The alarm bells were ringing, and Lilia could not find her wife.
She’d been reading in her room when the bells startled her to her feet. She ran for Tenevine’s room as quickly as her skirts would allow, mind racing. It must be pirates, that was the only reason the bells rang—but Captain Lorea had gone out to fight the pirates, they couldn’t be here! Could they?
Tenevine’s room, which adjoined hers, was empty. Lorea’s rooms, just steps away, were abandoned, as was the throne room and the receiving hall and the small dining room and the large dining room. Where was she? Lilia was beginning to panic. Perhaps, actually, she’d been panicking this whole time. Nobody was anywhere , something that should have been impossible in the bustling palace. The bells stopped ringing, and suddenly all Lilia could hear was the pounding of her own heart.
Then, finally, finally , Lilia spotted a servant shuttering a window near the main doors. “Excuse me!” she called.
The girl turned and dropped into a curtsy. “Your Majesty!”
“What is going on?” Lilia demanded, trying to hide her fear and overcorrecting into imperius. “Where is the Queen?”
“I don’t fully know, your Majesty. We’re—we were under attack. I don’t know who, or why, but they say it’s over now. The Queen rode out to survey the damage.”
“She what? ”
The girl shrank back. “I don’t—”
Lilia put out a hand. “My apologies, you’ve done nothing wrong. I just—how long ago did she leave?”
“Five, ten minutes? You only just missed her. But don’t worry, your Majesty, Captain Lorea’s with her!”
Ah. Of course Lorea was with her. Lilia thanked the servant and made her way back to her rooms, silently cursing the staircases and hallways that had kept her from intercepting her wife. She didn’t curse Lorea. Lorea would keep Tenevine safe, bring her home. Lilia was grateful for Lorea’s strength and dedication, she reminded herself.
Not jealous. Not resentful. Grateful . She thought it over and over again, like a mantra. Like if she simply thought it hard enough, it would become true.
It had been Tenevine’s idea for the two of them to get married. The old King and Queen hadn’t been dead a month, and there was already pressure on her to marry. Her claim to the throne was tenuous at best—large parts of the court believed Princess Magdelaina’s experience would make her a better queen, and even Lilia’s own father was making a bid for the throne. Tenevine had too few allies; she needed to do something to prove that she was serious.
“I can’t let Magdeleina take the throne—nothing will change! ” Tenevine was saying.
Lilia, who had heard this rant before, nodded along. The two of them were out in the fields behind the palace, throwing spears. This, too, was a political choice. Tenevine was better with a sword, but dedicating herself to the city’s symbol was good optics. When Tenevine said they needed to talk, Lilia had recommended the spear targets for that very reason.
“Bandits and monsters from the forest overrun our towns, pirates pillage our coast, and we in the capitol do nothing! Magdeleina is too conservative; she will only shore up the city walls and leave those outside to fend for themselves. What happened to the Marchioness’ lands cannot be allowed to happen anywhere else.” Tenevine hurled a spear at the target.
Even angry, Tenevine was beautiful. Tall and lean, she moved with the grace of someone completely comfortable in her own skin. Lilia would admit to admiring Tenevine’s confidence, her forthrightness, her passion for justice. She was less willing to admit that the new Queen was just super hot.
It had not been too foolish of a thing, to have a crush on a Princess. Even if said Princess was in love with someone else, it was a normal thing to do. Developmentally appropriate. But Tenevine wasn’t a Princess any longer, and what Lilia felt had long since ceased to be as simple as a crush.
Being in love with a Queen was dangerous.
Tenevine’s spear stuck in the outermost ring of the target. Her shoulders sagged. “But I can’t take her on by myself. I need the backing of an influential noble house.”
Lilia, who knew all of this, continued to nod as she selected a spear of her own.
“But more than that, I need someone in my corner who understands the game, who can play these cortiers off each other and interpret the gossip for me—someone who I can trust completely.”
Lilia glanced up to see Tenevine looking at her intently. “I—”
“I trust you more than nearly anyone in the world. So I was thinking, if you’re willing—I would like to marry you, Lilia.”
Lilia felt a thousand things at once—shock and joy and panic and fear and heartbreak. She struggled to keep her face composed. The practical part of her could acknowledge that Tenevine was right. Lilia was better with the court intrigue than Tenevine was (Tenevine was just too honest), and her father’s support would mean all of the Little Fiefdoms would declare themselves for Tenevine. Also, Lilia already knew Tenevine’s secrets, and hadn’t betrayed them yet. Lilia was the right choice. And the foolish part of her, the part that kept looking at the sweep of Tenevine’s auburn hair, was screaming and screaming for joy.
If there was a third part of Lilia that was sad to be proposed to without the mention of love, well. Lilia didn’t want to think about it.
Tenevine put a hand on Lilia’s arm. “Are you all right? You’ve gone pale.”
Lilia shook her head. “I’m fine. I just—yes. I’ll marry you.”
“Thank you. Truly.”
“Of course.” Lilia turned away, busying herself with her spear. She needed a moment to compose herself. She threw, and struck a perfect bull’s-eye. Somewhat rallied, Lilia gathered all her bravery to ask the question that was already hanging in the air.
“What about Lorea?”
