Junim was a happy toddler by nature, giggling easily and curious about everything in the nursery. Ulasu was more serious, but she was barely two, so it was potentially a bit early to be forming opinions about her temperament. Aly ran her fingers through Ulasu's thin, blonde hair, over her soft baby scalp, and watched Junim dig further into his pile of toys.
“Look mama!” he said, in his high child’s voice. He had a soft Islander accent, influenced heavily by his nurse, Kenilu. She cared for all the children of the royal staff in the nursery Dove had set aside. The rooms would perhaps, one day, be home to Dove’s children. It was too early to say, though Aly had begun to think seriously about some of the potential candidates for fatherhood. She had good agents keeping tabs on a select list of appropriately titled princes and nobles across the Eastern lands. Dove had not yet raised the question of marriage, but Aly believed in being prepared.
Junim waved his hand at her, and she realised he was waving a gaudy piece of paste jewellery, battered from where it had been extracted from under his pile of toys. He raced over to place the necklace in her outstretched hand, and she held it up to the light. One of the paste rubies glinted in the light. It was cheap, and had probably cost a handful of coppers at best.
“Where did you get this sweetheart?” she asked, keeping her tone light. Junim grinned. He was missing one of his front teeth.
“Papa gave it to me,” he said, chewing on his lip. “Yesterday.”
Nawat had left for Ikang last night, after the evening meeting of councillors Dove held after dinner. There had been failed harvests in the northern Isles, and hungry bellies normally spelled trouble, of some kind or another. Fesgao had sent Nawat, and his squadrons, to reinforce the garrisons on Ikang and report back. Ally sighed, and turned the necklace in her hand. Nawat and her were both called away from the capital regularly, she to deal with sources or agents that needed delicate handling, Nawat because he could travel the fastest, and was an excellent tactician. It still pained her, even now, even just a few days away from him, or from the children.
“It’s shiny,” Junim said. “Papa said shiny things are good when you’re sad.”
Aly smiled, and handed the necklace back to Junim.
“You have your father’s temperament,” she said, smiling. There was a knock at the door, and Vitorcine stuck her head around the door.
“Duani,” she said. “We have a meeting with Commander Sigibat.”
“Yes, I'm coming,” she said, and bent over to press her nose into Ulasu's hair and inhale, the unmistakable scent of a child. “I have to go now sweethearts.”
“Okay,” Junim said peaceably, already distracted by his toys. Kenilu came back into the nursery from her room when Aly called and took Ulasu from her arms, to put her down for her nap. Aly rose, brushed invisible crumbs off her sarong and followed Vitorcine back to her office. Taybur was waiting for her, along with a lieutenant, a young raka man Aly hadn't met before. He was sweating slightly, but Taybur, as usual, was as cool as a cucumber.
“Aly Bright Eyes,” he said happily, reaching out for her hands and kissing her on each cheek. He still had that boyish smile, although a few more lines had started to gather around the corners. It hardly mattered. He was still the most handsome single man in the Queen's household. She grinned back.
“Taybur, you know you’re always welcome for a social call,” she said brightly, in the tone of a society matron, as if they were not in an office of the palace, the walls papered in maps. Taybur pulled back and dipped into a shallow bow, and waved a hand at his lieutenant, who also bowed, quickly, like he hadn’t been expecting it. She smiled at him, and he quickly ducked his head.
“Not a social call, I’m afraid,” Taybur said, and she gestured him at one of the chairs in front of her desk. She sat behind her desk, shuffling papers off to the side. She was neat when it came to work, but the amount of it occasionally overwhelmed every the most meticulous system, and everyone always seemed to have a piece of news they felt was crucial. “We agreed to discuss the new security in the city, and the palace, and I have a bone to pick with you Mrs. Crow,” Taybur said, sitting and crossing his ankles.
Aly lifted an eyebrow at him.
“And what bone would that be?” she asked sweetly. She rested her chin on her hand, leaning on her desk and tapping her chin like she was thinking. “I can’t think of a single thing I’ve done recently to displease the Commander of the Queen’s Guard. I’ve been very well-behaved you know.”
That wasn’t strictly true, but what Taybur didn’t know couldn’t hurt him.
Taybur nearly rolled his eyes. She liked needling him. Her opportunities to flirt with attractive men were a lot diminished recently, mostly out of a lack of the time. She batted her lashes at him, and he laughed.
“I know that’s not true, Aly,” he said. “But I don’t think this one is on purpose. Chaenol says I am to have 30 more trained men, and 20 more recruits, but no more. I know for a fact there are funds for recruitment of another 60 agents, 15 in the isles and 45 abroad.”
“And how do you know that?” Aly asked with a raised eyebrow. His numbers were a little off, such that she wasn't overly concerned with a leak among her agents. Vitorcine wasn't interested in men, but Cassidy, her assistant, had needs like any other red-blooded woman with an interest in men. Besides, she knew Chenaol had originally approved only 20 trained men, and 10 trainees. Taybur crossed his arms.
