– Prologue

Two decades ago, when Her Royal Highness Jazmene of Numer wed King Rainier of Sarneth, she brought as part of her dowry an ornate mirror, a gilt-framed oval of glass so perfect it appeared made of liquid silver.  Although Numer was a poor land rife with rebellion, a quarrelsome stray dog scratching at the borders of wealthy Sarneth, Jazmene had acquired many fine things from the princes who sought her hand.  Even at the tender age of twenty-two, Jazmene already had a discerning eye and a burning desire to overcome the rough culture of her native land, traits which made her the most eager of collectors. 

The mirror hung in Queen Jazmene’s royal bedchamber, reflecting its mistress as her ladies-in-waiting attended her.  On the rare occasions she bothered to look out her windows, she saw Midmarch far below.  The capital of Sarneth, Midmarch was the pinnacle of culture in the known world, its red stone streets spiraling gracefully from the Sebond River up to the palace where Jazmene and Rainier held court.  Despite the beauties of the city arrayed before her, Jazmene soon turned from her windows with a sigh.  She longed for her homeland Numer.  Sarneth would never truly be hers, and Numer needed so much that Sarneth took for granted.  So she looked into her mirror and at her paintings instead, lost in a world of imagining what Numer could have been if she had been born male and inherited its throne instead of being married off to King Rainier to bear heirs for this foreign throne.  

Her ladies-in-waiting, mostly the young daughters of Sarneth nobles, were immune to her inner turmoil.  They understood ambition to a point–insofar as they jostled with each other for the attentions of certain favored young noblemen.  All they wanted was to marry well and then produce healthy babies, so Jazmene’s desire to rule was beyond most of them.  Most, but not all. 

In a court where ladies-in-waiting generally didn’t serve past the simpering blush of twenty summers, Undene of Norland was a sober fifty winters–or more.  A moth among butterflies, she went about her duties dressed in black.  To be certain, it wasn’t a matronly black–the material hung heavy with a thousand obsidian beads that didn’t reflect the light so much as swallow it.

The young ladies-in-waiting trod carefully around Undene.  When they whispered about her behind her back, Undene cackled and repeated what the ladies said.  The whispering stopped then.  The crone had sharp ears and an even sharper tongue.  After all, Undene was a foreigner, a barren widow from Cormalen, Sarneth’s unruly sister nation across the Gilgin sea.  Who knew what odd customs they had in Cormalen, the land where they still burned witches and warlocks at the stake? 

How Undene came to be a lady-in-waiting, no one knew for certain.  Some whispered King Rainier owed a favor to her late husband, but King Rainier was far too practical to fulfill favors to the dead.  Others said that Undene had discovered some state secret and bribed the king to allow her to attend his young wife.  But this didn’t seem right either.  King Rainier was far too powerful to suffer blackmail.  At the snap of his fingers, a blackmailer dropped dead at the hand of a royal assassin.  Perhaps Undene was a royal assassin herself.  She did creep about in her black gowns like a spider on a moonless night.

One morning about a year after Queen Jazmene married King Rainier and came to Sarneth, she sat before her mirror, ladies-in-waiting all around.  Two braided her hair, one filed her already perfect nails, and several paraded about, holding up gowns from the royal wardrobe for the queen’s consideration.  Undene was at the washstand, mixing up a concoction of medicine powders to soothe Her Majesty’s delicate stomach.  Jazmene had already suffered one miscarriage, and King Rainier wanted no chances taken with this pregnancy.   

Having finally selected a gown, Jazmene glanced at herself in the mirror.  Why had she told them to plait her thick hair into a coronet again?  The weight was certain to give her a headache.  And the purplish circles under her eyes–why hadn’t the ladies powdered those?  She opened her mouth to issue an order, then shut it abruptly.  She leaned forward and stared intently in the mirror, not heeding her ladies’ protests as her hair slipped from its moorings and fell loose down her back in shining brown waves.

“Your Majesty, what is it?  Are you ill?” demanded Elyse.  She had been with Jazmene the night of the miscarriage, and even though it had been months ago, Elyse still panicked any time the queen acted the least bit unlike her usual self.

“Elyse, what do you see in the mirror?” Jazmene asked after a long moment.

“I . . . I see you, Your Majesty.  I see us and this chamber,” Elyse stammered, not sure what answer the queen sought. 

Jazmene tilted her head, still studying the mirror.  “Nothing else?”

“No, Your Majesty.”  Elyse looked at her fellow ladies-in-waiting, silently imploring them to help her.

