Read Sacred Knight of the Veil Online
Authors: T C Southwell
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Epic
Kerra-Manu approached the Regent and stopped before her with a flounce. Although she was still a couple of inches shorter than Chiana, her long limbs held the promise of more growth still to come.
"How dare you order your guards to keep me out?" Kerra demanded.
Chiana picked up the teacup and raised it to her lips. Sipping the steaming, scented brew in a leisurely manner, she allowed the Queen to seethe for a minute before she put the cup back on the tray and turned to face Kerra.
"I did not wish to be disturbed."
"No one should dare to bar me from any part of my palace."
"We have been over this before, Kerra."
"I'm fifteen! I'm no longer a child!"
"Mend your speech."
Kerra snorted. "I am the Queen! I will not be denied by a bunch of boy-buggering guards."
"If you wish to be treated like a queen, then you should try to act and speak like one."
"What would you know about it? You are not a queen, never have been and never will be one."
Chiana sighed. "I had the privilege of knowing your mother. I know how a queen should act."
"My mother is dead! I am the Queen, and you are only the Regent."
"I am well aware of my status, but until you are five and twenty years old, I rule this kingdom."
"But not me!" Kerra said. "I do not take orders from you, and you do not have the right to bar me from your rooms."
Chiana reined her temper with an effort, closing her eyes to block out Kerra's scowling face. Raising a child who outranked everyone had proven difficult. Kerra, at first a sweet-tempered girl, had soon realised that no one dared to curtail her, and had grown spoilt. Jashimari law did not make allowance for this situation. Kerra should have been raised by her mother, and remained a princess until she was twenty-five.
Kerra's rank precluded any form of chastisement, and Chiana despaired of controlling the girl. The young Queen ignored her teachers and tormented her nursemaids, even played unpleasant pranks on the servants. Chiana had tried to occupy her by inviting the daughters of several high-ranking lords and ladies to be her companions, but they had soon left after tasting Kerra's venomous tongue. Although not a vindictive or spiteful child by nature, Kerra harboured a deep resentment about her lack of a mother, and took some satisfaction in venting her pain on others.
By the time she was ten years old, Kerra was out of control, and in desperation Chiana had written to Kerrion, asking for help or advice. Despite his promise to visit his daughter every year, he had become caught up in matters of state and his new family. Although he wrote to her often and sent many gifts, he had not been to Jashimari since Kerra was a tenday old.
Chiana had disliked being forced to turn to him for aid. She still held him responsible for the death of Minna-Satu. Kerrion had surprised her by visiting his daughter, and she recalled their first meeting. His high rank and noble bearing had awed Kerra, who was a model of good behaviour for the duration of his visit. Kerrion had spent an entire moon phase in Jashimari, and taught Kerra a great deal. When he left, Kerra begged to go with him, and wept when he refused, but since then he had been the key to controlling the young Queen.
Chiana folded her hands around the teacup. "I am entitled to some privacy, even from you. If you object to this so much, perhaps I should write to your father and ask his opinion in the matter. Would you like that?"
"No!" The fire went out of Kerra's eyes, and her shoulders slumped. The change that the mention of Kerrion's name evinced always fascinated Chiana. It was as if a switch was thrown inside Kerra, and she became a different person.
Chiana sipped her tea and replaced the cup on the tray once more. "So, tell me what has upset you."
"My maid will only bring me watered wine. I am fifteen, I should have proper wine." Kerra's eyes glinted, but she spoke in a polite tone.
"I see." Chiana turned and sank down on a cushion. "I have told you that you may not have strong drink until you are eighteen."
"Have you asked my father what he thinks?"
"He would have you drink milk until you are five and twenty. You will find no sympathy from him."
Kerra frowned. "I shall write to him, in any case."
"So you should. Have you finished your lessons for today?"
"No. My teacher is boring. I demand a new one."
"Perhaps your father would like to hear of your preference in this matter too?"
"He would not wish me to be bored."
"Nor would he wish you to be ignorant. He may decide to send another Cotti elder to teach you manners."
