Duchess Julianna’s Castle
Baron Jurtos snarled, “Mestil, if you don’t shut up I am going to ram my fist down your neck, grab your pouch, and yank it out between your teeth. If you weren’t my wife’s cousin I would have cut your throat years ago, but that won’t save you forever.”
Mestil laughed. “The day you try is the day I finally get to feed your carcass to my favorite pup.” He looked ahead, where Duchess Julianna’s castle was looming. Her personal colors were flying from the wall towers, to show that she was in residence. But the main keep was surmounted by a larger flag that showed the royal deer on a some kind of forest-ey background. Over both of them, the queen’s own standard proudly challenged the afternoon wind.
“Besides,” Mestil said absently, “You need me to vouch for you with the guards. Otherwise, they will never believe someone as ragged as you are could possibly be noble.”
Jurtos growled something obscene, but Mestil ignored it. He looked back at their escort and said, “Tighten up! We are calling on royalty. The queen herself is in there, along with the crown prince, a princess, and a duchess. If any of you embarrass us, I will draw and quarter you with my own hands.”
The men, ten of his and ten supplied by Jurtos, stiffened in the saddle. They started tightening and checking their armor and gear.
“You are more likely to embarrass us than they are, Mestil,” Jurtos said. “Can you please, for once in your rampaging life, try to act like a civilized person?”
Mestil barked a laugh. “Me? From what the stories say, the new princess grew up in a cave. Literally. Of course I’ll act properly around the queen, and the prince. And I’ll make a show of respect for the princess. But you don’t really think that she’ll know the difference, do you?”
The drawbridge and main gate were blocked by a camp full of soldiers, none of whom looked impressed by the approaching pair of nobles. They finally stopped when two men, one of whom was nearly as large as Mestil and Jurtos together, stepped forward to intercept them.
The big one wore plate and carried a warhammer. The smaller one, who was only slighter larger than the biggest man-at-arms in Mestil’s service, carried a bow and wore wolfskin leather. There was a dagger and a hunting horn on his belt.
Mestil eyed the smaller man with interest. So this was one of the men who lived with witches openly, and slaughtered temple warriors with such ease. He didn’t look unusual. Just proved again that you couldn’t tell much from appearances.
Jurtos said, “I am Baron Jurtos, this is Baron Mestil. We have come to offer respect and congratulations to the royal house, and to pledge our support to Prince Peteros.”
The two glanced at each other. The huge one said, “Wait just a moment. We’ll get you an escort.” The other one turned and blew a shattering blast in a simple pattern that Mestil didn’t recognize. It didn’t take long for a small child to stroll through the gate and head their way. Mestil blinked and even went so far as to look at Jurtos, who seemed equally puzzled.
The little girl, who appeared to be about ten, ambled up to them whistling a soft tune. “Whatcha need, fellers? Who’s this bunch?”
The huge one bowed to the little girl. “Milady. They claim to be barons who have come to swear for Pete, and congratulate him and your sister. And grovel for everyone in the castle they can catch, of course. Are they lying?”
Mestil bristled. “Wait right there, sirrah.” The girl looked at him and he stopped thinking or breathing. Her eyes became his whole world. Afterward, he had no idea how long it lasted, or what had happened. He slumped and shook his head, dizzy. She looked at Jurtos, who stiffened.
“They’re telling the truth,” the little girls said. “They wanna talk Pete and the queen out of special treats, naturally. But Julianna said everyone is gonna be doing that. I’d say take ‘em in and let Lora sort ‘em. She said every low down noble in the kingdom is gonna show up here sooner or later if she sticks around.” Mestil felt his belly tighten at her casual use of the queen’s given name.
Jurtos coughed softly and asked, in the politest voice he had, “I beg your pardon, milady. Did I hear correctly? Are you Princess Jessera’s sister?”
She spat on the ground between herself and their horses. “Yeah. What about it? And quite calling me milady. I put up with it from Lankar ‘cause kicking him just makes him laugh at me, and it ain’t right to use magic on a friend. But you ain’t a friend. So quit. You can call me Lili. If nothing else will do you, call me ma’am. It ain’t my fault that stupid Code wouldn’t let Pete and Jess get together until he made her a baroness. I was born a peasant, I’m still a peasant, and that’s good enough for anyone.” She pushed out her lower lip and glared.