Jazmene turned to each of the ladies clustered around her and asked the same question:  what did they see in the mirror?  Each gave the same answer: this chamber and its occupants.  This answer seemed to disappoint the queen, but strain their eyes as they might peering at the mirror, none of the ladies saw anything other than what should be there.  Except for one.  Undene stood by the washstand, her graying brows quirked in sardonic amusement as she listened to the young fools’ answers.  At least one could have had the wit to make up something interesting, she thought, but there wasn’t an intelligent one among them except for the queen.

“Away with all of you!” Jazmene ordered finally.

“But Your Majesty . . .”

“Give me some peace, for Aesir’s sake.  I can’t get any air with all of you hovering around, chattering.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”  The young ladies retreated, whispering complaints to each other about the queen’s fickle manner.

“Your Majesty, you should take your powders,” Undene said.

“Didn’t you hear my orders?  Or has your advanced age made you deaf?”

Undene laughed.  Any other lady-in-waiting would have murmured some apology and quickly made herself scarce, but Undene considered herself no one’s servant.  She had waited a year for this chance, and she was not a woman to let chance flee without a fight. 

“Your Majesty, what color is King Rainer’s doublet this morning?”

Without thinking, Queen Jazmene glanced at the mirror.  “Green.”

“What a fine one it is too, with all that gold-threaded braid around the edges.  And how he gazes at that globe and spins it as if he wished to make us all dizzy.  Always plotting, that man.”

“How do you know he’s looking at the globe?” Jazmene turned to look at Undene.

“How do you know his doublet is green, Your Majesty?”

The two women considered each other for a long moment.  Jazmene finally glanced back at the mirror, then reached out her hand, touched the glass with her fingertips, as if to reassure herself the image of Rainier sitting in his library was real.  “It tingles,” she murmured.  “The glass tingles.  Why?”

Undene shrugged.  “I’m a witch, Your Majesty.”

Jazmene had heard of witches and warlocks, but she had never actually met one.  Another woman might have gaped at Undene in fright or astonishment, but not Jazmene.  She snatched her hand from the mirror and straightened, regarding Undene with imperious dark-eyed  intensity.  “You’re doing this?” Jazmene’s voice rose in apparent doubt.

Undene smiled.  “You’re wise to question, Your Majesty.  I could tell you all there is know, but it would put your doubts to rest more quickly if I showed you instead.  So if you’ll look at the mirror . . .”

“In a moment.”  Jazmene was not about to follow anyone else’s orders.  “Why am I seeing this today for the first time, if you’re so powerful?”

“I don’t know.  Most can sense others‘ sorcery, but many discount the evidence before their own eyes.  Today you apparently let your guard down and really looked at the mirror for the first time.” 

 “Is that why the others couldn’t see Rainier when they looked in the mirror?” Jazmene demanded.

Undene snorted.  “Those fools?  They’ll never see what’s in the mirror, you can be certain of that.  They can’t even see themselves as they really are, much less anything else.”

“How long has the mirror been this way?”  The young queen leaned forward.  

“For months,” Undene answered.  “Anytime I’ve been alone in this chamber, I’ve scried in the mirror, spied on the king, spied on events across the sea in Cormalen.  Anywhere else a mirror hangs, I can see that place in this mirror, sometimes even hear scraps of conversation.  And like this mirror, any mirror I use retains some of my talent when I’m done with it, which is what you sensed today.”

“What if you left the chamber?  Would I still be able to see Rainier in the mirror?”

“No–his image would vanish if I left.  You have the talent to sense what I command the mirror to do, but only I can command it.”

Jazmene frowned, almost ordered Undene from the chamber so she could test this theory herself, but then thought the better of it.  After all, Undene had proven herself a powerful witch.  A potentially useful powerful witch.  Mirrors hung in almost every chamber of this palace, in every noble dwelling across this land and other lands–mirrors reflected precious candlelight, doubling its effects.  With Undene’s talent, they could spy on just about anyone they wished.

“If you have as much talent as you claim, show me . . . well, show me Lord Toscar in the mirror then.  Let‘s see if your claims are justified.” 

“Lord Radik of Toscar–King Rainier’s chief assassin?” Undene asked.

“Really?  So that rumor‘s true?”  Jazmene‘s eyes gleamed.  She loved a bit of good gossip, particularly when it concerned handsome men and their wicked ways.

“I’ve seen him in the mirror, dispatching the king’s orders.  Look, Your Majesty.”