Kerra strived to hide a shudder, clearly remembering all too well the disastrous situation from which Chiana had saved her. Kerrion had sent a Cotti master to give Kerra lessons in etiquette, and the man's high-handed ways and insistence on subservience had incensed the Jashimari Queen. Chiana had stepped in before the two had come to blows, and sent him back to Jadaya accompanied by a letter that detailed the problem. Kerrion had not sent another teacher, and Kerra had paid good attention to her Jashimari tutors for some time after that.
"I will go and finish my lessons." Kerra swung away in a swirl of rich skirts and headed for the door, clearly eager to quit the Regent's company and her threats of patriarchal intervention.
Alone once more, Chiana gazed at the brightening stars and thought about the only other man whom she was certain would be able to control the young Queen, even though he did not outrank her. She still missed him terribly, despite the fact that she had received no word from him in fifteen years. No one knew of his whereabouts, or even if he still lived, although she was certain he did. The Lord Protector of Jashimari was a hard man to kill, or to forget, she had discovered. His face was etched in her mind as clearly as it was on the canvas hidden in the darkest recess of her room, covered with a black silk cloth.
Chiana sipped her tea and found it cold. Shaking herself from her reverie, she noticed that the lamps were lighted and dusk had passed some time-glasses ago. Rising, she shook the wrinkles from her skirt and walked to the alcove where she ate her solitary meals. Her frugal repast consisted of grilled butter fish and steamed treth greens, and her slender figure owed much to her dislike for rich food.
As she toyed with her dinner, she wondered what her husband looked like now. Certainly older, his hair perhaps touched with grey, his features coarsened by drinking and fighting in the sleazy taverns he was inclined to visit too frequently. She recalled his soft, seductive voice and the icy glance of his wintry grey eyes. He was forty-five now, an age when most men ran to fat and lost interest in strenuous pursuits. She sipped the tart wine without noticing its youth, and allowed her mind to wander through the garden of her memories, enjoying, as she always did, the encounters with her husband there.
In her study the next morning, Chiana leafed through the sheaf of reports that had arrived on her desk at dawn. Most were routine accounts of minor troubles in small towns. There was a skirmish between a regiment of militia and a group of bandits and a border dispute between a Jashimari and a Contara farmer. A report detailing a build-up of Contara troops just beyond the border, apparently engaged in some sort of exercise, made her frown. She made a note to have the situation monitored, and moved on to an account of a cattle disease that had wiped out several herds in the far south.
A knock came at her study door, and she invited the petitioner to enter without glancing up from the paper, engrossed in the gory details of the cattle crisis.
Sensing a presence before her, she looked up to find a dusty messenger staring over her head. He held a roll of parchment tied with a yellow ribbon and sealed with orange wax. Chiana recognised Kerrion's colours and seal. Although she often received missives from him, a messenger never delivered them. Usually one of her advisors brought them to her. Most surprising of all, the man was a Cotti, and had not handed the message on to one of her men at the border. Chiana held out her hand, and the man placed the scroll in it, then turned and marched out. The doors closed behind him, leaving her alone with the frightening certainty that the news within the roll of parchment was dire.
Chiana broke the seal and scanned it. Words seemed to leap off the page at her. His younger half-brother, Prince Trelath, had kidnapped Kerrion's wife. Another half-brother, Endor, intended to take Kerra hostage and usurp the Jashimari throne. Chiana recalled that Endor had been sent to rule Contara after Armin's death. At the time, he had been a boy of barely sixteen. Endor was thirty-one now, and Trelath twenty-eight. Endor claimed that he wished to visit Kerra, which was within the rights of a Cotti prince.
In Cotti, kidnapping a woman was considered a minor crime, even under Kerrion's new laws. The fact that it was the King's wife made little difference, except to Kerrion. So long as Trelath threatened Kerrion's wife, the King could do nothing to stop Endor from visiting Kerra, and neither could Chiana. Once Kerra was within Endor's power, he could force Jashimari, and even Kerrion, to do as he wished, by threatening her life.
Chiana stared at the parchment in stunned disbelief, anger suffusing her in a cold tide. Once again, Kerrion's treacherous half-brothers fomented trouble, and he was allowing them to blackmail him. Kerra's throne was in danger, and that was far more important than Kerrion's wife.