Lilia met Tenevine at the door to their suite, just as Tenevine pulled her smudged helm from her head. “Are you injured?” she asked, failing to conceal the worry in her voice.
“No,” said Tenevine. There was a storm cloud on her face, darker than Lila had seen since her parents’ death. She threw her helm dejectedly onto a couch. “None of them sent their guard. Not a one.”
It took Lilia a moment to understand what Tenevine was talking about, but when she did, she understood her wife’s anger. “Not even the Nguyenians?”
“Not even the Nguyenians. It was just the city guard and the palace guard, and a few people from the nobles’ guards who broke ranks, just because they felt the need to help.”
“We should commend them!” Lilia said. “Publicly, and give them positions on the palace guard at twice their current pay.”
“Lorea’s already on it. But will it even make a difference? These old nobles, they haven’t changed, not even with all the work we’ve done. It’s the same shortsightedness that my grandfather had. It will destroy this kingdom!”
Lilia took her wife’s hands in hers. “It will not. You are on the throne now, not your grandfather. Changing a culture takes time and patience, but I promise you, it is happening.”
“Is it? Because no one was on the streets, Lilia. Not a single family.”
“But you must know that Situn was fighting with his father all day. Renetta sent letters to all her friends, urging them to speak up to their parents. Our generation will—”
“Not be leaders for many years.” Tenevine pulled her hands away. She rubbed her temples and said, “Things need to change now.”
“I know. I know. It’s infuriating.”
“I just can’t understand it. Those selfish, solipsistic, myopic..” Tenevine sat down heavily next to her helm. In a much smaller voice, she said, “There were bodies in the streets, Lilia.”
“Oh.” Lilia sat beside her. “And here I’ve been talking politics. I’m so sorry.”
“No, don’t be.” Tenevine wrapped her arm around Lilia. “Your farsightedness and grasp of the bigger picture are a comfort to me always. I’m so glad I married you, Lilia.”
Lilia looked up at her, and had to look away. Tenevine’s eyes were so wide and earnest, and Lilia just wanted to—
Lilia sighed and stood up. “I will ring for some tea. Do you need to eat?”
Tenevine slumped down onto the couch. “No. Tea would be nice, though.”
Lilia smiled thinly and left the room.
When she returned with a tea tray, Tenevine had shed her armor. She smiled when Lilia came in. “I forgot to tell you,” she said, and her voice was almost cheerful. “The heroes of Danmar arrived. They’re the reason we were able to fend off the attack so quickly!”
“Oh my Gods! Did you meet them? What are they like?”
“They’re—I’m not sure how to describe them. Odd.”
“Well, they are Danmari.” Lilia set the tray down and sat beside her wife. “From what I’ve heard, the court of Danmar is—casual?”
Tenevine laughed. “They were certainly casual! But I don’t think they’re Danmari, at least not all of them. One’s an orc. One was nearly nude. One’s blue—”
“What do you mean, blue? Were they wearing paint?”
“I don’t believe so. It was more like—you know the statue on the altar to Rove?”
“Oh, so she’s blue .”
“Extremely so,” Tenevine said. “I don’t know what their intentions are, but I suspect they’re going to make things… interesting.”
Interesting was an understatement. First, two of them fell off the stairs when they were presented at court, demonstrating a lack of coordination that made it seem unlikely these so-called Guardians were heroes of any city, let alone two.
Lilia was plugged into the world of court gossip as a matter of necessity. She needed to know who was whispering against Tenevine, who supported her, who would support her only as long as she supported their material interests. It was always interesting, but that day it was hilarious . The nude boy, Corbin, turned into a horse, which was apparently something people could do now. The orc and the human girl (who some people were saying was a demigod, although no one could pin down what god her parent was) were rubbing elbows with the Bronze Order. The blue girl insulted Princess Renetta to her face! Lilia, who had never gotten along with Ranetta, was absolutely delighted. She only wished she could have been there to see it.
These youths must have been bringing out the pettiness in Lilia, because when she heard that Lorea had recruited them to find out more about the pirate attack, she actually laughed aloud. Imagine hypercompetent, brilliant Lorea relying on help from literal children! Nobody liked Lorea, but everyone respected her—maybe asking children for help would diminish that.
And then, dinner. Which was.
Back in their rooms after dinner, Tenevine waited until all the servants and attendants were gone, and then sagged onto a couch. “Oh my gods”
Lilia sat down beside her. “Well,” she said, putting on some fake cheer, “it was refreshing to have my father not be the most inappropriate person at the table!”
Tenevine put a hand to her mouth to smother a laugh.
“Not that he didn’t try,” Lilia added. Half the reason she’d married Tenevine was to win her father’s support for her, but he’d just taken it as carte blanche to be as rude as possible.
“But tonight he met his match. I’ve never seen someone put their foot on the table —”
“Certainly not a Royal table—”
“The court will be talking about it for years to come!”
“I’m not sure about that,” said Lilia. “Who knows how long these Guardians will be at court? Even if they’re only here a week, I imagine they’ll one-up dinner.”
“Ah, maybe.” Tenevine relaxed her posture, leaning so her shoulder touched Lilia’s head. “To be fair, they weren’t all bad. That orc—”
“Slake,” Lilia supplied.
“Slake. I like them.”
“They spent a lot of time talking about ships.”