“Certainly, er, ma’am,” Mestil said weakly.
“I’d a whole lot rather shovel up the stable,” Jess grumbled.
“Hold still,” Geleth sighed, tugging on a lacing. “I don’t care what you would rather be doing. You married the man, knowing that he’s a prince. It’s your own fault that you didn’t think it through. You’re a princess now, and you have to take what comes along with it.”
“It isn’t that bad,” Lora sat nearby, sipping tea and looking amused. “These men have come to tell you that you’re beautiful, and they would dearly love the chance to kill people for you and Peteros, and by the way can they please have some money and some more land? All you have to do is smile and say, 'No'. Simplicity itself.”
Julianna turned to look out the window and clasped her hands. Jess was willing to bet that she was biting a hole in her tongue trying to contain her amusement.
“Why do I have to wear this getup?” Jess made a last, desperate plea to escape. “It ain’t, I mean it isn’t like we’re in the palace. This is still an army place until Pete gets the crown, ain’t it?”
“It’s your armor,” Lora said. She put down the cup. “Wearing that, along with the coronet and some of the crown jewels, will protect you from any doubts or reservations about your right to be queen. There’s more to the job than just being the king’s wife, and you have to show the nobility that you can handle the empty rituals. Because they aren’t really empty, you know. They comfort people. They make people feel safe, knowing that things are being done the way that they always have. It makes them trust you to do the important things the right way, also.”
“It would be easier to strap you into a suit of armor than this dress,” Geleth said, “Hold still. I’m tempted to go get Ildara for reinforcements.”
Jess groaned quietly and raised her arms so Geleth could tie the sash. “All right,” she said viciously. “But if anyone snickers I’m gonna kick ‘em through the wall.”
“No, you won’t,” Julianna offered seriously. “You will point your finger and your bodyguard will kick them through the wall. You are not supposed to get your hands dirty.”
“No one is going to snicker,” Lora smiled. “They will be in the room with the queen, the crown princess, and a duchess. Along with an army of guards. I doubt that anyone will even smile.”
“I know I won’t,” Jess whispered. She added aloud, “Do I have to wear that baby crown coronet thing? Really? Can’t I put a bandage or something on my forehead and claim I got scratched?”
“Sorry,” Lora kept a straight face. “Your first public audience as the wife of the crown prince? You need to go all out.” She added with a serious tone. “Besides. In fairness to these men, both Mestil and Jurtos have always been loyal. It is a serious occasion to them. To you, it is just getting dressed up and sitting in a chair while a pair of boring visitors talk for a while. But they have come to swear that they are willing to die for you. They will remember this for the rest of their lives. They deserve to have it done right.”
Jess let her shoulders slump. “All right. Gimme that stupid hat.”
There was one thing about it, Jess decided. There was no danger of the coronet falling off, even if it hadn’t been strapped down and fastened to her hair. The rotted dress had her trussed up so tight that her back was stiff as a sword blade.
When the women walked into Julianna’s largest sitting room, the two men were standing next to the fireplace, talking quietly to each other and looking nervous. Baron Mestil was a small man with dark, greasy hair. He also had dark, greasy teeth and jowls. Baron Jurtos, according to Lili, was the one in red britches. He was an older man, almost Granny’s age, and two-thirds bald.
Neither of them were dressed like they had a lot of silver to spare, but Jess noticed their swords looked like good ones. And the grips were worn down.
Julianna led the way into the room. They both bowed. Then Jess came in. Their eyes widened, and they bowed again. Then Lora, and they both went to one knee.
Julianna seated Lora and fluffed some cushions in around her, while Geleth did the same thing for Jess. Julianna took position standing between the two royal women, and Geleth backed away to prop against the wall. She had to maneuver a bit to find space between all the armored men. Direv, Hefran, Therak, and three more of the queen’s guards didn’t leave much space for the nobility. Or air to breathe, either, and it wasn’t a small room.