“I'm a good listener,” he said blandly. Aly pouted, like an eligible young woman minorly inconvenienced, even though she was a woman grown now, with three children. “How can I keep the city safe with no men? I need those men.” he said.
“Soldiers make people nervous,” she said. “And people don't like the idea of paying to fill soldiers bellies while they go hungry. A lot of people are still struggling, Taybur.”
“People don't like spies anymore than they like soldiers,” he said, and she shifted her head back and forth. That was a fair challenge. “I plan to challenge the allocations, Aly, unless I understand them.”
Aly sighed. More challenges to Chenaol’s financials meant more meetings, and hours going through her plans with Dove, who was meticulous and fair-minded to a fault.
“Darling,” she said sweetly, turning to look at Taybur’s lieutenant, who started, not expecting to be addressed. “Could you be a dear and step outside and watch the door for us? I’m afraid this place is just crawling with spies.”
“Uh, yes ma’m,” he said, bowing slightly, and then stepped across the office to open the door and then close it behind him.
“You don’t have to torture all my lieutenants you know,” Taybur said, when the door closed.
“Taybur,” Aly said slowly, and he sat back in his chair, clearly waiting for her explanation. She sighed. “I’ve cut back on our operation at home. The new overseas agents come from my existing agents.”
Taybur raised his eyebrows. He wasn't a fool, and usually grasped her plans faster than any of the other Queen's counsellors.
“You see trouble from abroad?” he asked. Aly shrugged. She saw trouble everywhere. Growing paranoid was an occupational hazard.
“Dove turns 22 in a few months,” she said, keeping her fingers still in her lap. “The ruling families of the other Eastern Lands have started thinking it's high time for her to marry.”
“You're worried a princeling will think us easy pickings?” Taybur asked thoughtfully. Goddess bless Taybur and his quick, squirrelly mind. She nodded.
“We have been in the past,” she said levelly. “It was not so long ago that Kryptish pirates were raiding the Tortallen coast, and the old royal family were Orzorne's allies in the Immortals War. You can’t blame them for trying to prevent more attacks from the West.”
“By marrying the Queen,” he said, just holding back from making it a question.
“By marrying the Queen on their terms,” she corrected gently. “Or by shackling her to a fool, or a wastral, or a drunk. There are a lot of ways to lose, and only one to win.”
“If it’s not additional agents, why can’t I have my trainees?” he asked. Aly waved a hand.
“I’ve not had my allocations increased at all, but the harvest failed in Ikang this season. You know Dove doesn’t like to spend more on soldiers when it could go to grain,” she said. Taybur sighed.
“I was hoping to avoid more budget meetings,” he said. Aly smiled at him.
“We are old deskbound spinsters now, Taybur. It is the best we can hope for,” she said. They shared a moment of smiling connection.
“I’ll bear that in mind next time I catch you in the field, and Nawat screeches and flaps his wings,” he said. Aly waved a hand dismissively.
“It keeps him on his toes,” she said, rising from her desk. Taybur also stood, and he clasped her hand once before he stepped outside. As the door closed, she heard his lieutenant ask “Was that the Duani?”
Aly, Winna and Dove ate together that night, in Dove’s private parlour. As usual, Aly ate in the chair closest the door, so she could take urgent messages without disrupting the table. Only a couple of messages came through, and Aly sent them away with a note, or a request to delay. Winna raised her eyebrows every time someone came through the door, but Aly only raised her eyebrows back. Doing anything with Dove, eating, travelling, was an exercise in crowd management, even in her private rooms. She was always in demand, and so were the people around her.
After dinner, and once the plates were cleared away, Winna produced her needlepoint, and Dove’s secretary brought her impressive pile of reading from Dove’s study. Aly updated her journal, her detailed list of all her meetings, conversations, and the pieces of information that had come to her through the day. Each page filled with her ever-cramped handwriting. The room was quiet, just the sound of pages turning, and Winna’s needle and thread.
Eventually, the almost-silence was broken by Dove closing her book firmly. Aly looked up. Dove’s small face had slid into the easy royal mask that she used on all state visits, and that Aly saw every day in meetings.
“I am told that our Ambassador in the Yamani Isles has received another invitation for audience with His Imperial Majesty, and his daughter invited to dine with the third-tier Imperial Princesses,” she said, in an even tone of voice. Aly sighed. She had hoped Dove wouldn’t find out about that until later in the week.
“I thought I had told you that making friends with my assistants was unfair,” Aly said, setting her quill aside. “How am I supposed to keep secrets from you if you keep demanding they tell you?”
“I thought you were supposed to help me find out other people’s secrets, not make more,” she said. Aly made a dismissive gesture.
