Actions

Work Header

Spymaster's Duties

Work Text:

 

Queen Dovasary Haiming Temaida Balitang watched her newest lady-in-waiting stutter with dismay, and carefully hid her smile. The girl was obviously unwilling to contradict her queen, but was also equally reluctant to obey the order she’d just been given. She should work on her ability to hide her feelings, Dove thought, her own small face as serious and unreadable as ever.

“I am quite capable of brushing my own hair,” Dove assured her.

“I’m sure you are, your Highness!” The lady-in-waiting agreed, although her expression suggested otherwise.

“And my guards will call for assistance, should I need any.”

“Of course, your Highness - ”

Dove glanced at the second lady-in-waiting present. “Lady Byri, perhaps you can explain to Lady Asha how we do things here?” Neither lady was deceived by the mild tone or phrasing. The two ladies-in-waiting, one a light raka brown and the other a pale luarin white, both curtseyed to their queen and exited her bedchambers.

“You’d probably save yourself the headache if you just told them I was tending to you for the evening,” Aly said, strolling in as Byri and Asha left. “I was your maid once, I’m sure I still remember the basics.”

“I have so few opportunities to shock my ladies,” Dove told her. “Taybur never lets me go around the city myself, and he’s impossible to get past, so my weekly outings are entirely respectable now. Even my once-eccentric habits like astronomy and reading thick, unintelligible tombs have been made popular by my sovereignty. Not to mention I barely have time for them anymore. My monthly night with you is the only small act of rebellion I allow myself!”

Aly took the open seat near Dove. Between them was a small table containing a bowl of fruit and a decanter of spiced wine, the only refreshments Dove kept in her chambers. She knew from experience that Aly would decline the fruit but accept the wine. Aly knew from experience not to offer to pour it.

“Well, dismissing your ladies and ignoring all but the most pressing matters of state for an entire night is pretty rebellious,” Aly said, shaking her head sadly.” “I suppose this is what we get for putting a young, erratic girl on the throne.”

“You have only yourself to blame,” Dove pointed out, offering a glass of wine to her friend. “How are the children?”

“Nawat’s problem for the night, thank the gods,” Aly said, “and that is my own small monthly act of rebellion.”

“To small rebellions that keep us sane,” Dove said, raising her glass. Aly raised her own glass in response.

“I hear the Council wants you to start thinking about a husband,” Aly said blandly, sipping her wine.

“How did you know the Council…” Dove started, then rolled her eyes. “Never mind, silly question.”

In the early weeks after her coronation, Dove discovered there was no precedent for ruling at such a young age. At the age of fourteen she would typically have ruled with a reagent, though nobody insulted the new monarch by suggesting as much. However, Dove knew she needed to surround herself with competent advisors without creating the appearance that any one person or perspective had undue influence.

It was her own idea to create the Queen’s Council, reinstating an old raka tradition she’d read about. Wanting some advisors who had actual experience with the court, she’d chosen Duke Nomru, Winna and Baron Engan. Anticipating an outcry from the raka, she’d also chosen three raka advisors to balance the Council: Fesago, Chenaol and Ekita Temaida, one of the few remaining members of the old raka nobility. There were some complaints, of course –prominent members of the luarin nobility were offended they’d been overlooked for cooks and footmen – but Dove had already learned to ignore the malcontents, provided they grumbled quietly to one another and didn’t stir up any trouble.

Dove had offered Aly a seat on the Council, but she hadn’t wanted it. She’d claimed that such a position was too public for a Spymaster, who ideally would draw less attention to herself than someone like Topbaw had done. Dove had agreed, though she hadn’t been convinced. Now she was starting to think that Aly had refused primarily because she preferred to spy on the Council meetings than attend them outright.

“Of course it’s a silly question,” Aly told her brightly. “How are you feeling about your impending nuptials?”

“Overwhelmed,” Dove admitted. “Sorting out the court has been bad enough, and I can generally balance one luarin appointment with a second raka one. How am I supposed to satisfy everyone with a single husband?”

“Have more than one.”

“And this is why you aren’t on my Council.”

Aly grinned. “What did the Council have to say?”

“Very little at this point,” Dove told her. “Everyone’s a little paralyzed at the mess it represents, I think.”

“I love messes,” Aly replied, leaning back on the carefully embroidered pillows that adorned the couch. “Let’s talk it through.”

