Warprize (Chronicles of the Warlands) by Elizabeth Vaughan


  I smiled at the Council members. “Thank you for attending this meeting on such short notice. I wish to apologize for not being prepared to name my Council at this time, for I am minded to reduce the size of the Council. I regret the delay but ask your forgiveness during this chaotic period. I would request that you all continue to serve in a temporary capacity, until I have considered and chosen my permanent advisors.”

  That set the cat among the fowl. I could tell that some hadn’t considered my right to name a new or smaller Council. Good. I wanted them unsettled and thinking about what my coronation would mean to them.

  “First, I feel that I must correct a lie that Xymund told to us and to the people. Let me explain the meaning of the word ‘warprize.’” I took my time, emphasizing the honor that the title bestowed, and its meaning to those of the Plains. Simus confirmed my words, but I could see limited understanding in their eyes. It didn’t matter to me if they thought it was the truth, or an effort to restore my wounded pride. So long as they believed. That chore done, I turned to the important issues. “With the kingdom returned to the House of Xy, we must consider the needs of our country and its people. While the Warlord has offered assurances that the raiding will not resume during his lifetime, Lord Warren and I have discussed our safety. The knowledge of a female ruler on a throne will spread, and there may be those who will challenge our throne and borders. Our military must be strong enough to deal with these challenges, and that will mean raising taxes for its support.”

  I cleared my throat and took a sip of water. The headache was still there, pounding fiercely behind my temples. “Which leads me to the next topic that I and my Council need to consider. We need to consider any potential alliance marriages and assuring that the royal line continues.”

  Archbishop Drizen was frowning. Hopefully, he was starting to think about what a royal consort would mean. A man, unknown to them, who would come in and, by simple virtue of my lack of skills, would move into a position of power. Let that idea settle into their understanding.

  “We must also prepare in the event that I should die in childbirth or without living issue. The people must be assured that the kingdom will pass into safe and strong hands.” I bit my lip, as if in thought. “There are few distant cousins, but they must be considered as potential heirs.”

  There were definite looks of concern now. They all knew the cousins.

  “Would that there was time to discuss some type of trade relations with the Warlord before he left.” I turned my head carefully. “Simus, would your people be open to such talks?”

  Simus shook his head. “Your Majesty, our people take what they want. The idea of trade is foreign to them. I fear that will not happen.” He shrugged. “That is a concept that only a warprize could introduce to the tribes.”

  “A shame. I liked the colors.” I smiled at him. “Especially the purple that you wear today.”

  Simus arched his eyebrows and smiled, sitting a bit straighter in his chair. I stifled a smile, for Simus out of uniform was a sight to behold. He seemed to prefer gaudy colors, and shone like a peacock among drab pigeons. He preened as the lords and ladies of the Council gawked at him. What he missed was the look of greed on Masterweaver Meris’s face. She looked like she would do anything to get the secret of those dyes.

  Exactly as I had hoped.

  I rose, and everyone rose with me. “We have many hard decisions to make in the coming days. We will meet tomorrow, three hours after dawn, in order to begin this great work. May the Goddess bless us all.”

  Simus extended his arm, and I took it. The buzz of talk started before we were over the threshold and into the hall. As the doors swung shut, I took the crown off with a sigh. “Simus, do you have any kavage in your chambers?”

  Simus laughed. “I do indeed.”

  CHAPTER 13

  ANNA HAD ASSIGNED SIMUS SERVANTS, AND THEY brought hot kavage as we settled into the chairs by the fireplace in his quarters. Even with the flames roaring, there was a chill in the room. I took the offered mug and sipped the bitter liquid carefully. The servants bowed and retreated from the chamber. Simus had a mug of his own, and settled in a chair opposite me. “I swear by the skies that my tent is warmer than this stone castle of yours.” He grumbled in his own language.

  I nodded and ran a hand through my hair, thankful to be rid of the weight of the crown. It sat on the table next to me, gleaming in the firelight. The taste of kavage was bitter on my tongue, yet soothing. I could almost feel my headache fade with every sip.