“That was a little strange,” Tenevine admitted, “but perhaps they’ll get along with Magdelena. And I like the quiet girl, what’s her name?”
“Maeri. The one people are saying might be a demigod.”
“Are they really?”
“That’s the rumor.”
“Rumors like that never amount to anything. Remember when we were teenagers and everyone thought Lorea was a demigod?”
Lilia laughed. “I’d forgotten that! We were such kids.”
“I think Situn came up with it.”
“He’s always been good for gossip, if not for truth. And he seems to like Corbin, so I’m sure we’ll here interesting things from him. Truly, gossip has never been so fascinating!”
Tenevine snorted in a way she never would if there were other people around. “As long as it’s not too distracting. We’ve got pirates to deal with.”
When the news came, Lilia and Tenevine, supervised by Lorea as always, were eating dinner. It was a rare moment of quiet, and Lilia’s first thought when the messenger burst in was, of course it couldn’t last .
And then the news. Lord Helmshire. Lady Perin. Situn Nguyenian. Earl Dibibibi. Poisoned in their homes.
Shock and sadness overtook Lilia, but she mastered herself. This was a critical moment. Their next choices might determine if Tenevine were still Queen in another month. Just like that, dinner became a strategy meeting.
“The people will expect you to make a statement,” Lilia said.
Tenevine said, “What do I say?”
“Tell them the truth,” Lorea said. “You have to tell them the city is dangerous!”
“What good would that do?” Lilia snapped. “We have to keep people calm. We have to show that you’re in control.”
“We have to keep the people safe!”
“And a panic will keep them safe? Sending them from the walls of the city into the arms of bandits and monsters is safe?”
Lorea cut in. “Will locking them in the city with a poisoner keep them safe? A city that’s already proven itself vulnerable? My Queen, do you really think lying to the people will help?”
“I don’t know.” Tenevine pressed a hand to her eyes. “Lorea, if we evacuated the city, is there a place we could go?”
Lorea sat forward, almost as though she’s been waiting for Tenevine to ask. “We can go to my father’s lands to the south—”
Lilia cut her off. “Captain Lorea, with all due respect, you have to do your job. We don’t know who orchestrated these poisonings, or who let the pirates know when we’d be vulnerable, but it’s possible that we’re dealing with just one spy. If you can find them—”
“I have been trying! The city guard won’t work with me.” Lorea crossed her arms.
“Then we shall order them to!” said Tenevine.
Lilia and Lorea turned to look at her. “My Queen?” Lorea said.
“Gods, what is the point of being Queen if I can’t order the guard to assist in a simple operation? I will speak to their leadership tonight.”
Lorea nodded. She didn’t look happy.
Tenevine stood and put a hand on Lorea’s arm. “I know you can do this. I trust you.”
“My—my Queen.” Lorea bit her lip. Lilia marveled to see her uncertain, perhaps for the first time in their lives. “I will do the best I can.”
“That’s all I ask.”
If Lilia hadn’t been in the room, would they have embraced? Should she leave? Would that help Tenevine?
Before Lilia could decide, another messenger came into the room. “Captain Lorea, you’re needed.”
Lorea nodded. She stepped away from Tenevine, and it was like they all began to breathe again. “I know you will make the best decision for your people,” she said, and left.
The moment the door closed, Lilia said, “You cannot call for an evacuation.”
“I won’t,” said Tenevine. “At least, not yet. Not unless we have no other choice.”
“If you do, Princess Magdalena will call you paranoid. She and her cohort will have you removed!”
“I know! Why are you hectoring me? I agree with you!”
“I just want to make sure you know how serious this is. We need to make sure the people feel safe and united. Catching the spy will help, but it has to be more than that.”
“It must be chaos in the city right now.” Tenevine sat back down, heavily. “What do you suggest?”
Thank all the gods, Tenevine agreed to the Celebration of Life. They divvied up invitation duties, and Lilia made sure to get the Guardians. There were a few things she wanted to talk to them about.
They reacted surprisingly poorly to the invitation. They took more of Lorea’s tack, that gathering everyone into one space was a bad idea—though, reading between the lines, Lilia thought this had more to do with some past trauma of theirs than the actual matter at hand. And they didn’t know the palace. There was simply nowhere safer than the ballroom.
Ultimately, they agreed to come. Which at least meant the Celebration would be entertaining.
And then, the real reason for her visit.
“I understand that you’ve been looking into things here at the court, and for that I’m very grateful, but I—well, I just hope that, whatever people are saying to you about my wife and I, I love her very much, and she is so incredibly brave. I do know that there are many in the palace who—they don’t believe that she was the right choice for Queen, but I do, and I hope that whatever your investigation turns up, you’ll be gentle with my wife.”
This backfired thoroughly.
“You just put your wife on blast just now,” Corbin said. “Like, she just shot right up to suspect number one.”
Fra’Nika was a tiny bit more tactful. “I mean, we’ll try to do what’s just and what’s right.”
“She’s done nothing wrong!” Lilia said, panicked. “She’s just—doing her best and, and I’m afraid that marrying—I’m afraid that marrying me has made her quite a few enemies.”
They made a few jokes, but Slake, who Lilia had labeled “the nice one,” asked if she could give them any more information.
