The night was still, the buzz of summer a lilting melody beyond the open window as page after page of parchment was signed and cast aside. The desk was an organized mess; stacks of documents peppering the cherry-stained surface, rising higher with every fluid scritching of the fountain pen. It was all so official, all this paperwork, even the slow rounding of the Queen’s shoulders as the passing hours weighed down on her. Dropping the pen on her latest document, she heaved a resigned sigh, and rubbed generously at the bridge of her nose.
“Politics, pet?” Dagan stood, shoulder propped heavily against the raw, bent-branch door frame. Venduri men were lithe and strong, but not Dagan. The Queen’s Consort rippled under broad shoulders and a chest like a wall. His black hair had hints of red hidden within the strands that shone only when the sun hit it just right. The rumor was that his mother was taken by a human man, and never told her husband—of course, they were rumors. His skin was still Venduri, icy pale with a subtle, nearly imperceptible shimmer. That was enough.
“Mnn,” answered the Queen, turning to face him with a weary smile. “Always politics, isn’t it?”
Twelve years ago, the day they met, the Queen was only Liluye. Her brother was the One Heir, already in grooming to be the next King of Gannon Lei, and her mother was desperately trying to marry off her youngest daughter. It would keep her busy and out of the way during the coronation. The constant little battles with the humans from the west, always trying for a piece of Gannon Lei, trying to push the Venduri out of their own territory, had bred new concerns—new fears—new disease. Six months after Liluye and Dagan were engaged, the One Heir fell to blood lung. Dagan’s parents insisted he be given equal authority, a partner to his new Queen, an unacceptable demand. Dagan remained her Consort, her husband, her support, but never her love, and never a King.
Yes, it was always politics.
A slow saunter carried Dagan from the doorway to his Queen, hands sliding over her shoulders, rubbing the knots out of her neck.
“You never visit me here,” whispered the Queen, melting like candle wax under that touch. “What’s the occasion?”
“Our daughter’s birthday. She turns ten. I thought we might talk about her new privileges.” There was something in his voice. Something.
Liluye turned and looked him over as she rose, her skin suddenly crawling over her bones at the feel of his fingers. “The arrangements have been made already, Dagan. You’ve decided to be a part of her celebration a bit late… again.”
Dagan’s eyes followed her as she crossed the room, the honey-gold irises muddled with stripes of dark brown. It always left the Queen unsettled, the way his eyes darkened when their gazes met.
“I will be there, at least.”
“Will you?” Palms pressed to the sill of the open window, she drew a deep breath of the cool, fresh air. It smelled so heavily of lilacs, it began to calm her nerves against her inconsistent and demanding husband. “She loves you, she deserves your attent–” Her eyes flicked wide, her breath caught between her mouth and her lungs, as she grasped for her throat.
A scarf. She clawed frantically, wheezing gasps doing her no service as she stumbled back when she was pulled. Dagan’s broad chest—that massive frame that made him so unlike the rest of them—keeping her pinned beneath the suffocating scarf. A hand flew back, fingernails gouging at his face and she heard him snarl… like an animal. In that dizzying swirl through the room, stacks of papers bursting off the desk in a frantic flurry, Liluye threw an elbow into her husband’s side—one momentary slip of his grip on that fabric and she toppled to the floor, choking, crawling to the door.
“Lunet!” she howled hoarsely, cut short on a cough as Dagan’s knee came down into the middle of her back. “Stop this!” she wheezed, groping for the letter opener amongst the pages on the floor. His hand snapped out and caught her wrist, wrenching it to pull a squeal of agony from his Queen.
Footfalls pattered, candles were lit, staff scurried to dress—Lunet burst in the room. A child, wide honey eyes lit on her mother, her arm twisted at a painful angle. The silence in that tense pause felt like sandpaper on her nerves.
“Mother…?” she muttered in horror, frozen, eyes moving to her father.
Dagan’s face twisted when he saw his daughter’s terror, and used that pause to snatch the letter opener that his wife’s fingertips so barely grazed.
“Daa!” Lunet screamed, falling a step back when that letter opener was plunged into her helpless mother. The Queen. Her family… “Daa! No, stop!” she sobbed, hands slapped to her cheeks, fingers pressing to her eyes.
