The Blood Pact Ch. 38bykimtheelf©
I ran headlong through passages and rooms of the royal wing with hardly any sense of where I was going. My only thought was to get away as quickly as possible. I had a vague impression of pursuit -- either real or imagined -- but I dared not turn to face whoever it might have been.
What had just happened in the chapel wasn't something that I ever could have imagined in my wildest dreams. Maybe I'd been prepared for death back there, but after witnessing that farce, I didn't want to see what those lunatics might next do to me, and so I ran.
Some notion in the back of my head told me to get out of the palace and follow through with my original plan of escape. Most of my supplies were still at the cabin. If I could get beyond the walls, I might have a chance.
However, I'd murdered the king-to-be in front of every noble of consequence in the entire kingdom. They knew who I was and without the Transformation Wand, I no longer had a means of becoming someone else. I'd never get away, no matter what I did.
Finally breaking into a small chamber I'd only once ever set foot inside of before now, I came to an abrupt stop. It was the king's third throne room, a tiny chamber with wood-paneled walls and a modestly-sized throne of oak with brass panels inset into the wood. It was also a dead-end -- the only way out was back the way I'd just come.
The sounds of pursuit, most definitely real, were now drawing dangerously close. Maybe they'd finally come to their senses and were ready to cut me down as I deserved. I unfastened the pale priestess robes from around my neck and let them fall to the floor. If I was to face my end at last, let it be with some degree of dignity. Now attired in nothing more than Nikelle's uniform, I turned toward the door and held my blood dagger at the ready, my arm growing momentarily numb as a curved blade with a hooked base grew from the hilt.
However, when I caught sight of the small group that burst into the room, I nearly dropped my blade. Rather than the scores of guards I'd been expecting, it was Delphina, Lord Marcus, and Fildrich. Outside, Traemene and Wilona took up positions of defense.
"Delphina! What the bloody hell happened back there!" I cried. "Those people were calling me their queen! Me! I'm just a stupid stable hand. I just...I just...killed Lord Ruvano!"
Gods, I HAD just killed him. I'd never killed anyone before. Looking back, it was almost as if it had been a completely different person doing those things. However, his blood was still on my hands and still soaked into my clothes. My hands began shaking and my knees nearly buckled. The swirled blood of my blade quivered and then snapped back into the hilt as a queasy tingling raced up my arm. I took a step backward and sat wearily upon the edge of the throne.
"Why the bloody fucking hell would they ever bow down and accept me as their queen after doing something like that?" I paused and looked up at Delphina. "Why the hell did YOU? Please don't tell me this was all part of some elaborate game you were playing with me from the start."
Delphina, profound sympathy in her eyes, merely shook her head. She stepped close enough to touch my arm, and though I sensed she wanted to hug me, something held her back. I would have embraced her instead, but if I was now some kind of monster in her eyes, I didn't think I could stand to see her cringe away from me. "No Stephanie, we couldn't have orchestrated something like this even if we'd tried."
"However, it is quite fortuitous," Fildrich was quick to add. "We could make use of this situation."
"Make use of it?" I snapped, my voice a harsh screech. "Now you listen here --!"
"Stephanie, please, clam down," Delphina said.
I didn't see any reason to do so under the circumstances but decided I would at least try to keep my outbursts to a minimum for the time being, for Delphina. "Very well. But know this: I will not bind my life to your plots as I did for Lord Ruvano."
"I wasn't suggesting you should," Fildrich said.
"I don't even understand why this is happening." I could have cried if I'd had anything left in me to do so. I was trapped forever as a woman now so maintaining any kind of stoic resolve in situations like this no longer seemed to matter. "All I wanted was to avenge Nikelle. Why didn't they just kill me?"
"Because they think you now hold Lord Ruvano's book of secrets," the Marquis said.
"Lord Ruvano's book of secrets?" I said, fighting hard to keep from shouting. The Marquis should have know as well as any of us just how foolish that sounded. "He didn't have anything like that. He kept all the dirty little secrets he'd collected in his head."
"They don't know that," Fildrich said. "Besides, it's purely figurative anyway. The royal court now believes you have all that information."
"What?" I sputtered. "Why would they ever think such a thing!"