Dove looked at her friend gratefully. It wasn’t that she was unwilling to make a state marriage; that came with the responsibility of the throne. She knew that some girls dreamed of romance but Dove had never been one of those girls. Watching Sarai flirt and sigh over this boy and that had always struck her as rather silly, and Dove had always preferred sense to silliness. It made sense that the queen needed to use her marriage to form an alliance that would strengthen the realm. It just wasn’t clear what kind of alliance was best.

“My initial thought was that I should probably marry someone from the Isles,” Dove told Aly. “You know, mend broken fences at home before I go across the sea and all that. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that will probably create more problems than it solves.”

Aly nodded. “Marry a luarin, and the raka will be up in arms that their next ruler is going to be three quarters luarin. Marry a raka, and the luarin will have the same concern.”

“The nice thing about the twice royal queen is that she can be perfectly impartial and evenhanded, at least as an abstract concept.”

“But the twice royal queen isn’t an abstract concept,” Aly pointed out. “You’re a real person, with biases and quirks of your own. What makes you a good ruler is your kindness, and fairness, and commitment to serving all your people well. That will be true for your children too.”

“So you think I should consider a Kyprish husband?” Dove asked, surprised.

“Definitely not,” Aly told her. “Ruffles far too many feathers for much too little gain. The raka adore you and will stand behind you, whomever you marry. You could go as mad as the Rittevons and they’d still back you. It’s not like they have a lot of other options anyways.”

“You do flatter me so,” Dove said dryly.

“As for the less loyal of the luarin nobility, they’re far too self-interested to stir up serious trouble, as long as you keep the realm peaceful and the trade strong. An alliance with a prosperous nation will appease them – and lend additional credibility to your reign.”

“Have I mentioned recently how glad I am that you were raised to play on the international stage?” Dove said.

“And here I thought you loved me for my wit and sparkling personality,” Aly said regretfully. “How sad to know to how little you value our friendship.”

“Walk me through my international options,” Dove said, ignoring her.

“Carthak’s out for obvious reasons – it’s the one country you do have a solid alliance with, thanks to Sarai. Scanra is recovering from a civil war far worse than yours, and the government is in shambles. I think Tortall, Maren and Tusaine all have princes of a suitable age, but they all have the same tactical shortcoming.”

“They’re basically just foreign luarins?”

“Exactly,” Aly agreed. “Racial relations in this country are on a knife’s edge. You’ve brought them to a place of temporary stability – with help from your talented advisors, I might add. But it’s a precarious stability, and your marriage has the potential to rock that. This is not just a matter of thwarting national politics by making a good international match. Your people are going to be watching to see what color your husband is, because that’s what color your children will be.”

Dove groaned, and buried her head under another of the ornate pillows. “I know all that but I hate hearing it,” she muttered.

“Dovesary, I can’t hear you when you hide your head under a pillow,” Aly said. Dove sat up and threw the pillow at her, rolling her eyes when Aly caught it neatly and placed it behind her head, leaning back with a grin.

“I know all that,” Dove said, settling back on her own pillows, “but it sounds so awful when you say it out loud. What am I going to, line up all the princes who’ll have me and pick the one whose skin is the right shade of brown?”

“I once heard of a king who chose his bride by hosting a ball so he could choose the most beautiful of all the women in his land,” Aly said thoughtfully. “Is this really so much worse than that?”

“That is a depressingly low bar,” Dove sighed. “But seriously, Aly, how does this make me any better than the Rittevons, refusing to value an entire segment of the population just because their skin is the wrong color?”

“That’s a ridiculous comparison, and you know it.” Dove smiled reluctantly. Aly didn’t have much interest in coddling Dove in her despair over running the country. “You aren’t denying the humanity of a Gallan prince, just considering the political implications of the match. People are going to talk about the ‘purity of the royal bloodline’ whatever you do. That’s a reality you have to consider.”

“But wouldn’t it be better to ignore race all together, and pick the one who will be the best alliance or consort? If I want my people to move beyond petty racial prejudice, shouldn’t I lead by example?”

Aly shook her head. “Pretending we live in a world beyond prejudice won’t fix the problems it causes. Fighting to make them better them is the only thing that does.”

Dove sighed. “It seems stupid to say it sounds hard,” she admitted.

“It is hard,” Aly agreed. “I learned from watching my mother that it takes an extraordinary person to dedicate their life to that kind of fight. You remind me a bit of her, sometimes.”

“That’s quite a compliment,” Dove said quietly.

“So people insist on reminding me,” Aly muttered, but Dove could hear the smile in her voice.

