Any time to herself was a luxury these days. Dove sat herself in a corner of the palace library and tucked her knees up to support her book. She knew she would get, at most, an hour, and that even now someone had no know where she was. Aly, at the very least, would be sure to find her if necessary. But Aly also understood that Dove needed a moment of solitude now and again.
Not that she didn't love her people. She loved them passionately. She enjoyed the discussions she had with people from all reaches of the Isles and she loved the changes she had managed to make in her time on the throne. But it was a far cry from her childhood, this new life as queen. Even a year later she was still growing accustomed to it, and the biggest change was being noticed.
The book in Dove's lap had been a gift from Sarai, sent along with letters in the previous month. She had kept it by her bedside, intent on reading it every night, and every night she had been up late going through new treaties or complaints from nobles or reports deemed important enough to grace her desk. And every night she had lain awake to think on what she'd read, finding new alternatives, better wordings, possible solutions. The book had gone unread. The farthest she'd gotten was to read the letter that had accompanied it. Sarai was well, as was her son and her husband and for once it seemed that she was not in the middle of some whirlwind.
Dove had taken a moment to be envious, then she had gotten back to the business of ruling her country. It was all well and good to envy Sarai her freedom from responsibility but it didn't change anything. And really, when it came down to it, Dove liked the challenge. Still, there was that book. It had taunted her all month.
So here it was, open in her lap. There was an hour to spare between meetings and audiences and Dove simply could not concentrate. She glanced out the shuttered window next to her seat and watched as a miniature kudarung glided on the breeze over the gardens. Somehow it seemed to know she was watching and flew over, landing on the windowsill. Dove held out one hand and waited as the kudarung inspected her fingers. When it was satisfied that she was harmless it climbed through the window and took off again, making a circuit of the library. Its wings fluttered a few pages here and there, and then it was off into another part of the palace.
Dove smiled and looked back down at the book. It looked truly excellent, and not that long, really. Sarai had claimed it was a set of myths from one of the southern lands long since conquered by Carthak, and that the stories were gaining in popularity once more. She'd even made some notes on two of the stories, saying Dove might find them particularly interesting. And that in itself would have made it worth reading them. Sarai had never been as interested in books as Dove had, so for one to catch her notice meant it was special indeed.
The trouble was that there was so much to do. So many things to keep on top of. Dove ran her fingers along the edge of the book's cover, reading and re-reading the same sentence in the introduction. It was ridiculous that she couldn't seem to get past that, so eventually she simply skipped the introduction and went straight into the first story. She'd made it three pages in when a shadow fell over her and she sighed.
"Please," she told Aly - for it had to be Aly. "I just need a little longer. I feel like Petranne, whining about lessons, but I've been in meetings all week."
Aly took a seat beside her and nodded. "And so you have. I didn't come to rob you of your reading time, Dove, I promise."
Dove sighed in relief and looked up at her. "It isn't that I don't want to do what's necessary. I find it fascinating, I really do. It's just I've begun to feel it's all I am."
Aly twisted a little to get a view of Dove's book, nodded, then sat back. "It's understandable, Dove. And you didn't get the easiest path to the throne. Back home, King Jonathan took the throne in the middle of Duke Roger's attempt to destroy the whole kingdom. What should have been a sad but simple transfer of power from one ruler to the next, well, it was anything but. Even without the barriers between the realms coming down years later, it was still a hard way to come to power. Trouble is, you can't exactly write him for advice."
Dove allowed herself a soft chuckle at the idea. Not that it hadn't crossed her mind. She'd studied the history of her friend and spymaster's home. But politically, it wasn't the best idea. Admitting difficulties put one in a weak position for negotiations, and she needed every advantage she could muster. It was already difficult, given her age, though that wasn't always a problem. Being underestimated had its perks.
"I just fear I will lose perspective. I won't be me anymore, but some figure, making grandiose decisions without seeing the people involved. I need to speak to my old friends. I need to read. I need to play a game of chess without it involving nations."
Aly reached one hand over and patted Dove's forearm. "I agree," she said. "I was thinking, perhaps a scheduled break, once a week, more than an hour. An afternoon, spent out with the people of the city - and an escort of course. Time to read without interruption. Perhaps a picnic with Petranne and Winnamine."
It all sounded so simple, the way Aly said it, and yet Dove knew putting it in place would be a gargantuan task. But if anyone could make certain that Dove was to have time without bother, it was Aly. She was Dove's spymaster, yes, but she had been a friend too, well before Dove had known she would need a spymaster - back before she'd even entertained thoughts that Sarai might need her for that same purpose.
Dove set the book aside and leaned in to hug Aly tightly. "That would be wonderful," she whispered. "If it can be arranged. I know it will be a beast to set up."
"If anyone tries to interfere, I'll inform your Aunt Nuritin."
Dove laughed. "Perhaps she could stand guard," she suggested. Aly cocked her head and appeared to consider the idea before smiling and hugging Dove back.
"Now, read. Your afternoon meeting has been postponed. I'll give you a summary of your reports later tonight."
Aly hugged Dove again, then stood, leaving the library and Dove.
Dove picked up her book and opened it again, this time returning to the introduction. With the meeting postponed and the promise of at least the attempt to give her some time of her own, suddenly it was easier to focus on the words on the page. Soon she was immersed in stories utterly unfamiliar to her. She spared a thought for Sarai, silently thanking her sister for sending her just the thing to let her explore without leaving her people.