"Lord Ruvano flaunted you as his woman and freely encouraged all those rumors about your origins to circulate" the Marquis said. "No one ever realized just how superficial and one-sided your relationship with him really was. As far they know, you were more than just his agent, you may have been his equal partner. When you killed him, they all assumed you were doing so with the intent of taking his place on the game board."
"I must admit," Fildrich said, "that very thought did cross my mind for a moment back there."
The Marquis continued. "Men and women who have aspired for the throne their whole lives would never have made a move as they believe you have without the means to hold onto what they had just taken."
It seemed to take a great deal of effort simply to reach up and pull the crown off my head and into my lap. It was encrusted with patterns of jewels and other precious stones but the open-worked design and intricate tracery of the gold underneath made it much lighter than I would have expected. Though it really was a priceless object of beauty, I wanted nothing at all to do with the cursed thing.
"So I'll abdicate," I said. "I never wanted to be queen anyway. I'll simply leave all this behind and get as far away as possible."
Delphina's expression grew even more worried and the Marquis shook his head solemnly. "Then they'd have you killed for sure."
Realization dawned on me with a sickening sense of dread in the pit of my stomach. "Even if I did abdicate the throne, they would assume I still knew all of Lord Ruvano's secrets. I'd be too much of a liability to let live."
"Any move you make would merely be seen as another attempt to outmaneuver them," Fildrich said. "Anything is possible in the game of secrets. In fact, that's the entire point."
Gods, I hated this mess! I held out the crown, imploringly. "Please, Lord Marcus, you take it! If I gave the throne to you, wouldn't that be a logical endgame to all this as well?"
He laughed and held up his hands. "I don't want that thing. I'm not a king."
"And I'm not a queen!"
"You are now," Fildrich said. "You might as well take advantage of it."
"Stephanie, just think for a moment," Delphina said. "Lord Ruvano, and Duke Rosenthal before him, had both been intent on using the throne as a mere stepping stone to ever greater heights. They would have destroyed this kingdom just to further their ambitions. If you accept the throne, you could help to make life better for everyone."
"Y-yes, think of the people," Fildrich added, somewhat hastily. "We must project the appearance of strength, regardless of what the truth may be. Uncertainty in choosing a new ruler is a sure sign of weakness. Not one of our neighboring kingdoms would hesitate to invade if they caught wind of this crisis. Our lands would be taken, our economy destroyed, and our people forced to live under foreign rule."
I sank in on myself. I didn't want to see any of those things happen, but why did the responsibility of preventing them have to fall on MY shoulders?
"Even if you were to abdicate without loosing your life, the lines of succession after Duke Rosenthal are somewhat muddled. There are currently..." Fildrich paused to count on his fingers, "five -- no six nobles, each of whom have equally legitimate claims to the crown. With an empty throne, all six of them would attempt to take it for themselves. It would be civil war. The kingdom would be destroyed from within."
"And you want me to bluff my way through against people like that? In the past I liked to gamble quite a bit, but I must admit I was never any good at it. Even if we could fool every noble out there into thinking that I had inherited all the leverage Lord Ruvano had against them, the king's forces won't be inclined to follow me as they were him. Guile alone is not a suitable defense against overwhelming force."
"Rosenthal's Duchy is not a hereditary title," Fildrich said. "A few well-appointed fiefs would likely bring his men into line."
"Begging you pardon, m'lord," a new voice called out from the doorway. "But you'd not be able to devest Rosenthal's men of the palace without some show of force. They'd sooner loot the place than turn it over freely to someone like her."
All eyes turned to see one of Lord Ruvano's men. Dressed in full armor and standing just outside, his way was being barred by Traemene.
"You watch your tongue or I'll cut out!" Fildrich said, whirling on the man. "You'll not address the queen in that manner!"
I guess Fildrich had already decided I was going to take the throne regardless of what I wanted. However, I knew no such display would impress the man in the doorway at all. Yanthas, his expression just as dour as ever, eyed the young lord with complete indifference.
"And what manner is that?" he said. "Are you implying that I shouldn't address her truthfully?"
Fildrich's hand went to his sword. "I'm giving you one chance to turn and walk away before I cut you down where you stand."