“None of that tells me what to do about a consort, though.”

“Let me think it over,” Aly said. “I’m sure that between the two of us we can come up with someone that will be acceptable. Provided that he’ll take you, which I really can’t count on…”

“Are you sure it’s really part of your job as my spymaster to find me a husband?” Dove asked skeptically.

Aly shrugged. “It is if you want it to be.”

---

A month later, little progress had been made among Dove’s advisors about the matter of her husband. They’d begun gathering information about the eligible sons of various foreign leaders, and who might be likely to express an interest in an alliance.

“What do you think about Jasson of Conte?” Dove asked Aly. The two of them were playing chess. Aly claimed it was one of her duties as spymaster to regularly ensure the queen was keeping her mind sharp and strategic senses honed. Dove didn’t object. It was hard to find someone who was willing to beat their queen, and harder still to find someone who could actually do it.

“What about him?” Aly asked, studying the board carefully. She appeared to be entirely focused on her strategy as she moved her knight forward, but Dove knew her spymaster better than that. Far too many people underestimated Aly’s ability to focus on two things at once; it was one of the reasons she was so good at her job.

“As a chess partner, what do you think? As King-Consort, obviously. The Council thinks King Johnathan might make an offer, though we haven’t heard anything yet.”

“I’d imagine he’ll want to watch the stability of your reign before he makes any kind of formal offer, but I’d be surprised if he’s not considering it.” Aly moved her bishop and looked up. “Your move.”

Dove ignored the game. She could beat Aly about three out of five games, at least on a good week, but she had to be really focused. Whenever they started mixing policy and playing, Dove inevitably lost. She suspected Aly did it on purpose.

“Is that based on official crown intelligence or personal childhood knowledge of the king?” Dove asked. Her spymaster also happened to be King Jonathan’s goddaughter.

Aly cocked an eyebrow. “All of my personal childhood knowledge is official intelligence,” she pointed out. “But if you’re asking if I’ve heard anything lately, no. I don’t have to. Uncle Jon is always considering anything that would put his kingdom at tactical advantage. But he won’t rush into these things.”

“And what do you think of Jasson?” Dove asked.

“Why does it matter?” Aly asked, not unreasonably. “We both know he’s not an ideal candidate for your husband.”

“Yeah, but what if nobody else is interested?" Dove had enough perspective on the situation to realize that this wasn’t a particularly likely scenario. Sometimes it was hard, though, to fully comprehend just how much had changed since she’d taken the crown. Two years ago, Jasson of Conte would never have even considered her for his wife. Now, she was supposed to turn him down.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Dove,” Aly told her brightly. “Even if you were hideous and horrible, you would still have countless offers for your hand.”

“Wow, thanks.”

“I didn’t say you were,” Aly pointed out.

“So I shouldn’t consider Jasson?”

“You shouldn’t consider Jasson. It’s too bad, though, he’s nice and he’s cute, and he’d probably make a good husband. We grew up together, of course - ”

“– of course – “ Dove said, interrupting. “You know, I’m the queen and I still think it’s strange you grew up playing with royalty.”

“Well it’s lucky for you I did, isn’t it?”

“It’s not just any royalty, though – its Tortall. Sarai and I grew up on stories about your family.”

“Believe me, I remember very clearly being asked to tell you all stories of home when I first got here. It was bizarre.”

“I’d forgotten that!” Dove said, studying the chess board once again. She had about three viable moves open to her, but as far as she could see, Aly would win in just a few moves regardless of what she did. “It must have been difficult to talk about your family as if you didn’t really know them.”

“It was. Are you going to move or not?”

“Not,” Dove decided, getting up from the board. “I’d rather hear about your childhood.”

“You’re just saying that because you’re losing!” Aly objected.

“Maybe,” Dove shrugged. “Guess we’ll never know.”

“Cheater.”

“It’s impossible to cheat when you’re the queen,” Dove told her loftily. “Whenever you bend the rules they’re automatically canonized that way.”

“This is a serious abuse of power,” Aly told her. “I think your Rittevon blood is coming out.”

“I was thinking about what you said last time,” Dove said, ignoring her. “About me reminding me of your mother. You don’t talk about her very often. What was she like, as a mother?”

“Gone, mostly,” Aly said. “She was always being called off on Champion’s business. My da was the one who raised us.”