“You may rise,” Lora said graciously. “Welcome Baron Jurtos. Welcome Baron Mestil. It is gratifying to see loyal faces.”
“You may always count upon our loyalty, your majesty,” Jurtos stood up and spoke in a serious voice. “My oath is good and I know Mestil to be an honorable man.” He looked at the other Baron. “Even if we have had our differences on occasion.”
“Your majesty,” Mestil seemed to be trying to pick out his words real careful. “When we learned that you had endorsed Prince Peteros for the throne, the matter was settled as far as both Jurtos and myself were concerned. We would have come to pledge our support at the earliest opportunity in any case. Learning of the prince’s marriage to her highness,” he bowed to Jess again, “and the expectation of an heir encouraged us to drop everything else and hurry here as fast as possible. We stand ready to serve, milady. Command us.”
Just about every guard in the room either straightened or lifted their chin in approval. Jess firmly suppressed a sigh. Men.
“I am warmed,” Lora smiled. “It is a great comfort in such times to know who one’s friends are. Believe me when I tell you that this will not be forgotten. Not by myself, nor by Peteros. Nor, I am sure, by Jessera.” Lora looked at her.
Jess figured that was a hint for her to say something. “Thank you for coming,” she talked slow, thinking ahead and trying as hard as she could to make sure that she got the grammar right. “My husband and I will not forget that you were the first ones after Julianna to come here and swear to follow Peteros. I have led men in battle, and so has Peteros. We both know what loyalty really is, and how much it is worth.”
They looked surprised and a bit lost. Jurtos cleared his throat. “Milady, you do us honor. We were not aware that you were a warrior.”
Jess couldn’t hold in a bitter smile. “I’m not a warrior, baron. I’m not even a fighter. Not really. When the Hohdwans came to the southern forest the first time, they came after me. My father is the sheriff, but I’m the baroness so it was my job to lead the fight. My lack of training cost my people a terrible price. We won, but people died who should not have died.”
The old man’s eyes gleamed. “What matters, milady, is that you won. You are a war leader and the daughter of a knight. We will surely spread this knowledge. If I may say, it will make a difference to some. Not to us, but to some others.”
“Enough to make up for me being a witch?” Jess kept her eyes on them. “My sister told me that she read you both, and talked about magic. The stories are true, I’m a fire witch.” Lora pressed her lips a bit, didn’t seem to disapprove too badly.
She wanted urgently to scratch the back of her neck, but Geleth would have a fit and the two noblewomen would look at her all disappointed. Jess locked her teeth and tried to read the men as a distraction.
They hadn’t flinched as much as she expected them to. Interesting. Both of them were surprised, but by something besides her being a witch. What was it? Oh. Naturally.
Jess told Lora, “These men are easy to read. They’d heard about me being a witch, but didn’t know whether to believe the stories until they met Lili. What really surprises them is how well I speak. They thought that since I was raised in the woods, I probably knew nothing about proper behavior. Not surprising. Lili didn’t help that part, either. I need to talk to her about that.”
Mestil swallowed and looked sick. Jurtos stood stiff and wore a face like ice.
“Pete knew I was a witch before he ever took me to the palace,” Jess went on casually. “The story about me being a witch is true, but the story that witches worship demons is a lie. The plain fact is that some women are born with water magic, and some women are born with air magic, and some women are born with fire magic, and some women are born with earth magic. But if the temples admit that, they’d have to admit that magic doesn’t come from the gods. All four of the temples would sooner kill everyone in Kulhn than admit that.”
Jurtos looked thoughtful. “I always wondered why it was all right for a woman use some kinds of magic, and not other kinds. It always seemed to me that there was no reason earth or fire would turn evil when a woman used it. Not if water or air didn’t.”
Mestil looked at him with a strange expression.
“More to the point,” Lora said, “for the purpose of this meeting, is the Code. Do either of you object to following the Code of Agrahain?”
They jerked like one man and turned to look at her. “No, milady, of course not,” Mestil blurted out. “The Code has held Kulhn together for six centuries.”
Lora nodded. “The Code says that the temples have no right to keep handmaidens against their will. It has said that from the beginning.” She gave them a sardonic smile. “You didn’t know that, did you?”