Blood bubbled from the Queen’s lips in a choking gasp, her broken arm still trying to pull her from under her husband. “Lunet… ru-run…” she heaved, red specks peppering the wooden floor.
She should have run. She thought to run… but her mother’s words finally shoved her feet into action. Spinning, her nightgown fluttering behind her, Lunet bolted through the halls, servants all in the halls, confused and lost, trying to stop the girl as she ran.
“Stop her!” Dagan howled. “The Heir stabbed the Queen!”
A chorus of shouts over a hushed murmur filled the confused pause, before Dagan met the second landing. “The Queen is dead!” His face contorted in grief, a mockery of what he’d just done, and yet…. they believed him.
Lunet didn’t stop. Half the palace was after her, but she didn’t stop. She kept running….running and running, through doors and hallways and around furniture. She burst into the kitchen on a sob, and ran face first into the cook, bouncing back with a scream.
Eyes wide, the busty older woman hastily brushed the tears from the Heir’s cheeks with her apron. “Hush now, child. What are you wailing for?”
Lunet was rigid. She didn’t know what to say. The shouting was following… she could hear them coming.
“Mother is dead!” She sobbed, and collapsed to her knees, limp and exhausted.
The cook’s eyes fixed on the kitchen door, and she knelt down, her lips pressed in a thin line. “How came she by this, little miss?”
“Daa.” That one word croaked out of her on a hiccup, anguished and heartbroken.
The cook drew a breath, composed her thoughts a moment, and rose. Time was limited, she could hear the voices of familiar servants hunting for Lunet—hunting a child. Another deep breath. “You’ve learned your shifting, little miss?”
“Good. Tiran.” She stalked to the pantry and emerged with a boy about thirteen, holding him by his sleeve. “Tiran, you take the little miss, and you run,” she instructed calmly, “run until you can’t run anymore, and then hide when the sun breaks, understand?”
“Maa, the eggs—.”
“Are unimportant, Tiran, listen to me.” The cook gave her son a gentle shake by the shoulders, the pounding of feet coming ever closer. “You take her and run! Just as I told you!”
Tiran looked at Lunet, and gave a little nod as the cook tugged the girl up by her arm, and all but thrust her at Tiran, shoving both of them toward the back door. “Go! Don’t stop! Keep her safe, Tiran. At all cost, you keep her safe.” She hissed in a whisper, shoving them out.
Lunet sobbed wildly, and Tiran slapped a hand over her mouth. “Shut up! Do you hear them? Come on! Maa said run!” He yanked her arm, dragging the hysterical child along with him. The cook watched as her son and the Heir fled into the breaking dawn.
The door burst open, and she spun about, Dagan glaring her down. “Master Dagan… What’s the ruckus?” Her heart raced as she tried to keep her head.
“The Queen is dead at the hand of the Heir.” He snapped, flipping a table in his rage, servants and guards clustering at the kitchen door. Utensils clattered to the floor, flour clouding the air.
“The Heir? Master Dagan, she’s a child….”
“A child… the murder of the Queen… Child or no, there will be no mercy.”
The cook shied back from the madness in those eyes. “I’ll not aid in the slaughter of a child.” Her courage was waning as she shrank against the shelving that lined the walls, gripping one shelf to steady herself.
Dagan snatched a kitchen knife, and stopped it, half-risen…. and set it down. “Guards. She’s hidden the Heir. Take her into custody. Make her talk.” He growled, his orders followed without hesitation.
Seized by the arms, the cook spat at Dagan’s feet on her way by, shoes dragging trails through the spilled flour. “I will die first. She’s a little girl.” She drew a breath, digging for courage through her terror. “The Consort murdered the Queen! Don’t let him take our Heir! Lunet is innocent!” She screamed frantically, her bravery coming in waves of wild hysteria as she flailed against the grip of the guards.
The kitchen knife snatched up, Dagan buried it in the cook’s belly, the sickening slice of the flesh and her choked yelp creating a stir of silence…. He lifted a towel and dried his hands. “I would never harm my Queen. Get rid of her.” He stated, deathly calm, the crowd staring in gaping silence in unison. Even the guards, stunned, hesitated before dragging the gurgling cook out back.
“Find her. Bring her to me.” Dagan leaned on a table, steadying himself on a breath. “The Heir will be punished for her crimes.”
~ ~ ~