“Was that hard for you? That she always had to put being a Champion first?” With all the talk of consorts, Dove was starting to wonder what it would be like to be a wife and a mother when her responsibilities as queen would always had to come first. She hadn’t quite realized before now that Aly was the child of another such mother.

“We all worried about her, but even as a little kid I understood how important her work was. And, to be honest, it was harder for me when she was home. My mother’s temper is famous for a reason, and she and I never really saw eye to eye about most things. We basically fought constantly whenever she was around.”

Dove cocked her head, considering it. “It’s a little hard for me to picture, actually. You’re generally so good-natured.”

“I was a lot more contrary as child. And Mother was really good at getting under my skin. I always felt like she was trying to push me to be someone else, someone like her. It’s only recently that I’ve realized she was just trying to help me become myself.”

“That seems like a process that ideally wouldn’t involve so much fighting.”

“Yeah well, that’s Mother. Fighting for what matters comes naturally to her, but I’m not sure that parenting ever did. Still, I learned a lot from my mother about what kind of person I want to be, and the older I get, the more I value that. Not that I could admit as much to her, of course.”

Dove laughed. “Of course not. Do you think about that more, now that you’re a parent?”

“I do, sometimes. Generally I try to channel my da, though. Like I said, he’s the one who raised us. But every now and then I open my mouth and my mother just pops out. It happens to everyone, I suppose.”

Dove looked down to hide the emotions she wasn’t sure she’d managed to keep off her face. Aly wasn’t fooled for a second.

“I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “I know how much you miss them both.”

Dove wasn’t sure it was fair to say she missed her mother, but she didn’t know what other word to use. She had been five when Sarugani died, and her memories of her mother were hazy at best. When she was being honest with herself, which she always tried to be, Dove wasn’t even sure she remembered her mother at all. It was more likely that the dim memories she had were childish attempts to visualize Sarai’s stories, rather than genuine recollections.

She remembered the day her mother died, though. She remembered the way Sarai, nine and already headstrong, had been pacing the room, furious that she hadn’t been allowed out to watch her mother ride. She remembered that she had been struggling to tune her sister out and read one of Sarai’s books when her father had come to tell them the news. She remembered the strange look he’d had, how pale and drawn his face had been. She couldn’t remember her mother’s face, though, and for many years it had seemed to her a great personal failing. She was old enough to know better, now, but she still wished she could.

“I can’t remember my mother’s face, let alone anything she said to me,” she admitted softly. “I worry that there may not be any of her in me at all.”

“Of course there is,” Aly said gently, leaning forward to grasp Dove’s hand. “You just don’t know how to look for it. Have you ever thought about asking Winna? I mean, she’s not just your stepmother, she was also your mother’s best friend.”

Dove had thought about asking Winna before, but she’d always felt strange about it, as if she was suggesting that Winna wasn’t enough for her. “Don’t you think she would mind?”

“I think she’d scold you for trying to protect her feelings when there was a way she could help you. And for worrying that she’d be hurt that you want to know more about your mother. Of course she’d want to tell you.”

Dove smiled. “That does sound like Winna. I want to be her when I’m a mother.”

“I wouldn’t count on it,” Aly told her solemnly. “I expect you’ll be much more like your Aunt Imajane.”

Dove stuck her tongue out at her. Aly grinned.

---

"I've found you a husband!" Aly announced by way of a greeting, coming into Dove’s rooms. Dove was sitting in bed reading; Aly dropped down onto the bed next to her.

“I could have you beheaded for entering unannounced, you know,” Dove said. “Not to mention throwing yourself into my bed uninvited. You should show a little more deference to your queen.”

Aly propped her hands on her hips. “I’ve faced down Kyprioth in a murderous rage,” she reminded Dove. “You’re going to have to work harder than that to scare me.”

“Not lately, I hope, unless you know something I don’t. Have you heard from our friend recently?” Dove followed the Kyprish custom, and generally avoided saying the god’s name. Aly found this amusing, though she liked to point out that Kyprioth was vain enough without additional attention. Dove wasn’t sure how her spymaster and patron god had come to be so perfectly matched, but some things were better not to question.

“Not at all,” Aly sighed, a maiden bereft of a favorite suitor. “As soon as he had what he wanted from me, he cast me aside like so much rubbish.”

“It pains me that you’d speak of me so,” Kyprioth said, strolling through the open door that led to Dove’s private balcony. He was wearing the likeness that Dove had seen most often, the one that Aly liked to describe as an “elder statesman,” though Dove mostly thought he just looked like a god. She quickly got out of bed and dropped to her knees.