Mestil wasn’t looking too steady on his feet. “No, milady. I didn’t.”
Jurtos just listened. It was like he was just used to hearing about things not being done the way they were supposed to.
“The Code,” the queen said, “does not make any exceptions. If something is illegal, then it’s illegal for everyone. Including the temples. A priest has no more right to steal, or murder, or kidnap, or enslave, or torture a person than anyone else. All Peteros did was make a proclamation stating that from now on, the throne is going to enforce the Code the way it was written. The way Agrahain intended it to be enforced when he wrote it.”
“How do we know that Agrahain intended it that way?” Jurtos asked. He wasn’t arguing. Only curious. Jess was starting to like the old man. So she decided to answer him.
“Because Pete said so.”
It got real quiet.
“Pete told me,” Jess said, “that Agrahain wrote the law to apply to everyone the same. He said that for people to respect the law, they had to trust that the law applied to everybody. Else people wouldn’t have any reason to obey the law. Then the law might as well not be there.”
They stared at her. “Milady.” Mestil was trying real hard to breathe. “There are rumors. I mean, we have been hearing...” He stopped and closed his eyes.
“You want to know about the prophecy.”
“Yes, milady.” Jurtos sounded about as respectful as any man she had ever heard. “I don’t suppose you can provide an answer?”
Jess turned her head. “Hefran. Direv. Is Pete the first Agrahain come back?”
“Yes, milady,” Hefran said.
“Indisputably, milady,” Direv said. “There can be no possible doubt of the matter. I am willing to swear, and pledge my life, to the fact that he is the fulfillment of the prophecy.”
“As am I,” Hefran said firmly. “My sacred oath upon it. Certainly no one from Kulhn who fights for him has any doubt.”
The other guards looked at them, then at the queen. Lora looked pale and her face was stiff, but she didn’t say a word.
Jurtos stepped forward and knelt in front of Jess. It caught her by surprise. He pulled out his sword with his left hand and offered the handle to her. Jess looked at Nora in a half panic. Julianna leaned over and whispered, so faintly that Jess could barely hear it herself, “Just touch the hilt.” She did.
“Your highness,” the old man said. “I pledge fealty to yourself and to Prince Peteros. My life, my sword, and all that I have are yours to command.”
Oh shit. Now what was it Pete said when Julianna came to the camp?
“I accept your fealty. For my husband and myself.”
Jurtos stood up smiling and stepped back. He bowed and put his sword away. Mestil stepped forward and did the same thing. He didn’t seem quite as sure of himself as Jurtos had, but he didn’t hesitate either. Once it was over he looked relieved. Like someone who had been dreading having a bad tooth out.
Lora smiled and said, “I believe we are finished here for the present. No doubt you and your men are tired and hungry. I look forward to visiting more at dinner. I am interested in hearing news of how things are progressing in the foothills. Hopefully Peteros will be back by this evening.”
Julianna said, “If you gentlemen will accompany me, I will see that proper quarters are assigned to you and your men. Peteros is currently out with his men, hunting temple raiders.”
“Can we help?” Mestil cringed a little, but he made the offer anyway.
“No need,” Jess smiled. “They killed two priests the last time, one from each temple. The time before that they only found one. Peteros said he had good hope of getting two more this trip. It always makes him happy when he manages to kill a priest.”
They silently bowed one more time and followed Julianna out. As soon as the door closed Jess slumped and let out her breath in a whoosh. The next thing she did was reach back and claw a ditch across the back of her neck.
“Maddening, isn’t it?” Lora looked sympathetic. “As the years pass you will get toughened to it, but it never stops irritating you. At least these two were friendly and didn’t come begging for anything. I am pleasantly surprised. Of course, they might be saving their pleading for Peteros. Lucky him.”
“They weren’t too bad.” Jess stood up and stretched. “What I’m dreading is when the women start showing up.”
Lora made a face. “I see you took off your belt knife. You might want to keep it on next time. Most ladies of the kingdom wear an ornamental dagger. At least, it is theoretically supposed to be ornamental. Never pays to take chances.”