Jazmene turned in time to see the image of King Rainier’s library dissolve.  Undene’s and her reflections flashed across the mirror before a new image emerged.  A hawkish young man frowned at them as he fiddled with the knot of his cravat.  He stood so close to his mirror that they could see the piercing amber light of his hazel eyes, the streaks of gray already silvering his black hair, the scrolled T on his bronze seal ring.  Jazmene leaned toward her mirror, unaware that the currents between the two women shifted then.  Jazmene‘s hard glitter mingled with Undene‘s shadow, Jazmene’s diamonds obscured in smoke, a shift only Undene could sense.  No one, not even one as talented at sensing others’ sorcery as the queen, could understand auras like a true witch or warlock.  Undene smiled, and the air around her suddenly held a sharp edge. 

Jazmene sighed and finally sank back down on her bench, still staring at Toscar’s image in the mirror as he turned his back to them.  “So many of these Sarneth nobles are complacent, grown bloated and lazy with the weight of this country’s wealth, but not him.  Do you know he practices at the sword every day?  Why, he has a duel this very afternoon in the salon with some foreigner.  One of your countrymen, as a matter of fact–Landers, I think Rainier said his name was.”

“Mordric of Landers,” Undene said.  “Barely thirty winters, and he’s already known as a master swordsman in Cormalen.  That should be quite a match, Your Majesty.”

“I never miss any of Toscar’s matches–of all the swordsmen in Sarneth, he’s the only one who can fight equally well with a scimitar or a straight sword.”  Jazmene peered at the mirror.  “Here–what’s this?” she demanded.  King Rainier was back in the mirror, this time reading some massive, ancient book that left dust trails down his sleeves.  “Where’s Toscar?  Bring him back.”  

“King Rainier is a powerful king, an illustrious scholar,” Undene mused, “and a bachelor at heart, methinks.  Should a young, vibrant woman like yourself be forced to gather dust in his library, simply because your temperaments differ?  I do not think anyone would wish that, especially the king–you perform an invaluable service for him when you charm his lords.  You give him the opportunity to seek the solitude he craves.”

It was as if Undene could read her thoughts.  Any twinge of misgiving or guilt Jazmene felt vanished at Undene‘s quiet words.  Of course, the witch was right.  Why should Jazmene hide herself away like a nun?  She had a duty to Rainier and his court to be gracious and charming to all.  Including Lord Toscar.  Rainier vanished, and Toscar returned to the mirror then, cufflinks displaying the same scrolled T as his seal ring in his hand. 

“Lord Toscar‘s only fault is his aloofness,” Jazmene said after a long moment.  “He bows and pays me the standard pleasantries, of course, but nothing more.”  Toscar straightened in the mirror and his frown deepened, as if he heard her and wanted to protest.

“You are the queen.  Perhaps he thinks it would be presumptuous.  Perhaps he worries about his position here if the king noticed.”

Jazmene waved her hand, reminding Undene of a victor’s flag snapping over a battlefield, seemingly sweeping away any winds of opposition.  “Oh Rainier–I can handle Rainier.  Rainier’s married to his books and scrolls, not me.  As long as I bear him an heir and help him strengthen Sarneth‘s alliance with Numer, Rainier’ll be content.”  Jazmene gazed into the eyes of Toscar’s unwitting reflection.  Then she looked at Undene.  “You don’t have any philters, do you?”

“A philter, Your Majesty?”

“You know–a love potion.  Don‘t witches make potions?” 

Undene laughed.  “A poor hedge witch, maybe, but not me, Your Majesty.  Besides, you don’t need a potion to capture the fancy of Lord Toscar.”

“What do I need then?”

Undene glanced in the mirror, and a knowing smile creased her thin lips.  The flash of the queen’s diamond hard aura captivated her.  Such a rare quality in a young woman, to be so implacable and certain of herself.  Undene hovered for an instant between subtle caution, the way one usually handled royalty, and provocative directness. 

Finally she met Jazmene’s gaze, the gaze of a gambler like herself.  “Find someone for Lord Toscar to assassinate, and he’ll notice you.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“There’s still nothing there,” Jazmene said one midday as she peered into her mirror, Undene behind her.  “Urtzi’s been fast asleep for a good quarter hour now.  I didn’t send Toscar there so I could watch Urtzi snore like a fat swine.”  Urtzi was Queen Jazmene’s brother, the king of Numer.

“Toscar’ll be there, Your Majesty.  You said that your brother naps every day at noon.”