“Rise, my dear,” Kyprioth said kindly, offering Dove a hand and helping her to her feet. She perched on the edge of the bed, somewhat warry of sitting fully in the god’s presence.

Aly, of course, hadn’t moved from where she was lying. “What are you doing here?” she asked him. “It’s not like you to stop by for a social visit. Don’t tell me you need something. We’re still in the middle of the last favor you asked of me.”

“As you can see, motherhood has not made Aly any more respectful,” Dove told Kyprioth.

“That’s our Aly,” Kyprioth said. “But she’s right. As much as I treasure your company, I’m here to discuss the question of your consort.”

Aly frowned. “Don’t tell me now that I’ve gone to the trouble of picking one out for her, you’re going to chime in with your own ideas.”

“Nonsense,” the god replied. “I know you’ve worked through all the possibilities and come up with an ideal husband for Dove. I just wanted to come and offer my approval. You’ve made an excellent choice. I rather suspected you’d settle on him.”

“And you couldn’t have just told us in the first place and saved me the trouble?”

“I could have, but I do so enjoy watching you think through everything on your own. Mortals are so amusing, and none are quite so amusing as you, my dear.”

“So glad to keep you entertained,” Aly said drily.

“Sorry to interrupt you two,” Dove said, “but would someone mind telling me who it is the two of you are planning on marrying me off to?”

“It’s Adaresh jin Verin of Sarain,” Aly said triumphantly. 

Dove considered. Adaresh was the younger son of Dayal jin Verin, the warlord who had ruled Sarain for almost thirty years. Although Dayal had not been a part of the initial rebellion that had removed Thayet’s father Adigun jin Wilma, he had seized power during the long civil war that had followed. Dayal had married Kulai Ritanka, a full-blooded K’miri, and had used his relationship as the first stepping stone towards establishing peace with the tribes. Sarain had enjoyed thirty years of increased prosperity and relative stability under Dayal. Aly was right; his son would be an ideal match.

“The raka will be pleased that he is half K’miri. The luarin will be pleased that he’s Sarain nobility. And you’ll enjoy comparing notes with someone else whose thought about how to bring a war-torn country together to overcome centuries of racial conflict.”

“And your presence here signifies your approval of this match?” Dove asked Kyprioth.

“If you want it to.” Kyprioth told her. “What you do with the day-to-day of ruling is up to you. But if you want my approval, there’s no reason I can’t do something official.”

Kyprioth began to glow. There comes—”

“That’s okay,” Dove said hastily, cutting him off. “One Kyprish prophesy about my life is enough for me. Although I’ve never been really sure if the first one was about me at all. Am I the twice-blood queen that was intended, or was it supposed to be Sarai?”

“You’re the queen that this country needed,” Kyprioth said kindly, and vanished.

“What kind of answer is that?” Dove grumbled.

“A god’s answer,” Aly replied ruefully. “They enjoy ambiguity and mystery. Also, I don’t think he knows. Prophesies are murky things, and sometimes the shape of a country’s destiny depends on the choices of mortals. The prophesy may not have meant either of you, but you’re the one who fulfilled it.”

“How do you understand gods so well?” Dove asked, curious.

“They like to interfere with my family,” Aly said darkly. “We’ve picked up a thing or two over the years. But I’m surprised at you. I thought you’d have a million questions about Adaresh.”

Dove winced inwardly; so much for trying to hide things from Aly. “Um, what’s he like?” she asked, needlessly straightening the pillows on her bed to avoid meeting Aly's gaze.

Aly frowned. “Okay, what’s going on? Are you alarmed by the idea of a husband, now that he may not be an abstract concept? Because you know it can take years for these kinds of things to be arranged, so it’s not like you have to get married any time soon.”

“It’s not that. I’m impressed with your work, actually – Adaresh seems like he could solve a lot of my problems. And I do want to know more about him. I’m just a little distracted.”

“By what?”

Dove hesitated, and Aly gave her a look Dove suspected Aly’s children would come to know very well. It was a look that suggested that the recipient was about to regret withholding crucial information. “You might as well tell me,” Aly pointed out. “You know that if you don’t I’ll just find it out anyways.”

Dove sighed; Aly wasn’t kidding. Her spymaster’s need to know everything about everyone’s business usually worked in Dove’s favor, but tonight she wished Aly could occasionally be a little less curious.

“It’s not that I don’t want to tell you,” she began. “It’s that I don’t want to tell anyone. Or rather, there’s nothing to tell. So I’m thinking that maybe if I ignore it, it will all just go away.”

