Authors: T. Southwell
The Queen’s Blade
T C Southwell
Published by T C Southwell at Smashwords
Copyright © 2010 T C Southwell
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Table of Contents
In the time of Shamsara, Idol of the Beasts, on the world of Chasym, favoured of the great god Tinsharon, Queen Minna-Satu, beloved of the Jashimari, took power upon her mother's deathbed. Tashi-Mansa, Elder Queen of the Jashimari, died two days later from the poison she had taken, and was duly interred within the royal tomb. On the day of her coronation, Minna-Satu stood upon the Plinth of Power and declared herself sworn to her people and the Endless War. Her declaration, however, proved different from those who had gone before her, for she vowed to bring an end to the eternal conflict.
Of the vast crowd that cheered and celebrated her ascension, many went away muttering darkly of her vow, unable to envision a world without war, an economy unspurred by the dark trades of death and weaponry. The Jashimari and the desert people of the Cotti had been at war for eight generations at least, some said longer, and none could remember its beginning or the reason for it. All that was known was that each successive queen was sworn to continue it, and every boy who reached manhood must fight in it, save those of high rank. Now their young Queen, daughter of the long line of queens who had upheld the honour of their people, had vowed to end it.
The seasoned warriors gathered before the golden palace to witness the new Queen's pledge raised their white-plumed spears in salute, and the populace beyond their ranks roared in adulation, as if her words had not reached them. In truth, the day's celebrations, the music, marching, chanting and priestly exhortations to the faithful, brushed this oddity from most people's minds much as a spider web is swept from its dusty corner by a housewife's broom. Some, with more ordered minds, noted it, wondered at it, and filed it away, while others wrote it down in texts and records. A few penned it on notes that swift, feathered messengers flew across the land, into the hands of the enemy king.
Upon receiving the first of these messages, King Shandor of the Cotti laughed uproariously and handed it to his eldest son. Prince Kerrion read it and tossed it aside, his countenance unlightened by levity. Shandor shook his head, still chuckling, and gazed at the sea of armoured warriors that surrounded his desert camp, an unstoppable tide of brawn marching inexorably towards the mountains that guarded Jashimari lands. There they would hurl themselves against the defenders' ramparts in waves of bloody combat in the time-honoured way.
Thus, with Queen Minna-Satu's declaration, began a time that would be remembered always. A time of sorrow and pain, of struggle and sacrifice; a time that would be named after the man who brought it about. The time of the Queen's Blade.
Queen Minna-Satu stood and gazed at the gathered advisors for a moment before flicking aside the heavy, gold-patterned silver cloak that swept behind her, and sank onto the hard, curved golden bench that was her throne. The advisors remained standing, each clad in the robes of his or her office, the colour varying according to their beast, some with their familiars. Many wore skins or feathers from their beast kin, but most shunned the out-dated practice and made do with rich cloth. Behind them, gaudily clad lords, ladies and courtiers lined the walls, their aristocratic faces set in expressions of haughty reverence well-practised over the years. Their rich garb, most picked out with silver and gold, glittered as they shifted under the Queen's gaze.
The massive, gold-covered audience chamber gleamed in the light of many torches and candles. Each gilded surface lighted others with its glow, reflecting the radiance into every corner, so that the very air seemed to shimmer. An occasional pale glitter of silver relieved the endless gold, but this was rare, for silver required constant polishing and the queens had ever disliked it. The taxes gleaned from her people, paid in gold, had, over the years, clad almost every inch of this vast building, there being no other use for it. The incredible opulence of the surroundings was lost upon those who dwelt within the palace, well used to treading golden floors and eating from jewel-encrusted utensils. The silence hung leaden upon the air, unbroken save for the hiss of the flaring torches and the occasional scrape of a shifting foot.
Queen Minna-Satu raised her six-foot sceptre and brought it down with a dull clink. On cue, her mother's chief advisor, Mendal of the snakes, stepped forward and prostrated himself. She waited a full minute before allowing him to rise, and he did so red-faced.
"Snake, you may speak."
The tiny green adder that coiled about his neck hissed, and he stroked it. "You must retract your earlier promise of ending the war, My Queen. Your people wonder at it, as do we. It cannot be taken seriously, and is unwise to even speak of -"
"Enough." Minna rose and released the sceptre, which a hovering attendant caught. Shucking the heavy cloak, she stepped down from the dais. Over her floor-sweeping gown of sheer indigo satin trimmed with gold, she wore a form-hugging sheath of golden mail, so finely woven as to be as malleable as cloth. She strolled closer to the old man.
Diamonds dripped from her midnight hair like frosted spider webs; pearls nestled in the hollow of her throat and hung in gleaming drops from her delicate earlobes. Mendal's wrinkled features remained impassive, but his cold eyes watched her as a cobra might eye an approaching rat. She stopped before him, an equal in height, and met his faded green gaze with a stare of profound chill.
"Do not presume to tell me what to do." Her soft words hissed around the chamber, and the adder wriggled down Mendal's back, taking refuge in his oiled snakeskin robe.