  “You did well, little healer.” Simus leaned back, stretching out his long legs, cupping his mug in two hands. “You showed knowledge and strength.”

  I stared down into the dark liquid left in my mug. It was time. “Simus, as Queen of Xy, I must obey you as the representative of my liege lord, right?” I used his tongue, mindful of those who might overhear us.

  Simus nodded. “Yes, I speak for the Warlord until he releases his claim. You have sworn fealty to him.”

  “But I haven’t sworn, have I?” I looked out of the corner of my eye.

  Simus was puzzled, but he answered my question. “Your system allows oaths to pass from heir to heir, am I not right?”

  I nodded slowly. “Yes, but the oath must be ratified.”

  Simus shrugged.

  Casually, I continued. “And as warprize, Simus?”

  “Eh?”

  “As warprize, must I obey you?”

  Simus tensed. It was a slight movement, involuntary on his part, but I caught it. He recovered well. “You are no longer warprize, Your Majesty.”

  “But if I were?”

  “As warprize, you would rank me.” He looked at me closely, but his eyes betrayed nothing. “But you are no longer claimed as warprize.”

  I tilted my head and smiled at him over the brim of my mug. “That’s odd.”

  “Odd?”

  “I’m sure that Joden told me that once claimed, only the elders could confirm or deny my status as warprize.”

  Simus stared at me, his eyes wide.

  I thumped my mug down on the table, hard enough to rattle the crown. “You will tell me now, Simus, and tell me the truth, with the flames as a witness.”

  Simus dropped his mug, groaned, and dropped his head into his hands. “Who told you? Keir was sure that—”

  I stood, furious. “No one told me the entire truth. I had to figure it out for myself.” I breathed in, trying to maintain my anger and control my delight. “I must be confirmed as the warprize by the Council of Elders, yes?”

  Simus nodded, head never leaving his hands.

  “I remain the warprize until the elders confirm or deny me, yes?” I pressed him hard. I was rewarded with a muffled “yes.” I pressed on. “Keir can’t change my status once he claims me, can he?”

  “No.”

  “As warprize, I answer only to my chosen warlord, and I haven’t yet formally chosen a warlord, have I? That’s why he denied me access to the camp, so I couldn’t talk to Marcus or Joden, isn’t it?”

  Simus moaned.

  “Look at me.” He didn’t move. “Look at me, Simus.”

  Dropping his hands, he collapsed back in his chair and looked at me. “Lara, please—”

  I drew myself up. “As warprize—”

  Simus held up a hand, palm out. “You rank me, little healer.” He dropped his hand down and leaned forward slightly. “Keir is trying to do what is best for you and this land. Your kingdom needs you and there are things that you will face as warprize, obstacles that—”

  “Never asking if there might be alternatives!” I was furious, practically spitting. “Without considering my thoughts on the matter!”

  “Lara—”

  “Enough, Simus.” I lifted my chin. “Hear now the will of the warprize.”

  He sagged in his chair. “I will hear and obey, Warprize.” He looked up, pained, and yet with a gleam of mischief in his eyes. “Can we at least have more kavage before you order me to
thwart Keir’s plans?”

  I smiled and sat back down, feeling strangely exhilarated, my headache gone. I was going to make this work, find a way to balance the interests of my kingdom and my heart.

  Keir had been right. The best part of being a queen and a warprize is getting exactly what you want.

  ONCE AGAIN I FACED THE COUNCIL OVER MY FATHER’S desk, my hands sweating, my stomach cramping, and the crown of the Kingdom of Xy about to fall off my head at any moment. I put my hands facedown on the maps spread out over the desk and tried to remain calm, for this day would see either the birth or the death of my hopes. “My councillors, I thank you for joining me this morning. I have something that I wish to announce before we begin our deliberations.”