Dove knew she wasn’t making any sense. This was why she hadn’t want to talk about it. She hated not making sense.

Aly looked concerned. “What will go away? Has someone been bothering you?”

Dove shook her head. “I wish. The opposite, really.”

Dove knew the look on her friend’s face. It was the face that Aly got when she was trying to solve a puzzle. She supposed she could have told Aly outright, but it was more fun watching her work it through. Dove was sure it wouldn’t take long.

Sure enough, a moment later Dove saw something click and Aly’s face cleared. “Have you been finding someone a little too interesting?” she asked happily.

Dove felt her face heating as she nodded. She knew Aly wouldn’t blame her for feelings she couldn’t control, but that certainly didn’t stop her from blaming herself. It was all so embarrassing!

“Is it someone new to court? That new young baron who arrived last week with his sister?”

“The sister, actually,” Dove admitted, impressed in spite of her embarrassment. “Sinera.”

“The sister?” Aly said, started. “I didn’t realize – for your consort, we’d been looking at men…”

“I like both,” Dove shrugged. “For an arranged marriage, a husband just makes more sense. And I wasn’t planning on anything else, so I never thought it would really come up. But apparently I don’t get a say over my feelings.”

“Sarai would die of happiness if she were here right now,” Aly mused. “Where did you even get a chance to talk to Sinera? She’s only been at court for a few days, and there haven’t been any major social functions.”

“In the library,” Dove admitted sheepishly.

“That’s adorable!” Aly laughed. “Of course you met her in the library.”

“It is not adorable, it’s annoying!” Dove cried. “I think about her all the time. I get distracted during Council meetings. I spend time concocting excuses to slip off to the library. I barely know her and yet somehow I’m more concerned about whether she likes me than if you’ve found a good concert.”

“Adorable,” Aly repeated.

“But I’m the queen! I need to care more about my consort. I can’t be distracted during Council meetings. I shouldn’t be slipping off to the library at every possible chance.” Dove stood up and began pacing, agitated.

“Are you?” Aly asked doubtfully. “Because I’m pretty sure I would have noticed if you’d made that kind of sudden deviation in your schedule.”

“No, of course not. I haven’t skipped anything or shirked any duties. But I want to, Aly. I want to!”

“Those sound like normal feelings for a fifteen year old to have,” Aly pointed out. Dove had the distinct impression that her friend was extremely amused, which she did not appreciate. Why didn’t Aly understand how terrible everything was?

“Feelings are stupid!” Dove said, flopping backwards onto her bed again in despair. “I don’t have time for them. I’m supposed to be the rational one.”

“Try telling that to your feelings. Let me know how that goes.”

Dove raised her head to glare at Aly. “You’re not being very supportive.”

“And you’re not being very reasonable. Your feelings are there, whether you like them or not. Wouldn’t the logical thing be to accept that fact and figure out how you want to handle them? Because your current system doesn’t seem like that much fun.”

“Fun is for normal fifteen-year-olds who don’t have a country to run.”

“You’re being sulky on purpose. Why can’t you do both?”

Dove looked at her, skeptical. No one had prepped her on the etiquette around a queen’s romantic dalliances, but she assumed it was something that would be generally be frowned upon. She knew that noblewoman often had multiple flirtations, but they were generally with potential suitors, at least nominally. A queen couldn’t afford to give the impression that she was favoring someone as a suitor, and anything else would surely be seen as improper.

“Are you worried about the appearance of impropriety?” Aly asked, seemingly following her train of thoughts. “Because if that’s the only concern, I would gladly help you keep your budding romance from the prying eyes of your court.”

“You don’t think it’s wrong to do it at all?”

“Not really. My mother doesn’t talk about it much, but I know she and Uncle Jon were involved before he met my Aunt Thayet. And I think he courted a few other women in between. Of course, expectations are always different for women, especially women in power. But that’s about what people think, and not what’s right.”

“I suppose that makes sense,” Dove said slowly.

“Excellent!” Aly clapped her hands and grinned. “This is going to be so much fun!”

“I’m not so sure,” Dove said, as a new thought occurred to her. “Does this mean I have to actually talk to her?”

“I can help you with that part too, if you want,” Aly laughed.

“I know that isn’t part of your duties as queen’s spymaster.”

“It’s not,” Aly agreed, “but it’s definitely part of my responsibilities as the queen’s best friend.”