10/7/21

"Friends"

Previously: Glad Tidings

Castle Frost
The Borderlands

"Is that what I think it is?"

Queen Idalia stared in dismay as two of her guards brought a large chest and placed it at the feet of her throne, while her chamberlain Lord Ambrose skimmed the accompanying letter. Beside her, her First Knight chuckled.

"Another gift, my queen?" Lucian snickered. "You know it is."

They were coming daily now--boxes, barrels, crates, cases, chests, and even flocks. The castle stores were overflowing with food and wine, and Idalia had more jewels, perfume, and clothes than she could ever hope to wear. It was alarming.

"This one is from the Duke of Northland, Southern Kingdom," Ambrose confirmed, as the guards unlocked and opened the chest, revealing an assortment of lush fabrics. "His Grace congratulates Your Majesty on completing a successful treaty and hopes you will accept this paltry gift of silk and satin."

"Paltry?" Lucian chortled. "You could feed an entire Border village with that."

"That is an excellent idea, Light-Bringer," Idalia nodded. "Ambrose, have these fabrics sent to our southern village as a token of our love. And send the customary note of thanks to His Grace."

Ambrose hesitated before adding, "The Duke remarks that ever since his wife died--"

"Next," Idalia blinked.

If it wasn't things, then it was people. The next order of business was the arrival of yet another noblewoman Idalia had never met or heard of before, a beautiful Duchess with dark hair and dark eyes. She wore a long, flowing velvet gown of purple, and a small crown of gold, pearls, and amethysts.

"The Duchess of Easterland, Your Majesty," Ambrose announced. "Southern Kingdom."

The noblewoman gave a grand, sweeping curtsy, going as low as possible. "It is an honor, Your Majesty," she greeted courteously. She was admittedly a paragon of refinement.

"And to what do we owe this honor, Your Grace?" Idalia raised an eyebrow. She sincerely hoped people weren't thinking they could just show up uninvited and move into Castle Frost.

"I am here on behalf of Princess Gregoria of the Southern Kingdom," the Duchess beamed. "She has commanded to me act as her proxy at her brother's wedding."

"Why didn't you come with the Prince?" Idalia asked, even though she was sure she knew the answer.

"Her Highness wanted to me to also attend her future sister-in-law," the Duchess explained. "But the Prince and his mother are due to arrive this afternoon. Their carriage wasn't that far behind my own."

Which was probably drawn by wild horses to get here so fast. Whatever mess was brewing in House August--and it was obvious something was--Idalia wanted no part.

"You are most welcome here at Castle Frost," she assured the Duchess instead. "Ambrose will introduce you to the blushing bride."

***

"Who the fuck are you?"

"Honora Castellan, Duchess of Easterland," Honora curtsied, amused by the Northern woman and the fact she was dressed in full armor. "Princess Gregoria sends her congratulations on your impending nuptials and commands me to attend to you."

"I've got plenty of maids," Celestina bit out, refusing to sit or offer her guest a seat. Instead, they both stood in the middle of her small dark sitting room, with only a hearth and few candles for light. The weak sunlight streaming through the partially closed drapes didn't count. "And more than enough guards to ensure I don't escape. The fuck do I need you for?"

Honora chuckled. "Let us speak plainly, Princess. I don't think you have the first clue what you're walking into."

"If you're here greeting me before my future in-laws," Celestina scowled, "then it means I've left one battlefield for another. Does that about sum it up?"

She's smart, Honora raised an eyebrow. She's got an actual mind behind all that metal. "Correct, Your Highness, but surely a warrior such as you knows that this type of battlefield is far more complicated than the other."

The Northern Princess bit her bottom lip subtly, but said nothing.

"Damiana has no doubt taught you to look your enemies in the eye and get to the point," The Duchess continued. "That's not going to work where you're headed. Your enemies--of which you'll have many--won't be showing you their true faces, much less their eyes, and when they plot your downfall, they'll take their sweet old time."

"So you're here to be my friend," Celestina sneered.

The Duchess's amused expression evaporated. Her eyes were suddenly as cold as her voice. "I give no shits for House August," she rasped dangerously. "I may be Honora Castellan now, but I was born Honora Alban. My ancestors ruled the Southern Kingdom up until two centuries ago, when that wench Meliora Augusta and her unwashed sea dogs burned our fleet at the Bay of Ursula. Since then, her descendants have continued their particularly vile tradition of going where they're not wanted and taking what isn't theirs."