  This was no group of sleepy lords, craftmasters, and clergy—half awake from being roused from their beds. These men and women faced me alert and ready, each with their own agenda to be considered. They’d all come, with the exception of Lord Durst. He still lay abed, recovering from his wound. I’d tried to blunt the edge with an offering of tea and sweet pastries, but mere food would not be enough. Othur had a chair off to the side, not technically part of the Council, but as Seneschal he’d been invited to councils by my father. Xymund had removed the privilege, but I had restored it the day before. Warren was sitting next to Simus, whose tunic and trous were the color of gold. He looked relaxed and opulent, with the onyx brooch of the cat gleaming on his collar.

  I pulled my eyes from the brooch, and cleared my throat to continue. “I believe that it is in the best interests of this kingdom if I go with the Warlord as the warprize.”

  I’d stunned them. Taking full advantage, I continued. “Our joy at my return must quickly give way to the hard reality of this kingdom’s situation.” I held up my hands as Othur and the Archbishop both tried to interrupt. “I will state my case, then I will answer your challenges and questions.” I drew in a breath. “There are no potential alliance marriages that would be acceptable to the Council or to me, one of the reasons that Xymund didn’t contract my marriage.” There were none. I had poured over the damn maps for hours, checking the status of the neighboring monarchs. The only one that might be a potential ally was five years old and had a regent.

  “There are no nobles within the kingdom that would be suitable for me to take as consort.” This was trickier, since there were a few that I could marry. But I was certain that the political infighting would prevent anyone from becoming attractive in the entire Council’s eyes.

  “If I should pass to the Goddess without a living heir, the throne would descend to my cousins.” I cleared my throat. No need to go any further, since they knew of the cousins. “The combination of a lack of an heir and a lack of a potential spouse is a fatal one.”

  They sat there, focused on me. The only encouragement I saw was in Simus’s eyes. I stiffened my resolve, hoped that the crown would stay on, and continued, “Our army has been weakened, and there will be attempts on our borders, especially with an inexperienced woman on the throne.” I glanced at Warren, but his expression told me nothing. “To strengthen the army will take time, men, and an increase of taxes and tithes. That will be especially hard, since there has been little trade with other kingdoms since the war, and no new routes since my father’s time.” Remn, Estoval, and Kalisa had all confirmed that fact for me.

  “A union between the Warlord and myself provides answers to these problems. We would have an alliance, bound by marriage.” The Archbishop coughed, but I ignored him. “Bound by marriage. I am certain that our union would be fruitful, and Simus of the Hawk has confirmed that my firstborn could be raised as a Son of Xy, and designated as the heir to the throne.”

  “By taking my place as warprize, I would be able to promote trade between our peoples, opening up potential markets for us, and bringing in new trade goods. By taking my place as warprize, I will insure that the Warlord will provide men to aid in our security. When our more aggressive neighbors hear of this alliance, they’ll be slow to challenge a warlord. That would reduce the need for increasing taxes and tithes.” I wasn’t going to let them off the hook completely on that issue. The kingdom needed money.

  “I’ll listen to your arguments and answer your challenges. If any has a better idea to serve the needs of the kingdom, let them speak. I must stress that time is of the essence. If the Warlord returns to his people without the Warprize at his side, our opportunity will be gone. And he departs soon.”

  They were on their feet in seconds, talking at the top of their lungs. Othur pressed his lips together in a thin line. Warren looked thoughtful. Archbishop Drizen looked apoplectic.

  I let them stew for a while, not so much listening to any one voice but trying to catch the general tone. I’d diagnosed my patient; now all I had to do was convince the patient that the treatment would work, no matter how bad the taste.

  I put my shoulders back, called the room to order, and called on Lord Warren to speak first. By all rights, it would have been better to have gone about this slowly, persuasively, and tactfully, approaching the councillors individually. I had time for none of that. If this were to happen, it had to happen quickly.

  Step-by-step I took them through my reasoning. We poured over the maps of the surrounding kingdoms, and scrutinized the potential marriages in agonizing detail. Of the six potential rulers, three were already married, with heirs. One was a woman. One was age five, and the last one had a streak of madness that ran through the male side of the family. To my astonishment, there were advocates for this alliance, until they were silenced by their peers.