Biting her lip, she read the letter's last lines, and knew why Kerrion had ordered the messenger to place it in her hand. He advised her to remove Kerra from Jondar and take her to safety. Endor could not capture a girl he could not find, and Kerrion could preserve the facade of co-operating so his wife was not endangered. Jashimari Queens were forbidden to leave the palace, but there was no choice. Endor must not be allowed to imprison Kerra, and Chiana had to keep her safe until Kerrion could rescue his wife. So long as Kerra remained free, Kerrion's wife was safe.
The terrible possibilities with which the situation was rife made her heart flutter with trepidation, and she leant back in her chair, gasping. A wave of dizziness made her pick up the bell on her desk and ring it. A handmaiden appeared, her eyes widening at the Regent's pallor. Chiana ordered a cup of strong port, and within minutes a maiden pressed a goblet into her trembling hand. Three handmaidens clustered around her, fanning her, patting her brow with a cool damp cloth, and asking if she wanted a healer.
Chiana waved them away and took a gulp of the port, gasping as it stung her throat. It burnt a warm path to her core, numbing the wave of emotions that had engulfed her and steadying her nerves. Pity for Kerrion's unfortunate wife warred with rage at his brothers' treacherous scheming, and resentment that Kerrion had allowed this to happen. Most of all, she was filled with a terrible dread for Kerra and the future of Jashimari. Jumping up, she paced around the desk on shaking legs, unable to sit still as nervous energy coursed through her. The gaggle of concerned girls followed her, and she swung to face them.
"You, go and fetch Armelin, quickly." She pushed one of the girls towards the door, and the maiden fled. "You, bring me Redgard, and you find Insash, hurry!"
The girls ran out, and Chiana circled the desk again, then picked up the parchment and read it once more. If only Kerrion had just one full brother whom he could trust, instead of five sisters who had all been married off long ago. If only he did not have so many half-brothers seeking power through underhand schemes. If only he had protected his wife, and had hired more competent spies. How could he let his brothers hatch such a cunning plot right under his nose? If Kerrion had not told Chiana of his suspicion, she would have had no real objection to Endor's visit, other than her natural revulsion for the idea of entertaining a Cotti prince.
There had to be a way to thwart him, but, as Kerra's kin, he had a right to visit her, with Kerrion's permission. If Chiana refused to allow his visit, Endor would know that Kerrion had told her of the plot, and Kerrion's wife would suffer, perhaps die. Since the King had bowed to the demands of his brothers, his wife was important to him indeed. That being the case, it seemed likely that if she was killed, the resulting uproar could topple the Cotti monarchy and place Endor on the throne. Prince Armin had tried to kill Kerra fifteen years ago, which was why a prince now required Kerrion's permission to visit her.
Undoubtedly Kerrion had been through the same frantic search for a solution, and had only been able to come up with one plan. It had several drawbacks, not least of which was Kerra's reaction. Taking the Queen out of the palace was fraught with danger, and the prospect of Kerra out in the world made Chiana shudder. How much time did she have? Who could she trust to take Kerra to safety? Where was safety?
A flutter of wings made her look up as her familiar flew in through the window and landed on her shoulder, gripping her dress with tiny sharp claws. The grey dove sidled closer and pressed herself against Chiana's cheek, trying to soothe her distress. A warm glow spread through her, bringing with it much needed calm, and the whirling jig of her thoughts settled into a stately waltz. Chiana clasped the soft, warm bird to her cheek and soaked up Inka's comfort, a balm to her raw nerves. By the time the door burst open and Redgard marched in, she had regained her calm, and sat at her desk once more. The captain of the palace guard, a stout man of fifty whose red hair was sprinkled with grey, advanced to the desk and bowed.
"You summoned me, Regent?"
She looked up. "I did. Sit."
Redgard selected a well-upholstered stool and settled on it, his back ramrod straight from years of soldiering. He studied her with pale green eyes that were narrowed with suspicion and concern above his sharp nose. His shy fox was rarely seen, preferring to spend most of its time in the woods, as many wild familiars did. Insash came in, and eased his portly frame onto a chair at Chiana's gesture, his face a study of curiosity. Her chief advisor was a sensible man in his late fifties, as round and sleepy as his owl familiar, but also as wise.