Celestina was intrigued. "And Gregoria has no idea you feel this way, does she? You didn't show her your true face?"

"I've always shown my true face," Honora replied bluntly. "I buried one husband and immediately acquired a better one without batting an eye. I make no pretense about who I am and what I want--that's why Gregoria sent me to you. She's smart, and rational, and I'll be the first to admit she could have made a good queen, but she's not in the running anymore, and you really need to prepare yourself for what's coming." The Duchess gestured towards two chairs by the fire. "Shall we?"

***

The journey not had not agreed with Queen Lavinia. She felt feverish and sweaty, but played it off as the royal caravan rolled onward to the Borderlands. She stayed hydrated, drinking plenty of water instead of wine, but that meant enduring the presence of both her son and her cousin while sober.

The two men--if you could call them that--sat hunched in the carriage with her, sullen and silent as the horses dragged them to their fates. Their moodiness deeply irritated the queen, for as far as she was concerned, they were both lucky to the point of being spoiled.

Her son was going to be king after his father. He was about to marry of a princess of great renown, the daughter of a queen of even greater renown, and yet Florian sat with his shoulders hunched and his head hanging as though someone had taken his favorite book.

"Sit up straight, love," Lavinia patiently reminded her son. "Your bride won't like a man with poor posture."

"Yes, Mother," Florian mumbled, straightening a little.

"And do try to lighten up," the queen sighed. "Imagine if your bride were sulking as she came down the aisle."

The prince glared at her, which he rarely did. "I'd understand, Mother," he bit out.

Lavinia rolled her eyes, reaching for her water. "You men have it too good," she said lowly, working to remain calm. "No one pressures you to be pleasing, not like they do us. I was a girl of thirteen when they married me off to your father. Our first--and thankfully last--night together, he came to bed smelling of beer and pickled vegetables."

Florian was visibly appalled. "Mother!"

"You think Celestina doesn't want some tall Northern warrior who can wield a broadsword?" the queen barked back. "Of course, she does. Probably has a man pining for her back home as we speak, and yet out of duty, she has agreed to marry you."

Florian had always known his mother bore him little love, but he'd never had to hear it straight from her lips.

"And do you think I wanted you as my mother?" he rasped lowly, eyes slowly starting to smolder.

"Highness," Lord Benedict raised an eyebrow in subtle warning, but both mother and son ignored him.

"No," Lavinia replied honestly. "I'm sure you wished Savia were your mother, judging by the way she coddled you, and catered to you--"

"Educated me," Florian interrupted, his tone clipped. "Taught me the truth about the world and its people."

"The truth according to Ursas," Lavinia scoffed. "If you're smart, once you become king, you will dismantle that costly shrine of theirs and drive those freeloading, peasant bitches from court."

"Majesty!" Benedict blinked, shocked to hear his cousin speak this way sober.

"Fuck those sea-worshippers, Benedict; you yourself showed me the ledgers," Lavinia rolled her eyes. "Thousands a month in expenditures. Savia and her ilk claim to serve a goddess who allegedly abhors vanity and indulgence, who fell from grace after her own failed battle with temptation. Yet they dress like courtiers, eat as well as courtiers, sleep in chambers fit for courtiers, yet provide us with absolutely nothing of worth!"

"The Ursas feed the poor and heal the sick, Your Majesty," Benedict reminded her.

"And educate the illiterate," Florian fired back.

"Oh, please," Lavinia snorted. "Seen any lepers at the palace, lately? How about summer sickness patients? We practically had an epidemic this past season. What about orphan children; how many of those have you seen at the shrine? How often do the Ursas leave the castle and for how long?

"And when was the last time you actually saw an ugly Ursa--besides Savia, that is?" she laughed. "That old witch stays at the palace where it's comfortable. She chooses pretty girls from the country and brings them to court. Even the island temple has yet to ever send an unattractive acolyte to 'tend the shrine'." amusement was quickly fading into irritation. "Do you people seriously think it was mere coincidence that Florian started spending all his free time with that Gisela girl, while Gregoria shamelessly fixated on the mermaid? Is that what you people really believe?"

Silence filled the carriage along with the queen's rage. She glared at her kin, who couldn't meet her eyes.

Lavinia turned to her son and grumbled. "If you don't stop being so utterly naive, your new wife is going to walk all over you."

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