"You're more than welcome to try, m'lord," Yanthas said, his stance shifting subtly.
"Both of you, cut it out!" I said, my voice booming through the small chamber and instantly silencing them both. The acoustics had obviously been tailored for the purpose because there was no way I could have done that without aid. I took a moment to sit up a little straighter and place a commanding expression on my face. "Yanthas, surrender your sword and come forward. I would hear what reason has brought you here."
Yanthas stood for a moment longer eying Fildrich before handing his sword over to Traemene. Thusly disarmed, he strode into the middle of the chamber. Though he stopped a respectable distance before me, he made no effort at all to bow.
Lord Ruvano's men would not be happy about what I'd done. They were hardened soldiers who'd followed the spymaster through countless trials to get where they were now. It was men like that who more often then not ensured new rulers didn't remain in power for too long. As I sat on the very edge of the throne with back straight as an arrow, I merely offered him a stiff nod, signaling him to go ahead.
"The men all know what you've done -- hell, everyone in the palace knows -- and we been talking about what to do next. I volunteered to let you know what we decided."
"When we swore our allegiance to Lord Ruvano, it was because he promised to lead us to fortune and glory. Obviously, he can't do that now that he's dead. I suppose we could kill all of you, loot the castle, and get away with a fine pile of booty, but then what? I can go back to being a mercenary whenever I want, but the honor of serving a queen doesn't come along everyday. Hell, most can live their whole lives without even getting close to an opportunity like this. Besides, the men respect you...more, I'd be willing to wager, than they did Lord Ruvano after the way he'd been treating us recently. We'd like to see how you do, and we'd like to help, if you'll let us."
Fildrich shook his head. "No, your majesty. These men are dangerous. They're little more than criminals. They served Lord Ruvano, carrying out his clandestine assignments. They should not have been allowed into the palace during ANY king's reign. Cut them loose."
Yanthas glared at the young earl. If his sword hadn't been surrendered at the door, he likely would have had it in hand by now.
"You should be grateful I'm willing to let you keep your freedom," Fildrich added.
"That's enough," I said, "For the moment, I am still the queen here (regardless of what I may have wanted), and that makes this decision mine and mine alone."
Fildrich's mouth twisted as he pressed his lips together. He then bowed slightly at the waist with his hand to his heart. "Yes, of course, your majesty."
Being addressed like that, I had to fight down the urge not to roll my eyes. I'd never really gotten used to being called a lady. I doubted I'd ever be able to stomach something as grand as 'your majesty.'
Yanthas meanwhile, stood his ground, ever-vigilant for signs of trouble. Even when faced with possible death, he didn't flinch. I had always liked that about him. Though Fildrich was correct about them being dangerous men, Yanthas was also correct about Rosenthal's forces not going quietly without some show of force. Surely Fildrich could see that. He was too cunning to be that naïve. However, pride and dignity make people believe foolish things. And I'd lost all sense of pride or dignity the first time I was forced to debase myself with another man. Was that what it meant to rule; to make hard decisions when others were blinded by emotion?
"Take word to the rest of the men and inform them to pack their things," I said.
Yanthas's eyes narrowed and his scowl deepened. Meanwhile, Fildrich nodded with a self-satisfied smirk.
"You'll all be moving into the royal garrison without delay. With things the way they are at the moment, I'll need a guard detail that I can trust."
"Your majesty..." Fildrich muttered in irritation.
"Any who wish to leave may do so without reprisal. I do not want anyone serving in my employ who is not fully committed. Now, once you have delivered your message, return here with Mazarius, Jorven, and Stanos. I will require an honor guard for the ceremonies which I'm sure the Royal Council here is going to force me to attend."
"Yes, your majesty!" This time it was Yanthas's weathered face that creased with smirk. I'd never actually seen him smile before. He backed away as he bowed and then sharply exited the room.
"Stephanie, are you sure this is wise?" Delphina said in a low voice. "Up until moments ago, those men were loyal to Lord Ruvano and no one else. They could merely be using this as an opportunity to get close enough to put a knife your back."
"Before killing Lord Ruvano, I'd prepared myself for death. It seems I've evaded that fate for the time being, but anyone who sits on a throne is someone's target. I might as well just get it over with instead of drawing it out."