“Urtzi’s always been a lazy fool–have you ever heard of any other king in his prime napping the afternoon away?  If I’d been born a boy, Urtzi would be long dead by now.  I would have challenged him to a duel of precedence, and I would have slaughtered him and taken the Numerian throne for myself.  He’s a terrible swordsman.”

“So it would seem,” Undene said, her dry tone like the wind through dead leaves.

The chamber they spied on in the mirror showed the shimmery heat of a Numerian summer day.  Numer, two hundred leagues to the south, bubbled and fermented with the discontent of poor people trapped in unbearable heat.  Far from any sea, Numer rarely felt the relief of breezes or rain.  It was no wonder they were always rebelling there–no one seemed to have enough of anything, even the nobility.  King Urtzi’s chamber looked fine enough for Numer, with its marble columns and intricately carved wooden screen partly enclosing the low sofa bed, but it wouldn’t have been a fit chamber in Sarneth for a sparrow nobleman, much less a king.  No gleam of jewels, no mother-of-pearl inlaid furniture, no silken-threaded tapestries or carpet, no fine paintings or sculpture or instruments.  Urtzi murmured and turned in his sleep.  A satin pillow slipped to the floor.  Jazmene shook her head–how had she borne it, living in that place?   

“Urtzi will let Numer sink further in the muck of ignorance and barbarism.  Do you see one book in that chamber?  He doesn’t even have the Book of Aesir’s Prayers anywhere about–likely he depends on his priest to read it for him . . .”

“Look, Your Majesty,” Undene said, pointing at the mirror.  Two furtive hands had appeared on the edge of the balcony rail, just beyond the large window that opened to the east.  A masked Lord Toscar soon followed, springing over the rail with the feline feet of a true swordsman.  “If I may take the liberty to say so, your young man is a fine specimen.”

Jazmene nodded.  “Good–he’s wearing all black with the hood mask, just like I told him to.  Anyone who might notice him will think he’s a rebel.”

The two women watched in breathless admiration as Toscar crept across the chamber, darting from shadow to shadow just in case Urtzi’s steward or wife was in attendance.  As he realized the king napped alone, the king’s guards outside the closed door, Toscar’s steps grew bolder. 

“However did Toscar breach the palace walls at high noon without a guard noticing?” Undene asked after a long moment.

“He’s been inside since yesterday.  He smuggled himself through the gates in the false bottom of a supply cart, and I told him where to go so he wouldn’t be noticed.  There’s a curtained alcove in the chamber directly under Urtzi’s, and he concealed himself there all night.”

“Clever–you would remember every nook and cranny of that palace.”

Jazmene shuddered.  “Unfortunately.  When it’s mine again, the first thing I’ll do is expand the library and add a gallery for paintings and sculptures . . .”

Jazmene trailed off, staring into the mirror.  Undene gazed over her shoulder.  “What’s he doing, Your Majesty?  Won‘t he wake Urtzi with the sound?” Undene asked when two gloved palms and thumbs appeared at either side of the mirror as Toscar lifted it from the wall. 

“He’s practiced with my mirror several times, just to be sure he could do it smoothly.”  Jazmene paused.  “I wanted the mirror closer to Urtzi’s bed, so we could see him and Toscar more clearly.”

They caught a flash of Toscar’s eyes through the slits in his hood before he tipped the mirror up, and they saw the vaulted ceiling spinning in a dizzy array of shadows.  Abruptly Toscar tilted the mirror again, this time propping it on a chair a few feet from Urtzi’s bed.  After a few shifts that made Undene feel vaguely seasick, Toscar managed to right the mirror, and she and the queen both drew sharp intakes of breath, for Urtzi’s sleeping image was mere yards from their view.  Undene felt as if she could number the lines just starting to crinkle the corners of Urtzi’s mouth and eyes, the few gray hairs visible in his neatly clipped beard waxed to a curled point.

Toscar stood beside Urtzi’s bed now.  Jazmene found herself counting Urtzi’s breaths, the slow rise and fall of his chest as he slipped into deeper sleep.  They had spent little time together as children–siblings in Numer were naught but rivals for scarce food in poor families and scarce thrones in the royal family.  However, lacking brothers to fight, Urtzi possessed a gentle heart for a Numerian.  One of the few times they had played together in the garden, he had picked her the best figs from their father’s tree and then carved her a small bird from a cork he found discarded in the dirt.  Jazmene glanced at her hands, clenched together in her lap, her rings cutting into her white-knuckled fingers.  It had to be done, if Numer was ever to change.  It had to be done.  It would be quick, at least, quicker than their father’s slow and miserable wasting away.  Toscar would see to that. 