  A marriage with one of the local nobility caused a great deal of ruckus. There were a few second sons that might have qualified, except that many of the lords hated one another. I sat back in my chair and let them have at it. Simus was having a wonderful time, although his command of Xyian was not strong enough to follow all of the rapid cursing and swearing. I happened to catch Othur staring at me at one point. I tried to catch his eye, but he looked away. Finally, I had to take a stand and stop the discussion. It was getting nowhere and we were losing time.

  The discussion about potential heirs was very short. Everyone knew my cousins and no one wanted to see them on the throne of Xy.

  It was during the discussion on taxes and tithes that I got my first indication that I had support. Lord Warren stood and held up a hand. “I believe that Xylara is right. If she claims the title of Warprize, it will bring more good than harm to the Kingdom of Xy.” Warren looked around the room, then focused on Othur. “I’ve dealt with the Warlord firsthand, and I know that he is a man on whom we can depend. I say that we should support the Daughter of Xy in her decision.” He took a seat as the members of the Council talked among themselves.

  Masterweaver Meris popped up. “The merchants support this decision as well.” She popped back down. Thank the Goddess for mercantile instincts. We weren’t going to have to debate the benefits of expanded trade. The way Meris kept eyeing Simus, I’d had no doubt she’d support me.

  “Well, I’m against it.” The Archbishop rose ponderously from his chair. “We are talking about binding a Daughter of Xy to little more than a barbarian, and a heathen barbarian at that. Goddess forbid.”

  Having anticipated this argument, I rose from my chair. “Perhaps now would be a good time to speak privately and refresh ourselves.”

  The servants brought in fresh drinks and offered mugs of soup and warm bread. I circled the room, talking to each councillor for a moment, smiling at each one, and made sure that I ended up at the side of the Archbishop. Deacon Browdus stood at his side. “Devoted One.” I sat next to him. “May I speak with you privately?”

  “Of course, Daughter of Xy.” The Archbishop lowered himself in the chair next to me, adjusting his robes. Deacon Browdus took up his usual position, just behind the Archbishop, a stern frown on his face.

  “Devoted One, before we go much further with our Council, I feel that I must draw your attention to the sleeping arran
gements while I was in the Warlord’s camp.”

  “Sleeping arrangements?” Drizen’s voice lowered to a whisper. “Where did you sleep?”

  I waited until he was mid-sip with his tea. “In the Warlord’s bed, Devoted One.”

  He choked on the tea, splattering his vestments. Wide-eyed, he waved off the Deacon’s assistance, and mopped at his robes with a cloth. “Child, what are you saying?”

  “I’m saying that while in the camp of the Warlord, I slept in the Warlord’s bed, Devoted One.”

  “Oh, my poor child.” His face flushed.

  “Devoted One, I have wished to discuss this matter with you, for it troubles me greatly.”

  “Child, I—” Archbishop Drizen shifted in his chair as his face grew redder. “There’s no need to share the details—”

  “My thanks for your willingness to spare me, Devoted One, but I feel that you must know the truth.”

  “T-truth?” Beads of sweat were forming on his forehead as he set down his tea and let his eyes dart around the room, searching for an escape.

  “I am no longer a virgin, Devoted One.” I took a sip of tea to give him time to absorb the information.

  “Really?” he squeaked. Deacon Browdus’s face was pinched up and his eyes were bugged out.

  “Yes, Devoted One.” I looked him straight in the eye. “A foreign prince might have a problem accepting that.”

  The poor man blushed deeper. “I’m certain that allowances would be made, Daughter of Xy.”

  “Alas, Devoted One, not everyone is as forgiving as you.” Since during the last sermon I attended he had discussed that very point in great detail, I was sure he’d see it as a difficulty.

  “It could pose a problem, my child.” He sucked in air, and let it out slowly. “I’m encouraged that the Warlord seems to respect our traditions.”

 
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