"You may have been my mother's favourite," Minna-Satu went on, "but you are not mine. You and she were kindred spirits, snakes both, as close as twined vipers. But you shall not find such intimacy with me, nor such favour. I am no snake, but of cat kind I claim kin. No friend of snakes. Do not presume that your aged mien and former position holds any merit with me now. You advised my mother ill, and through you, many a young man found his death."
She turned to address the rest of the assembly. "Mendal is no longer chief advisor. Those who would petition for the position may step forward now to be considered."
A soft rustle of robes accompanied those who stepped from the ranks and prostrated themselves. A flick of the Queen's fingers made them rise, and she approached the nearest, casting a considering eye over his handsome, muscled person clad mostly in feathers.
"Jasham of the eagles. I wish to stop the Endless War, advise me."
For a full minute he stared at her, speechless, and, as he opened his mouth, she waved him back. "I have no time for those too slow of wit to find an answer before my patience ends."
Jasham retreated, and she approached the next. "Moret of the dogs. What is your answer?"
The stocky, middle-aged man regarded her with kindly eyes, the big dog beside him sat patiently. "It is not possible, My Queen."
"I did not ask you if it was possible, Moret. Nothing can be said to be impossible unless it has been attempted. Has it?"
"No, My Queen."
"Then it is not impossible." She waved him back and walked past, stopping before the next candidate. "Megan of the ferrets, advise me."
The sharp-faced woman's black eyes darted. "We must gather our armies into a mighty force and defeat the upstart king."
Minna sighed. "If this was possible, it would have been done already. Defeating the desert kings, we have learnt, is impossible, though ending the war may not be."
She turned and walked back to the centre of the room, then addressed them all. "I tire of foolish notions better suited to simpletons. Let the one amongst you who has a worthy idea step forward and advise me."
After a brief, tense silence, during which the tension in the chamber rose, one of the candidates stepped forward. The Queen's eyes raked the pretty countenance of a girl in her late teens. Curly chestnut hair framed a gentle face in which soft blue-grey eyes lowered respectfully under the Queen's gaze. She lacked true beauty in its purest form, her mouth a little too wide, her eyes over large in a face that did not possess patrician lines, but held a hint of strength. Minna approached her.
"Chiana of the doves, advise me."
"You must heed the council of Shamsara."
Minna frowned. "What is this, you pass your task on?"
"Only he will know the answer."
"It is forbidden for the Queen to consult with seers."
"It is the Queen who makes the laws."
Minna's frown melted away, and she smiled. "That is correct. But why do you consider Shamsara to have the answer?"
"He can see the future. We cannot."
"True. I will think on this advice, but what is yours, for my question?"
Chiana bowed her head, considering the grey dove that nestled in her hands. "If we cannot defeat the desert kings, nor they us, we must call a truce."
"A truce." Minna nodded, turning away to retrace her steps to the throne. Seated upon it once more, she considered those before her. "A truce," she repeated. "And should I send you, Chiana, to negotiate it?"
Chiana's shoulders hunched. "If you will, My Queen."
"Shandor will laugh in your face, then give you to his soldiers for sport. You would not survive the ordeal."
"Doubtless, My Queen."
"A waste. I desire your council. You shall be senior advisor henceforth." Minna turned to an attendant as the advisors stepped back into their lines, all save Chiana, who replaced Mendal before her.
"Summon Shamsara to me now," Minna ordered the hovering attendant, who spun on his heel and trotted away. Minna turned to face her audience once more. "Have any of you anything else to say?"
Mendal stepped forward. "Shamsara will not come, My Queen. You cannot summon the Idol of the Beasts. If you wish to consult with him, you will have to travel to him."
"Indeed?" Minna's brows rose. "We shall see. Shamsara pleases himself in these matters. Do not think me ignorant of the ways of the Idol of the Beasts, Mendal." She stood. "This audience is over."
Minna walked out, leaving her bevy of lords and advisors in the act of prostrating themselves. Some completed the ritual, others straightened the moment she was out of sight.
Mendal was one such, and turned to the man beside him with a frown, plucking at his olive green robes with agitated, bony fingers.
"She takes too much upon herself, she will fail."
Symion of the horses straightened from completing his prostration and shrugged. "Perhaps, but if it is her wish to try, no one will gainsay her."
"Indeed not, yet this is not a good course to be set upon."
"Ending the war sounds like an excellent notion to me, Mendal."
"Only if, in the process, we do not lose it. The great Queen Janna-Maru had good reason to forbid consulting with seers. When the queens attempted it, there were disastrous results. Would Queen Minna-Satu, through Chiana's foolish council, plunge us back into those dark days? The future is not set, it may be changed, yet in doing so, often it is changed for the worse. I feel that no good can come of this."
Symion considered Mendal with gentle brown eyes, his placid countenance reflecting the peaceful nature of his animal kin. "Perhaps our Queen does not seek to change the future, but merely to be guided by it. Perhaps it is different now. No seer has been consulted since then, and that was a very different time. If our Queen wishes to find a way to end this war, we must hope and pray that she will."