And she tried, but she had so little of it. “My wife—my Queen—she’s done a lot on her short time as Queen, and I hope she will do many more great things, but with every tragedy that has befallen us, everyone continues to point to her and say it is her fault, and that she’s not fit to be Queen. I worry that all of these attacks, all of this random terror that has been sown on our city, is all simply to destabilize her place on the phone.”
Fra’Nika asked about suspects. The Marchioness came to mind, as did her father, despite everything they’d done to try to win him to Tenevine’s side.
And then they asked about Lorea, because everyone always asks about Lorea. Usually in well meaning, tender tones, that betray what they really want to say. Do you know your wife is in love with someone else? As though Lilia could have somehow missed it.
These kids were blunt, though. Or really, the impolite boy, Corbin, was blunt. What did she think of Lorea? Just in so many words.
What did she think of Lorea? If she put aside the jealousy and pettiness she couldn’t seem to expel from her heart, what was left?
Gratitude. Loyalty. Lorea would protect Tenevene at all costs, and Lilia could count on her for that.
But if Lorea got it in her head that Tenevene would be happier if she weren’t Queen, if the two of them were allowed to be together— But that was paranoia. They couldn’t have held onto the throne for this long without Lorea’s help. And if that was her plan, why not take action before the marriage? Still, the knot of anxiety in her stomach grew and grew.
“Captain Lorea is a very loyal servant of my wife’s and they have a—they have a very deep relationship.” Lilia admitted.
And then she got out of there as quickly as she could.
She’d hoped that talking to the Guardians would bring her clarity, or comfort, or something , but it just made it clear how little they knew, and how huge the problems facing them were.
And then the Guardians went and died.
Lilia bust into Tenevine’s room to find Lorea already there. It was one of maybe a dozen times Lilia had seen her out of her armor. “—not safe!” she was saying. “Tenevine, if we don’t do something—”
Tenevine was sitting at the foot of the bed, head in her hands. Her auburn curls mussed and tangled. “I know,” she was saying over Lorea’s rant. “I know, I know—”
Lilia spotted Lorea’s armor and tunic on the floor. She tried not to feel any kind of way about this. “What’s the plan?”
Lorea shut her mouth, jaw set. “It isn’t my decision to make.”
Tenevine shook her head. “Nothing has changed. We should not have been depending on children to save us, anyway. The Celebration will continue as planned, and after that, we shall re-evaluate. Perhaps it will be prudent to order an evacuation.”
“If you evacuate, Magdalena will—” Lilia began, but Tenevine cut her off.
“I know, Lilia! Both of you have to stop telling me things I already know!”
Lilia took a half step back, and to her surprise, so did Lorea.
“Do you two think this is easy? That there are simple solutions? I can’t just put a pretty facade on the problems Madria faces, nor can I simply run from them. I know, I know I have to face them, but every time I try—” She looked up at them both, disheveled, with watery eyes. “The Gods must not want me to be Queen. I should step down. When things are stable again, I will.”
Lilia ached to go to her, but of course, Lorea got there first. She pulled a blanket up over Tenevine’s shoulders and sat down next to her.
“My Queen,” Lorea said, “you care so much for your people, but I worry that sometimes you do not care enough for yourself.”
“I agree,” Lilia said. Loria shot her a surprised look. “You have done everything you can. You are a good Queen. Nobody would care for the people of Madria as you do.”
Lorea added, “We have been hit by a series of terrible tragedies, but none of it has been your fault.”
Tenevine nodded shakily, then pressed her forehead to Lorea’s shoulder.
Lilia bit her lip. All she wanted was to be a comfort to Tenevine, to ease her burdens. But Tenevine had Lorea to do that.
Lilia slipped quietly from the room.
Tenevine took Lilia’s breath away on any given day, but on the day of the Celebration, she was on another level. It wasn’t just her gown, which was white with heavy gold embroidery, just like Lilia’s own, not just the way her hair seemed to dance with the headdress she wore or the glittering bands on her arms. It was the way she stood, regal and noble. She looked, Lilia thought, like a woman grown. Lilia wouldn’t have thought of Tenevine at her coronation or their wedding or any other time she’d seen her in formal wear as childish . The loss of her parents had been heavy on her even then. But the Tenevine before her now carried so many more burdens, yet she stood straight and tall, and even smiled at Lilia.
Lilia, of course, mentioned none of this. She simply said, “You look lovely, my Queen.” There were servants about, after all.
“And you look beautiful. Are you ready? Lorea is waiting outside to escort us to the ballroom.”
Lorea was as stunning as ever in a dark purple gown with long sleeves and a high collar, layered with tasteful plates of armor. She seemed nervous, though. She glowered at passers-by more darkly than usual, and barely seemed able to stay still.
Despite this, the Celebration began well enough. Lilia had supervised every detail, from the decor to the food to the music, and it was all perfect. Lilia and Tenevine sat on their dias, receiving offerings. The line was long, but not so long that they wouldn’t be able to dance a little by the end of the night.
Lilia realized that something odd was happening when Lorea went completely still behind her. She glanced up at her, and then looked where she was looking, to see the Guardians, thoroughly alive, forging through the crowd toward them. They had this wild story of fighting pirates with a demonic monkey, which Lilia wasn’t sure whether to credit. Still, they were alive , and it seemed unlikely that the pirates would let them leave unharmed.