“Look,” Undene breathed.  “Look, Your Majesty.”

Jazmene raised her eyes to the mirror again.  The scene before her was eerily soundless, unreal, the sort of distant, silent images that flashed on the back of her eyelids just before she drifted into sleep and dreams.  She saw the light glance across Toscar’s dagger as he drew it.  Urtzi turned in his sleep.  Toscar leaned over Urtzi and touched his shoulder as if to wake him, then slashed the blade edge across Urtzi’s throat.  She glimpsed the wound, thick as a crimson scarf tied around Urtzi’s neck before the blood splattered against the surface of the mirror.  She flinched and looked down at her fisted hands, her gown, half-expecting to see drops of blood there.

“It can’t come through the mirror, Your Majesty.”  Undene’s fingers were on her shoulder, more like a wise and comforting aunt than a fellow conspirator.  “You did the right thing–with great power comes certain duties that no ordinary soul could comprehend.”

“I know that,” Jazmene snapped, but she allowed Undene to continue kneading her shoulders.  Through the crimson lines trickling down the glass, Jazmene watched as Toscar quickly crossed the chamber and disappeared over the balcony rail.  Thank Aesir that Toscar would be long gone by the time Urtzi’s steward came to rouse the king.  Despite Toscar’s obvious skill, such a smooth assassination would never have been possible without her knowledge of Urtzi’s habits and the Numerian palace.  Would anyone suspect her of being involved?  She flipped her long hair back over her shoulders.  Let them suspect–they couldn’t touch her here.  She was the queen of Sarneth, and she had a plot to turn their stray dog country into the wealthiest unofficial province in Sarneth.  Likely they would thank her on bended knee before the end.

“Would you like me to braid your hair, Your Majesty?” Undene asked, her hands still on Jazmene‘s shoulders.

“Just brush it for now.  Perhaps I’ll have one of the others curl it later for the ball.”  Jazmene looked at the mirror, which still dripped on the inside with her brother’s blood.  She swallowed rapidly and was glad that the powders had finally worked and made her miscarry earlier this month.  Her stomach was so sensitive when she was pregnant.  She had to be more careful with the next one–Rainier, the nasty little spy of a king, might start to suspect, especially now that Toscar visited her frequently.  She had to be sure the next one was King Rainier’s.  He might wink at an indiscretion or two, but a royal bastard–that could get her slender neck on the block.  She shuddered.  “Can we look at something else?  I don‘t care what, just something else.”

Undene furrowed her brow and thought for a moment.  The queen liked most to look at her own reflection, but perhaps not today, not after what had just occurred.  No, someplace far from Numer.  She finally settled on a view of the new receiving hall of the Cormalen palace across the sea, a steady stream of nobles and servants parading up and down the steps near the mirror.

“Why that marble is as green as holly leaves!” Jazmene exclaimed.  “And look at that lovely glass, casting colored patterns on the wall.  How pretty.  Where is that?”

“The entrance hall of the Cormalen palace.  I believe Queen Verna commissioned it.”

Jazmene tilted her head as she examined the hall.  “Not as fine or as large as the main hall here, but still elegant.  I didn’t know they had such good taste in your homeland, Undene.  To hear the ladies at this court talk, you‘d think Cormalen seethed with barbarians on witch hunts and naught else.”

Undene offered an indulgent smile.  “To hear the ladies at the Cormalen court talk, you’d think that everyone in Sarneth exaggerated and told lies.  Come, Your Majesty, you’ve met at least a handful of Cormalen nobles since coming to this court.  Have any of them seemed like barbarians to you?”

“If they’re not barbarians who burn innocents at the stake, why are you here instead of there?”  Jazmene spared a glance over her shoulder at Undene.

Undene’s smile widened to a grin.  “I’m no innocent, Your Majesty.”
Jazmene laughed and turned back to the mirror.  “I must admit, I like the looks of some of the Cormalen men, even if they are barbarians.  And when Queen Verna came last spring, she had some witty ladies in her entourage.  That Arilea of Landers could quote whole passages of Lhigat–I wouldn‘t wager a pin any of the silly butterflies in my service could do the same.  Shame she turned up with child–she might have stayed longer.” 

