared.”
“I am.” I flattened the words as soon as they left my mouth, having already stamped out the flare of emotion and resurfaced into my brittle calm.
Kaldarte didn’t say another word. She left the room quietly, just as the nervous servants of the Asphodel household clattered up the stairs for the first sight of their mistress in days.
I felt strange, in a way, traveling the streets of Geochon without either Brial or Wilden at my side. I’d brought two Elven scouts along to act as my guard for the trip, as neither my husband nor my uncle was in the house when I left. The manor was silent and on edge, tension running along every wall and floor like an electric current. Things were easier in the jouncing carriage, where a Queen was supposed to be lost in her thoughts and the guard was quite properly sitting outside on the box.
The Palace guards, accustomed to my carriage’s arrival at all times of the day or night, let us through without question. As we pulled up to the ornate entrance, I gathered my thoughts. It probably wouldn’t take long to settle whatever business was here.
I spared enough attention for the scouts to murmur, “Custodi vidite.”
As they snapped to attention with their swords flat on their palms, I strode down the immense hallways with my black skirts sweeping a rustling indignant path across the polished marble and tried to ignore the renewed flares of pain that hampered my every step.
As soon as the chamberlain saw me, he slammed his staff against the floor. The antechamber was curiously empty of its normal rabble of courtiers and politicians.
The Ansienne royal guard opened the doors. “Make way for Tamsen Ka’antira de Asphodel, Queen of the Elven Realm and Countess of Asphodel!”
I stalked into the room. The men below the royal dais instantly bowed, their courtly posture and elegant clothing bringing me back into the full rush of the Court. Rontil rose from his seat beside the throne and hurried to intercept me before the royal dais. I took one more measuring look around the room and halted abruptly.
Brial stood in our accustomed place with Wilden at his back. My husband’s eyes met mine with a click that was nearly audible. He gestured to the scouts behind me, who sheathed their swords and left without a word, while Wilden crossed the throne room and took their place as my custos.
“My friend, we are so worried—” Rontil was saying.
I paused uncertainly. Some terrible thing was going on here that I didn’t understand. Instinctively, I turned back to Brial even as Wilden grasped my elbow. Brial bowed his head as I stood in front of him, but not in the courteous greeting of an Elf to his monarch. Brial was ducking his head so he could think, something he never did unless the news was particularly dire. When he lifted his face, I caught the tight shuttered glaze over his black eyes, and my apathy moved aside with a jerk.
“What is going on?” I asked him in a low voice.
“Your Majesty”—his voice was raggedly calm—“we have a serious problem.”
A contingent of Hippolytes stood near the throne, and a single man in Tartaran garb near the daunting female warriors of my friend Antiope’s island nation. Premonition moved through me, shoving all other concerns out of the way.
His beautiful face betrayed no emotion but I, who loved him so well, felt the edge of fear singing along his skin.
“The young King of Ansienne has vanished from his nursery, Tamsen, as has the King of Tartarus.”
“And on Hippolytos?” My mouth was suddenly dry. I sensed the men around us move back, as if they were afraid of what would happen next.
“And so has our daughter,” he finished, his face paler than I had ever seen it.
Shock kept me speechless for a moment. I half-turned to Wilden for confirmation, and the sheen of tears in his eyes told me all I needed to know. I ignored the roaring in my ears as the world tumbled from its rightful place. Without thinking, I extended my hands to Brial, who took them in a painful grip as I staggered against him.
Little Tamarisk is growing close to the age of consent. It will not be long before her human blood enables her to bear children.
But the age of consent wasn’t something Spesialle had been concerned with in the past.
My uncle’s insinuating laugh echoed in my head.
“Your Majesty, we are unaware—”
I ignored the pompous voice of the Ansienne courtier who’d spoken and looked into Brial’s eyes. “Where?”
“We don’t know.” Pain lacerated his voice. “They all vanished this morning without a trace. There were no warriors or strange mages around any of them. They just disappeared.”
I felt the grief pulsing within him, the lingering anger about my distance, and the thin strand of anger that was growing even as my breath was knocked from my body. I forgot that I was a Queen and threw myself into his arms for just a moment of shared terror. His arms closed around me without their normal ferocity, but his body against mine was still as sturdy as it had ever been. I closed my eyes for a split-second of weak-kneed anguish.
And then the rage hit me.