What was more, though they directed their story to Lorea, she remained silent and stiff. Lilia couldn’t see her face, but Lorea’s hand on her sword grew paler and she gripped the pommel more and more tightly. The Guardians were trying to look wide-eyed and innocent, but they weren’t good enough actors to deceive Lilia; they were angry with Lorea, and something about the telling of their story was distinctly passive-aggressive.
Tenevine noticed none of this. Her relief was palpable—finally, something hadn’t gone wrong. It probably hadn’t occurred to her that the death of the pirates would sway popular opinion to her side. If Lilia knew her at all, she was just glad that no more Madreans would suffer from their attacks.
Upon hearing that the Madrean crew had abandoned the Guardians, Tenevine stood and said to Lorea, “My dear Captain, we will have to question that crew to see what in their judgement made them believe that leaving these fine heroes behind was the best option.”
Lorea nodded silently. Lilia began to connect the dots.
Then, bafflingly, the Guardians asked about bones. They seemed to do everything in the most roundabout manner possible—it took far too long for them to simply say the the Bronze Order—along with their bones—had gone missing.
Lorea continued to say nothing. Lilia twisted to see her face—she looked ashen.
Slake suggested fleeing, and without Lilia even saying anything, Tenevine told them that they were already in the safest place possible. “I do not wish to cause additional panic. Everybody in the city is on the edge of fleeting. That is what this party is for. I will send out scouts to see if there is a true threat on the horizon, or if perhaps the Bronze Order had other motives for removing the bones.”
Tenevine had been listening to her! Lilia loved her so much.
Then Lorea tried to pull the Guardians away, which was odd—she never left Tenevine’s side. She grabbed Maeri, and wouldn’t let her go.
Tenevine, shocked, said, “Lorea, what are you doing?”
Lorea shook her head. Her voice was strange and cracked. “I cannot do this anymore. I cannot. I cannot. I cannot.” She let go of Maeri, and said, “You’ve ruined everything. Is that what you came here to do, to ruin everything? To kill all of these people and leave them to ruin?”
“Uhhhhhhh,” said Corbin.
Fra’Nika said, “We came here to ruin some things, but not that.”
Lorea leaned close to the young heroes as though she were trying to prevent anyone else from hearing her, but Lilia still could, and so could Tenevine. “They will kill her. They will kill all of them. They need to leave—they need to be scared and they need to go! And what have you done, you’ve come in and made them feel safe again? No. No, I will not allow this.”
“Then you shouldn’t have hired us,” Slake said, bursting into laughter. The other Guardians laughed and joked along, but there was no mirth in Lilia’s heart.
She may not have liked her much, but Lorea had always been stalwart and true, had always had Tenevine’s best interests at heart. They were on the same team—but, it seemed, that had always been folly.
“Lorea,” Tenevine said, “what are they talking about?” Her voice, too, was shaken.
Lorea looked out over the ballroom, where nearly everyone had turned to watch the events unfolding on the dias. “You will not do this to me,” she said, not answering Tenevine but continuing to address the Guardians. “You will not do this to me and let him go? Tell them your true name, brother!”
The Guardians dissolved into laughter once again.
Lord Andolin, the last person Lilia would have expected to be involved in any of this, stood and said, “Lorea, you’re making a scene.”
Lorea was shaking badly. “You betrayer,” she spat. “That is his name! He is Falen the Betrayer!”
Lilia gasped. Probably everyone in the room gasped. That is how you name a God. But Andolin was so—so charming, so languid. Betrayer? What was his role in any of this?
Lord Andolin, or rather, Falen, said, “Shall I tell them your name then, Slayer?”
Lilia looked to Tenevine, who was frozen to her chair with shock. She stood and went to her wife’s side.
Lorea was still shouting. “So I am good at fighting. That is my gift. And you were sent here to turn them all against each other!”
“Sister,” Falen said with a laugh. “These people did not need help to betray the ones they loved.”
Lorea took a step back.
“You cared too deeply for your Queen.”
“You—you told me to send these Guardians on a goose chase. You told me! ”
Lilia reeled; she thought she’d known everything that went on at court. But all these machinations, these Godlings using her and her wife as chess pieces—anger began to overtake shock in her heart.
Tenevine finally found her voice. “Lorea, is any of this—is this true?”
Lorea whirled around, taking a step towards Tenevine, but Lilia sprang to her feet, placing herself between the Godling and her love.
“ Do not take another step towards my wife! ”
And then all hell broke loose. Lorea drew her sword, and the Guardians readied their own weapons, and the hall dissolved into chaos and fighting. Magic the likes of which Lilia had scarcely imagined, fighting more vicious than she’d ever seen—but she stayed on her feet. None of them— none of them —would harm her Queen.
In the aftermath, Lilia focused on the logistics. They needed to get medical attention to the injured, find a new Captain for the Palace Guard, and, it seemed, clean the dust out of the war room. Tenevine was all but catatonic. Lilia didn’t blame her. If she didn’t have details to focus on, she’d been the same. She’d trusted Lorea. This betrayal was unfathomable—and how much more so for Tenevine, who had loved her?
Lilia got them both to the war room. Tenevine took up a spot by the window, staring blankly out.