“I have to keep some secrets. I need to stay in practice,” she said. Dove set her book aside and crossed her arms.
“I will send another refusal to His Imperial Majesty, before they make another offer. Clearly they did not believe the first one,” she said. Aly sighed. Dove was usually thoughtful and considerate, and rarely made a decision based only on her temper, but she had blind spots, and herself, especially herself and the question of marriage, was one of them.
“Dove,” Winna interjected quietly, laying her embroidery down. “That would be a grave insult to Emperor Suizei.”
Dove had a naturally young face, and when she stuck out her bottom lip she looked almost petulant.
“I don't like the offers we keep getting,” she said.
“Your majesty,” Aly said, setting aside her journal. “You should consider it a compliment. They consider marriage to you a benefit.”
“They are interested in the Isles wealth, and the food we can provide, not me,” Dove said.
“Not long ago, The Eastern Lands thought of the Isles as a group of ungovernable jungle lands, now they see one of its native queens as a true marriage prospect. It is a compliment.”
“Wanting something from me is not a compliment Aly,” Dove said. Winna raised an eyebrow.
“I had expected you to be a bit more clear-headed about this, Dovasary,” she said, in an even tone of voice. Dove made a frustrated noise in the back of her throat.
“Winna,” she said, and then stopped. She took a breath. “I know marriage will be an important decision, and I know I will need to choose someone based on what’s best for the Isles, but I hate this moving so quickly. I want to make the decision, not be forced into it.”
Winna reached over to put a hand on Dove’s shoulder.
“I understand that my dear, I do, but entertaining the offers of other nations is not a commitment. It is diplomatic good sense.”
“I understand,” she said. Aly recognised the tone of her voice. It was the tone Dove used at the end of a meeting to indicate her decision was final. Winna nodded, knowing not to take the disagreement further, and picked up her embroidery. If she would have agreed to it, Aly would have argued for Winna to be their chief diplomat years ago, but she liked the palace. Aly didn’t think the conversation was over. The Yamani Emperor was clearly thinking about extending the offer of a lower prince again, and some of the other nations, Galla, Maren, even Tyra, had eligible men to offer. They would keep having this disagreement until something changed.
They passed the time until the hour candle burned down in familiar silence, all three of them working. It had become tradition for Aly to join them when Nawat was away, which he was regularly, and Chenaol, or Fesgao would join occasionally, with their own evening tasks to complete. In the days after they had taken the capital, they had needed to meet up every evening to discuss the progress of the battles to retake the other islands, and then, over time, the habit had stuck.
When Winna left for the evening, and Dove retired, Aly came with her. Dove’s handmaids were used to her now, and she sat at the end of Dove’s bed, discussing politics and some of the more well-known gossip from court, while her handmaids brushed her hair and rubbed cream into her face. Aly liked most of them. They had political reasons for being chosen, of course, but most of them were bright, and had quickly found that the fastest way to Dove's good graces was to have something intelligent to say at the end of the day. Dove's hair was covered in a satin headcloth, and her jewellery carefully removed and stored for the evening.
Dove was used to the fussing now, and she chatted easily with Janna and Huare, the most senior handmaidens as they finished her beauty routine, and then withdrew to their own chambers. Finally, it was only Aly and Dove, alone at last. Dove was still seated at her vanity, and she folded her hands in front of her on the table, bowing her head.
Aly reached out to her, and then stepped forward when she couldn’t reach, to place her hand on the curve of her neck, pressing the pad of her thumb into the muscle at the place where Dove’s shoulder met her neck.
Dove made a noise, and leaned forward further.
“That feels good,” she said, letting Aly massage her for a minute. Aly smiled.
“You work too hard,” she said. Dove snorted, not at all elegant.
“So do you,” she said, and Aly grinned, meeting Dove’s eyes in the mirror. She bent over slowly and pressed her lips softly against the back of Dove’s neck, where her skin was tantalisingly soft. They had come together on and off for the last couple of years, in the time since Dove had grown into a full woman, and since Ulasu had been born. Nawat would never lose the part of him that was a crow, and he was territorial and strange, but also had no understanding of how humans mated. He loved Aly completely, and loved and spoiled their children, but the idea of neither of them ever taking another lover only struck him as unnecessary and confusing. If there was anything crows prized most highly, it was freedom.
“Then come to bed,” Aly said gently. Dove was her closest and best friend. She had put her on the throne, and helped her hold it. Their love was different than the love she had for Nawat, her children's father and the great love of her heart, or for Taybur, her friend and brother. Dove was her own private fire in a chamber of Aly's closely guarded heart. They loved each other, and trusted each other, and that was enough.
Dove stood, and turned in Aly's arms, and they kissed, just gently, two lovers coming together at the end of the night. Finally alone they crawled into bed together, lying down in each others arms.