Karigan lay in bed, unmoving, gazing up at the ceiling. Images from last night’s party flickered through her mind: the procession of Green Riders into the hall, the flicker of black as the Weapons flanked her, the staring faces of nobility and merchants alike, King Zachary bowing slightly over her hand before escorting her to dance, his hand on the small of her back…
Like something out of a fairy tale, or a dream. But it was real, very real, and – Karigan stifled a groan – she was going to be very late for training with Drent if she didn’t get up right now.
Steeling herself, she swung herself out of bed and forced herself not to shiver at the cold. It would be much colder out on the training ground at this time of the morning, best to start adjusting to it now.
After dressing hurriedly, Rider Sir G’ladheon, future Queen of Sacoridia, set off down the corridor tying her hair back as she went and trying to ignore the solitary Weapon trailing a step or two behind her.
‘Excuse me, Rider; could you tell me where I might find Rider Sir G’ladheon?’
Mara stopped, surprised. The servant had a L’Petrie accent and a very polite manner, and was carrying a small envelope.
‘She’s at training,’ she answered. ‘So out on the grounds, but Drent won’t have interruptions – do you have a message to pass on?’
The servant looked slightly displeased.
‘I was told to hand it directly to her,’ he said. Mara raised her eyebrows.
‘Then I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until she’s available. She should be back in the barracks in about two hours.’ She watched his brow crease further, and took pity.
‘Look, unless it’s confidential, what is it? Maybe I can help?’
The servant appeared to consider this for a moment, and then conceded.
‘She is invited to lunch with Lady Degrey,’ he said, ‘and a number of that lady’s friends.’
Mara stared at him, and was then suddenly overcome with a desire to laugh. Of course – Karigan was the future queen. Commoner or not, people would be attempting to curry favour or build a connection or even just get a good look at her.
‘Well,’ she said, ‘in that case you should perhaps leave it with me. As a king’s messenger it’s my responsibility; I’ll ensure that she gets it as soon as possible.’
Another moment of consideration, and then the servant handed her the little envelope before thanking her and heading back off down the corridor.
Mara shook her head as she examined the pretty, gilt-embossed envelope. She pictured Karigan’s expression, her reaction when she found out that she’d been invited… but she would be expecting this, wouldn’t she? Mara frowned. Now that she thought about it, wasn’t that strange? Karigan usually hated the fuss and arrogance of the nobility, but she was going to be queen; there’d be no getting away from it.
She chewed on her lip as she continued on her way, tapping the envelope absently against the side of her leg. The more she thought about it, the more this whole thing seemed strange. Karigan G’ladheon, queen? Putting herself in the centre of fawning nobility, choosing a life of luxury… well, she had grown up in a wealthy household, so perhaps that wasn’t the strange part. And last night – well, she had been nervous, and understandably so, but there had been happiness there too. No, not happiness – joy. Even under the nerves, she’d looked pleased.
It was a puzzle, and one that Mara would not be able to figure out until she spent some time with her friend. And in the meantime there was work to do. Mara set the problem aside and turned her mind to the day’s tasks.
‘Our overall, early conclusions look positive, sire,’ said Colin as Zachary took his seat at the council table and the others took theirs. Zachary nodded.
‘I know Hillander’s behind the match,’ he said. ‘Do we have confirmation on any of the others?’ He knew some of the answers to this, but it was always better to hear the opinions of his councillors; there were many things that no one would say to the king’s face or in his earshot, but his advisors were less noticeable.
‘We’re reasonably confidant in the Eastern lords,’ he began. ‘So that’s Coutre, Bairdly, and Arey in support. Hillander, of course. Lords D’Yer and L’Petrie have also expressed their support, along with their warm wishes.’
‘The Eastern lords are following Coutre, and he’s following Estora,’ said Laren. ‘Lord Leonar trusts your judgment and is basing his support on that; Lord D’Yer has a high opinion of Karigan from Lord Alton; and Lord L’Petrie feels that as Karigan is from his province this marriage will raise his prospects, even though she isn’t nobility.’
Zachary nodded again. This was as they had predicted, though the Eastern lords seemed surer than anticipated.
‘Penburn and Adolind also appear to be in favour, though more cautiously. I suspect Adolind is hoping to form a better relationship with L’Petrie and perhaps Clan G’ladheon in order to improve the finances of his province; Lord Penburn’s reasons, however…’
‘May have to do with Karigan’s position in the delegation,’ Laren provided. ‘The new Lord Penburn was rather impressed with her courage.’
The councillors considered this duly. The delegation that Lady Penburn had headed up had come to a devastating end, but Rider Sir G’ladheon had indeed demonstrated much of her character.
‘That’s eight out of the twelve,’ Zachary said, drawing them all back to the present. ‘What about the others?’
‘Wayman and Oldbury are holding neutral for now; Lord Wayman was offering some criticisms of Rider Sir G’ladheon last night but they seemed more of a testing of the waters than outright disagreement. He looked rather thoughtful after Lord Alton’s stalwart defence of her.’