Jazmene fell silent, gazing at the press of people in the mirror.  They all climbed the steps–there must be some occasion of state happening in Cormalen, to draw such a crowd.  Her eyes trailed over the brass railings, sculpted into lovely curlicues and scrolls.  “I could do something similar in the library in Numer,” she murmured, half to herself.  “I want it big enough that there’s a second story of shelves above the first, a balcony with a railing like that one all around.”

Undene, figuring enough time had passed, ventured a question.  “Forgive me, Your Majesty, but I‘m curious.  How do you plan to claim the throne in Numer, if only male heirs are allowed to sit upon it?”

Jazmene smiled, the fierce smile of a bitter lioness.  “I found Urt . . . Urtzi’s bastard, Undene.” She dug her nails into her palms until her voice steadied.  “Urtzi sired a bastard on a tinker woman when he visited Sarneth six years ago to negotiate some treaty with Rainier.  A tinker woman he fancied at the Midmarch market is now the mother of the only true blood heir to the Numerian throne–can you imagine?  The rebels will help me put the bastard on the throne.  He’s young enough I can train him properly–he won’t be warped like other Numerian men.  Warped like Urtzi was,” she finished, and then swallowed quickly, as if she suddenly wanted to take back her words, and in doing so, somehow take back the images in the mirror.  But it was too late for that, and Jazmene was not a woman to feel regret for long, not once she had set her mind to a course of action.  It was a shame she would never lead a charge on a battlefield.  She would have made a fine general.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The southern lands, such as Marenna, the SerVerin Empire, and Numer, worshipped the god Aesir.  Aesir had once been many gods and goddesses, a vast, dizzying array that overwhelmed the practical people of the north, who had long since united under one deity and one set of holy laws.  In their straightforward manner, the northern tribes who eventually settled Sarneth called their deity God to keep things simple.  Aesir, observing this single God’s omnipotence, grew jealous and devoured all of his divine companions so that he could be a single deity as well.  In devouring them, Aesir absorbed all their various powers and personalities, and this made him a trickster god of many masks and moods.  In reflection of Aesir’s many facets, the priests cut Urtzi’s body into ritual pieces.  As he was the king, each body part had its own casket and resting place in the sand-encrusted crypt of the Numerian rulers.  

The day after Urtzi’s funeral, his young wife collapsed and had to be carried to the seraglio to rest amidst her women.  Shock, it was murmured.  After all, her husband had just been assassinated in his own bed, and the culprits had not been caught.  Midmarch was too far from Numer for Jazmene to traverse the distance in time to attend her brother’s funeral.  Instead, she sent fragrant oils, gold, and a vial of her tears, as was the custom.  It was said that a sincere woman’s tears shed in grief had the power to redeem wrongs.         

Rumors swirled around the Numerian and Sarneth courts that Urtzi had left a bastard, a boy nearly six years old.  Jazmene fed these rumors, even letting it slip that the boy was being reared under the watchful eye of a Sarneth lord to protect him from the same assassins who had killed his father.  These rumors might have sparked a conflagration had not a storm blown up from the south to douse them.  For it was soon learned that Urtzi’s widow had collapsed because she was with child.  She passed her confinement in the safety of the seraglio and was brought to bed six months after Urtzi’s death to give birth to his legitimate son, whom she called Tivon after the ancient Numerian lord who supposedly rose from the dead.  Never was there a royal princeling and his dowager mother guarded more closely than Prince Tivon and the queen.  It was never far from the minds of the Numerian nobles that someone had assassinated their king under their very noses and then gotten away with the crime.

Her hopes for the Numerian throne dashed (at least for the present), Jazmene turned her attention to other matters.  A year had passed since Urtzi’s death when Jazmene bore Rainier a healthy daughter named Esme, a promising sign of a healthy son and heir to the kingdom of Sarneth to follow in due time.  It didn’t hurt that Princess Esme, with her long-lashed brown eyes, silky dark hair, and willingness to fall asleep in even the crustiest general’s arms, held the Sarneth court in her chubby fist like a prize rattle.  The courtiers whispered to each other how glad they were the little princess had inherited her mother’s charm instead of her father’s disconcerting manner.  King Rainier was a brilliant administrator but apparently disliked company, since he often holed himself up in his library and attended only the major occasions of state and important councils.  His young queen presided over most social activities requiring a royal presence.  King Rainier enjoyed chess, reading, and eavesdropping, earning him the unofficial title of the Spider King for his nasty habit of lurking silently behind curtains and spying out windows on his court.  Thank goodness he had such a beautiful and charming consort to balance out his odd habits.

© K. Nilsen 2010




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