Lilia found that she was too short to reach the table, so she dragged a chair over to stand on. Captain Stoddard came in, all frenetic anxiety. He was no Lorea, but he would have to do. She had him update her and Tenevine on their defenses.
Lilia was not a martial woman. She knew enough to get by, but truthfully, she’d always left that sort of thing to Lorea. That seemed awfully foolish, now.
Eventually, the Guardians piled back in, bombastic as ever. They briefed her, giggling all the while. It seemed that Torva the Conqueror was behind the attacks. Also, the pirates were on their side? The pirates, but not Lorea. What a world. And Dodson Goodson, the valet, was suddenly important? And the Bronze Order was working with Torva?
Finally, Tenevine joined them. “Why?” she asked. “Why did Minatine not protect us from this threat?”
Lilia watched her closely. If Tenevine felt abandoned by the Gods—
But then Slake said Torva had maybe killed The Spear, and Maeri said that Torva had already killed The Guide, and that was earth-shattering but maybe it would show Tenevine that this wasn’t her fault.
Tenevine broke down laughing. “Perhaps,” she said, “we should have let Lorea protect us, if that is what we’re facing.”
“Y’all would have died anyway,” Corbin said.
Lilia glared at him. “A very astute pronouncement, honored guest,” she said. She wished she could punch him.
Ambassador Almenia burst in then, with worse news. Ilfra was under siege, starving.
“We shall do whatever we can,” said Tenevine. She looked at Lilia, and Lilia’s heart swelled to see the fire back in her eyes.
Tenevine had always been hesitant to order the other nobles around. Lilia agreed with that approach, generally—they couldn’t afford to offend any potential allies. But the next day, in the war room, Tenevine did not flinch from them. In her formal armor, with her hair in plaits, she was nearly as imposing as Lorea had been.
“Thank you for gathering here today. In light of the events that interrupted our Celebration of Life, we must make a decision. Our allies in the North will need our help. Thanks to the brave heroes of Danmar, and now of Madrea as well, our own city has avoided attack, but unfortunately, our allies in Ilfra have not been so lucky. They currently face an unprecedented siege, attacked from all sides. My lords, my ladies, we must make a decision. Will you send your troops to help our allies? Please, cast your votes on the table.”
The nobles voted. There were fewer blue tokens than Lilia had hoped, but more than she had expected. Her father, thank all the Gods but Torva, threw a blue token.
The previous night, after the band in the war room had dissipated, Tenevine had told Lilia her plan. Now, she stood beside her wife, schooling her features to not display her anxiety. This play could ruin everything, if too many people objected, but when Lilia had pointed it out, Tenevine set her jaw. “I don’t care. I’m sick of tiptoeing around the nobles’ opinions. This is the right thing to do.”
And Lilia couldn’t argue with that. It was, indeed, the right thing to do.
“I thank those of you who have agreed to send troops to our allies,” Tenevine said. “Those of you who have not, I am issuing a decree of Royal Importance.”
Several nobles lounging at the back straightened up.
“You will station your troops here in the city. You will bring your people from the outlying lands here into the city for refuge. These are uncertain times, and we must act quickly and decisively. Our kingdom is too large to effectively protect. We will centralize our people and our resources here, at our most defensible point. Those of you who will not be sending your troops north will station them here. Should another attack be mounted on our city, we will be ready.
“In the meantime, I will requisition members of your staff to set to work rebuilding our navy. That is our most important resource, and unfortunately, the greatest casualty of this attack.” Tenevine took a deep breath. “There will be no votes on this. There will be no arguing. We must do this if we are to survive. We are not facing another kingdom. We are not facing raiders. We are not facing pirates. We are facing a God, and we are mere mortals, but we mere mortals will not go down without a fight.”
And people applauded! Not everyone, but so many more than Lilia had feared. The ones who did not cheer looked more ashamed than angry. Lilia could have collapsed with relief. They had done the thing they most feared, ordering the noble to act against their will, and they had not been shouted down. No one had declared Tenevine unfit to rule.
Tenevine was finally, truly, Queen.
Lilia hated the forest. She ought to be grateful, she knew. Much of the Madrian army walked on foot behind her, and slept out under the stars. But she was not grateful; her thighs and back ached from so many hours in the saddle. She hated sleeping on the ground and waking up feeling dew on her blankets even despite the Royal tent. The Madrian court fashions were uncomfortable, but she understood them, knew how to sway her skirts to keep cool and maintain her posture so her headdress wouldn’t slip. Riding breeches made her feel exposed, and her ornamental armor was stuffier than even the worst gown. She was frustrated, too, with her own delicacy, with her impatience, with her itching skin and complaining muscles. She didn’t like the idea that she was primarily ornamental; that this kind of practical drudgery was beyond her.
Tenevine bore it better, of course. The grim determination that had settled over her after Lorea’s betrayal propelled her on. She rode without complaint, but also without joy, her mouth set in a hard line. She cried sometimes, but only when she thought Lilia was asleep. Lilia understood that Tenevine was putting up a front, that she’d been exposed as vulnerable in front of all of her subjects and wouldn’t allow that to happen again. That made sense. That was politics. There was a small, ungenerous part of Lilia’s mind that said if Tenevine had just cared this much about her public perception before this, they wouldn’t be in this situation at all.