Delphina began to reproach me, but my smile silenced her. "Only joking." Although how I could manage such a thing at a time like this, I didn't know. Maybe I really had ceased caring whether I lived or died. It certainly didn't seem as if I had any chose in what became of me. Maybe the time had come to stop fighting it.
"Yanthas was right," I said. "Until we deal with Rosenthal's men, we're going to need protection within these walls more than ever. Unless one of you has a small army hiding somewhere close at hand, those men are the only ones who might be able to provide us with the necessary strength we need. Besides, I know them. They are dependable and stalwart." I wouldn't dispute the fact that they were also dangerous and nearly criminals, since I'd certainly lose that argument, but I did trust them...to a point.
Delphina shook her head slightly. She still didn't like my reasoning but at least she trusted my decision enough not to openly question it. "And what did you mean earlier when you said your 'Royal Council'?" She spread her arms to encompass the three of them. "There is no one here but us."
I flashed her a knowing smile before turning to her husband. "Lord Marcus, you may not be a king, but if you insist on making me a queen, I will require a minister of state. Do you think you could handle THAT?"
He chuckled and shook his head. Then, placing his hand to his heart, he bowed deeply. "Yes, your majesty, I believe I can."
Who would have ever thought that the great Lord Marcus, Marquis of Jalifria would ever be bowing to me: a commoner, a one-time stable hand, a spy, a whore. Yes, the world had clearly gone insane. Maybe I was the only one who could see it for what it was, but I was not going to curl myself up into a ball and wait for the end. I was going to go down fighting, as I'd promised Nikelle's memory I would.
"And you Fildrich: I can think of none better to be my master of spies. I'm sure I'll have great need of your skills in the coming months."
The young man looked slightly taken aback for a moment before he too bowed. Maybe he'd been hoping for some grander appointment. However, it was almost certain that once we started cleaning out Rosenthal's council, I'd have all kinds of grants to bestow.
"And finally Delphina," I said taking her hand in mine and squeezing it warmly. "I treasure your friendship too much to burden you with any such posting, but if I could trouble you with simply staying close by my side for the time being. Having a friend nearby would be greatly appreciated, but I'll also need someone to make sure I don't make too big a fool of myself."
Delphina smiled with almost maternal pride. Then remembering herself, she offered a hasty curtsy. "Yes, of course, your majesty."
I took a deep breath and sighed before placing the crown back on my head. What choice did I have? It was impossible to go back to the way things had been before. Master Oringel, the Steward, Griffith, Nikelle, Duke Rosenthal, Lord Ruvano; all dead. The Transformation Wand; destroyed. I was forever stuck with this body and this life, but was that really so bad?
"Just one more thing," I said, addressing all three of them. "At least when we're alone together, please just call me Stephanie."
After all, that WAS my name.
I had once known a man named Mathis. He had been an excellent horse trainer but little else. I, on the other hand, was now a queen. I was being given a chance to make lasting changes to the entire kingdom and improve the lives of all its people. Maybe this wasn't the fate I would have chosen for myself, but perhaps I could yet find a way to make use of my strange circumstance, not for my own benefit, but everyone else's.
--- EPILOGUE ---
Like all of us, Queen Stephanie came into the world drenched in blood. Her rise to the throne was marked with violence, but she would eventually reign over one of the most prosperous eras her people had ever known.
It was no easy task, but with the help of trusted friends and allies, Stephanie was able to counter most threats from within the kingdom before they got out of control. More damaging than any unruly baron, however, were the whispered rumors which spread like wildfire though the populace and threatened to undermine all authority she had managed to secure for herself. They spoke of oaths of loyalty signed in blood, scores of servants released from employment for minor transgressions, the queen's unhealthy taste for expensive wine, unexplained meetings with envoys of strange women from the south, nightly orgies taking place in the bowels of the palace, Stephanie's lack of interest in all things except the riding of horses, a secret alliance with the Blood Dagger Sisterhood, and even wilder tales. Most eventually proved to be groundless, but by then, the harm had already been done. Though the common people knew Stephanie had once been a mere drudge like them, uncertainty gripped the land until she was able to convince them of her ability to lead.