Zachary held back a smile.
‘And D’lvary and Mirwell are against the idea, though all they’ve done so far is mutter about it,’ Laren concluded. ‘We were expecting that; you probably wouldn’t get their support regardless of who you chose at the moment. They’re too unhappy with previous crown decisions.’
Exile in one case and execution in the other, Zachary thought, his urge to smile fading away. Something would have to be done to bring those two provinces back into unity. What it would be, he didn’t yet know.
‘All in all, that’s a very positive start,’ Colin said. ‘We don’t know how long they’ll remain as they are, of course – but it’s easier to keep them onside than win them over.’
Practiced from long years of council meetings, Zachary kept track of the conversation as his councillors discussed the possible movements of the Province Lords, while allowing a small part of his mind to wander. She’d already be up, of course; training with Drent, probably. He’d have to make sure he spoke to her today – or perhaps it would be best to leave it to Laren to keep her updated? Or send her a message via her father? Zachary was, of necessity, an expert in formal social graces; but this situation was somewhat unusual. And one misstep at this stage could be devastating…
He made a mental note to raise the communication issue later in the meeting, and turned his full attention back to the discussion.
‘What am I supposed to do with them?’
Karigan’s expression was so dismayed that Laren struggled with her urge to laugh for a moment. Forcing herself to stay serious, she leant back in her chair.
‘You were expecting this,’ she reminded her. ‘It was discussed. You need to look through them – preferably with some input from myself, Colin, or Zachary – and decide which ones to accept and which ones to decline. You’ve got an inbuilt excuse for declining – training and Green Rider duties. So that shouldn’t be difficult. Now we just need to look through and work out which ones you should accept.’
This took some time to do; Karigan seemed to be doing her best to memorise names and reasons for acceptance or avoidance, and Laren talked her through the pros and cons of each case. Despite Karigan’s surface-level dismay, Laren felt confident by the end of their discussion that Karigan would be able to make more educated decisions next time. She was a fast learner with a good memory; she just needed a little more confidence. And that would come with time.
After lunch, Karigan was in her room in the barracks, adjusting the dress that had been sent down from her family’s quarters and trying nervously to do something appropriate with her hair. She was expected to meet with a small number of ladies for afternoon tea – fortunately, the invitation was Lady Estora’s. Karigan knew that Estora would try not to put her in a difficult position and was in fact very talented at keeping events like this running smoothly, but this didn’t stop her being nervous. She wondered if Zachary had ever felt like this about social events. Probably not, she decided; he’d grown up in this environment, it probably felt entirely natural to him.
The thing was, she thought, checking her appearance in the mirror, to treat it as a learning experience. It couldn’t go too badly wrong. Estora probably wouldn’t allow it. And it was only afternoon tea. The best thing to do would be to stay calm, stay reserved but polite – she recalled with gratitude Zachary’s suggestion of cultivating the reputation of being an excellent listener – and watch and learn.
It felt as though the ground was shifting steadily under her feet. Everything was changing. Well, she thought, remembering that morning’s training, not everything…
Drent’s expression had made it clear he didn’t intend to change how he treated her, but Karigan hadn’t expected him to. She’d seen how he’d treated Zachary in training. Somehow it was reassuring rather than intimidating; everything in her life was going to change, but Drent would remain the same. She suppressed a small laugh at the thought of telling him this.
Finally she was as satisfied as she felt she was going to be, so she headed out of her room and towards Lady Estora’s quarters, worry fighting for balance with determination.
Estora made sure to give Karigan a warm smile when she came in, and before she moved them through to join the other ladies put a hand on her arm.
‘Karigan,’ she said, ‘I know I made this clear before, but I want you to know that I am entirely behind you on this, all right? And father is, too. Congratulations.’
She watched Karigan’s expression, which had been rather guarded, flood with gratitude.
‘Thank you,’ she said earnestly. Estora smiled more, and then took Karigan through to join the others.
It was funny, she thought as the discussion washed over her; she really didn’t feel jealous at all. She had almost expected herself too – not because she regretted walking out of her engagement with Zachary, but because she felt sad that she couldn’t have been happy with it. And Karigan… Karigan was happy about this. That much was clear, even though she was also obviously rather nervous. Lady Estora kept careful track of the conversation. She had exercised her court experience to pick a small group of ladies she felt might me more inclined to support Karigan – who would now need serious allies at court, and there was no time like the present.
Lady Triss was genuinely kind-hearted, and Estora knew her to be genial with servants and quite happy to mingle with the merchant classes. Lady Sivan and Lady Camri had ties to Lord L’Petrie, who had already made very clear that he intended to support the match. And Lady Molan had both D’Yers and Hillanders in her family tree, though she was neither herself strictly speaking. All had been flattered by Lady Estora’s invitation, and she was confident that none of them were likely to sink to backhanded behaviour provided they liked someone. And she was confident they would like Karigan – even, she thought somewhat grimly to herself, if I have to convince them myself.