No, it was perfectly natural that Tenevine should hide her pain from her subjects. But to know that she was hiding it from Lilia? That hurt worse than any saddle sore.
There was optimism among the Madrian army as they marched—they had defeated the Slayer, they had allies coming, they could win this war! But then they reached the edge of the forest and saw the Conqueror’s forces laid out before them in the valley, and, well, it was a credit to their training that the soldiers didn’t cut and run.
Now that they had the lay of the land, Tenevine met with her leaders to put together a plan. Lilia sat in the tent with them, mostly just listening. She had her war machine to pilot. Once the grand tactical decisions were made, she would be a part of planning their specific maneuvers, but for now she had little to do.
Tenevine stood with Captain Stoddard and a number of other high-ranking guards over a map of Ilfra and the surrounding countryside. A handful of nobles were there as well—Lilia’s father, Princess Magdelena, and the elder Nguyenian among them. They moved small tokens around the map, arguing with one another—but never with Tenevine. They disagreed with her, for sure, but once they’d explained their points of view to her and she lay down a pronouncement, they all nodded and carried on.
Until the conversation turned to Tenevine herself. “I will lead my forces down the hill this way,” she said, pointing, “to connect with the Ilfran military in the south.”
The guards exchanged uncomfortable glances. “Your—Your Majesty?” said one young woman whose name Lilia had neglected to learn.
“Are you—do you plan to be on the battlefield?”
Tenevine blinked at her. “Of course. Why wouldn’t I?”
“But—just—you’re the Queen! You cannot—”
Tenevine’s brow furrowed. “What I cannot do is ask that my people risk their lives while I sit comfortably up on the ridge. That would be unconscionable, do you not think?”
The young woman shrank. “Of course, Your Majesty, but it’s just—it’s just—what if you died?”
“Then I die!” Tenevine said this with such force that Lilia, perched on her stool in the corner, jumped. “If we do not defeat Torva, we will all die! We need as many swords on the field as possible, and I am as good a fighter as any.”
Captain Stoddard glanced around nervously. “No one—no one is suggesting that your martial skills are—”
The elder Nguyenian cut it. “You have no heir, my Queen. Suppose we win the battle but lose you? Who will lead us then?”
Tenevine opened her mouth, but no sound came out. She looked around wildly, like a trapped animal. Lilia stood, intending to approach her, to comfort her somehow, but before she could, Tenevine pointed at her, and Lilia froze.
“Fine!” Tenevine said. “I name Lilia my heir. She is the only person I trust in this viper’s nest of a court!”
“My Queen—” Nguyenian began, and Magdelena said, “Queen Consort Lilia is also fighting in—” but Tenevine pushed past them both.
“Fight for it among yourselves then!” she spat, hurled the tent flaps aside, and left.
For a moment, nobody said anything. At length, Magenlena managed a “Well, I never!”
Lilia felt that she might throw up. She had never seen Tenevine act like this. She might cry or pout in private, but in public? The Madrean court beat decorum into all of them.
But now she was distraught. And in an unfamiliar place, running on almost no sleep. And alone.
Tenevine was never alone.
Lilia’s blood ran cold. What if something happened to her? A Torvan spy, or a disgruntled noble, or just an unexpected cliff—and Lorea wasn’t there to protect her.
“Excuse me,” Lilia said, and then tore out of the tent to find her wife.
Tenevine was just outside the Madrean camp. There was a cliff that overlooked the Ilfran valley; she was sitting at its edge, feet dangling into nothingness.
She didn’t look up as Lilia approached. “Don’t say anything.”
“I won’t.” Lilia sat down beside her. The view was beautiful and terrible—the grand city wall and the glittering lake, with the Torvan army cutting an ugly slash across the landscape. A bubble of golden light arced over the city. That hadn’t been there yesterday.
The Queens sat in silence for some time. A storm rolled in, centered on the lake and the Torvan encampment, torrents of rain falling on figures too small to see. The storm did not reach them, but it cooled the air; Lilia pulled her cloak around her.
Tenevine looked at her then. “Are you cold?”
Tenevine smiled. “Here,” she said, holding out an arm so that Lilia could huddle under her cloak as well.
Lilia scooted closer to her until their thighs touched. Tenevine was warm, and if leaning against her wasn’t exactly comfortable (they were both in armor), it was certainly comforting.
Lilia sifted through her words, trying to find a way to tell Tenevine—well, she wasn’t sure. They were going into battle tomorrow. Either one of them could die—they both could—and Lilia didn’t want that to happen without Tenevine knowing how she felt about her.
But that was selfish. Tenevine had enough of her own problems, of the kingdom’s. She didn’t need Lilia’s, too.
So, ultimately, it was Tenevine who spoke first. “I don’t—there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to trust anyone.”
“I understand,” said Lilia, hastily. “I’m honored anyway. You don’t have to have meant it.”
“Lilia, that’s what I’m trying to say—I did mean it. My throne—probably my life—has been in your hands for years now. You have had a thousand opportunities to hurt me, to tell people about Lorea or my own insecurities, and you never ever did.” Tenevine let out a bitter laugh. “Apparently we had a God of Betrayal in our midst, so I don’t think I could blame you if you did. But you didn’t.”
Tenevine lay a gentle hand over Lilia’s. “And for that, I thank you. I haven’t said it enough, I know, but thank you . I would be no queen without you.”
Lilia pressed a hand to her mouth. Tears gathered in her eyes. “Tenevine…” There were a million things to say; her tongue was thick with them. Finally, she managed, “Be careful, tomorrow. If something were to happen to you—I couldn’t bear it.”
Tenevine leaned down, and for a moment Lilia thought—but then she pressed her forehead to Lilia’s. “You be careful too.”
Lilia woke to screams.
It was barely dawn, still dark outside, but she scrambled to her feet. Tenevine was already standing at the tent flap; Lilia joined her.
Even through the trees, she could see the fire.
Tenevine shook her head. “Form up!” she called. “Everyone up! Get dressed! The battle is happening now!”
Lilia ducked back inside. She pulled on clothes—no armor, not inside her war machine—and made to run out of the tent, when Tenevine caught her hand. Lilia opened her mouth, then closed it. She nodded to her wife, and Tenevine nodded back—then pulled her into a hug. They stayed there just a moment, as the camp grew louder around them, and then let go. Lilia went one way, Tenevine another, all without exchanging a word.
Lilia, like all Madrean nobles, had been brought up to fight with a spear, sword, and bow. She’d studied military history and tactics, even if she’d been dreadful at it, and knew the basics of hand-to-hand combat. And, of course, she could drive her war machine, a contraption based on the Torvan apparati of destruction but smaller, lighter and more maneuverable.
None of it prepared her for battle.
She and her troops came screaming down the hill, taking shots at the Torvan troops as they went. Somewhere to the right was Tenevine and her cavalry; behind them, the main bulk of the infantry. They had formations, they had maneuvers, they had a plan—
And then they met the Torvan troops, and they didn’t have a plan anymore.
Battle was chaos, light and noise, blood and mud fear. A spear cracked into the war machine beside her, pinning the gnomish soldier to his seat. The apparati boomed, and another machine exploded into matchsticks.
She kept going.
Combat was close, close enough to see the faces of the enemy soldiers. They were just people , most of them young, scared—but they would kill her if she did not kill them first, and she did, again and again and again.
She couldn’t see Tenevine. She couldn’t see the rest of her troops, couldn’t tell which way the tide of battle turned. She was alone in the filth and the death.
The boom of the apparati stopped. Did that mean that they were destroyed, or that they were no longer needed? Cheers rang out, but whose cheers?
And then, the unthinkable. A dragon swooped down, fire from its maw scorching a line across the battlefield, burning Torvan and allied troops alike. The dragon fire missed Lilia, but the gusts of wind from its wings blew her machine off its feet and sent it crashing to the ground. It landed on her, pinning her to the ground. A loose leg hit her across the forehead, and her vision went spotty, and then black.
Sound came back first. Screams, the clang of metal, the unmistakable roar of a dragon. Then, sensation. Lilia’s legs hurt so badly she nearly passed back out from it. She forced her eyes open, pushed herself to her elbows, made herself look. Her legs were crushed beneath the shattered carriage of her war machine. There was blood in the mud around them—hers? She tried to wiggle her toes. Her left foot responded; her right did not.
Lilia began the long process of wiggling herself out. It seemed possible. The ground beneath her was soft and malleable. Every one of her muscles cried out, and the pain in her legs was beyond anything she’d ever experienced—but she was awake, wasn’t she? And though the battle raged around her, nobody seemed to pay her any attention. She could do this.
She’d just managed to free her left knee when her vision went gold. This was not from the pain, no simple hallucination. She heard a voice—but it was not a voice, and it was not in her ears but in her head and her heart.
My name is Maeri, and I am the Survivor.
Oh, Lilia thought. Not a demigod at all.
Then came a thunderous boom, louder than a hundred apparati, and shards of the walls of Ilfra came raining down, striking mud and flesh.
And when the echoes faded—
No swords, no screams. And the sun was rising.
Cautious murmurs turn to cheers, praise to the Gods. Lilia pushed herself up, trying to see what had happened. Had they won? It sounded like they’d won.
And there was Tenevine, soaked in blood and gore, her hair matted—but still beautiful. She could never be anything but beautiful. She pulled Lilia the rest of the way out of the machine and wrapped her arms around her, and Lilia clung to her.
Tenevine was crying openly. “I thought I’d lost you,” she said, crushing Lilia to her. “I couldn’t see—and there was so much fire, so much blood—”
“I know,” said Lilia. She reached up to wipe Tenevine’s tears away, but more came, months worth of them.
“All I could think was that I’d never get to tell you I loved you.”
“You love me?” It was all Lilia could say. “But Lorea—”
“ Fuck Lorea!” Tenevine pulled back a hand to wipe her nose. “She was out there, you know? On the battlefield, fighting our allies.”
“What happened to her?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t see. I don’t care. You’re alive! And I love you. You don’t have to say it back, but—”
“Oh,” said Lilia. “I love you. I’m sorry, I got sidetracked—”
Tenevine kissed her, and whatever Lilia was about to say was gone. Everything—the pain in her leg, the smell of blood, even the joy of victory—disappeared. Because Tenevine was right there , kissing her. Tenevine, her crush, her Queen, her wife—
Tenevine pulled away, just a little. She tucked a stray lock of hair behind Lilia’s ear. “My love.”