The cellars beneath the Wizard Wing of Alnora Palace are surprisingly nice. The walls are a plain white but Aeron has hung a few paintings and put rugs down on the wooden floors. Bookcases line the walls and the piles of books overflow onto the handful of tables and collect around the edges of the room. It’s obvious that Aeron spends a great deal of time down here from the collection of ink wells, pages of notes and oil lamps that litter every surface. He’s been casting spells of detection on the scroll for about an hour now so I’ve had plenty of time to examine every detail. He has some books I want to borrow.
“All I can tell you is that there’s some kind of spell on it and that it’s probably non-lethal,” Aeron mutters, clearly frustrated by his lack of progress. “Truthfully, had our mystery message-sender wanted you dead, he’d probably have given that as the task. I think opening it is the only way we can know anything for sure, though.”
“Of course, anything else would be too simple,” I reply, dryly. Picking up the scroll, I run one of Aeron’s silver knives along the uncoloured, plain wax seal. Whoever sent this didn’t want to be identified from their seal’s colour or design.
A light shock- like a crackle of power more than an attack- runs through my fingers as I begin to unfurl the expensive paper but nothing painful or disastrous happens. Aeron moves to stand behind me to read over my shoulder. A short note is written in the middle of an otherwise blank page.
Lady Annalisa- Guide of the North Lands,
King Arlenfen- Guide of the South-Lands and East-Lands.
“Isn’t Lady Mehrina the Guide of the East-Lands?” Aeron asks, leaning on the back of my chair.
“Yes- or at least she was,” I answer, quietly. “I can’t say anything for certain yet, but it appears Lord Arlenfen is no longer content with his corner of Kendoreith.”
“He’s calling himself King, as well? Surely King Jorleif won’t be pleased about that,” Aeron says, his brows knitting together.
“Jorleif probably has enough to deal with in the Central Lands, if the rumours of uprisings are to be believed. Also, I doubt Arlenfen has allowed it to reach his ears. If Arlenfen plans to take control, why lose the element of surprise?” I reply.
“So why has he told us that he’s coming here?” Aeron stands up and begins to pace.
“He obviously thinks we don’t pose a threat to him and so having us scared is extra entertainment without drawbacks,” I say, my tone effectively closing the conversation. It does us no good to question what we don’t have answers for.
“So what do we do now?” Aeron asks, clearly out of his depth with matters of the state. It takes me a moment to remember that he grew up on a farm and that politics such as these must seem alien to him. They’re alien to me as well, to be honest. We’ve been a peaceful nation for over fifty years now- I can remember the celebrations not too long ago.
“We’re going to war, it seems. I have to consult The Watchers, now. The people believe in them, even if you don’t. I’m going to be asking these people to send their husbands and sons to fight for me-it’s the least I can do,” I’m not in the mood for his arguments now.
“I didn’t say I don’t believe in The Watchers – I do. I just thought that they’d be less than useless at detection spells, seeing as they don’t have Power,” he raises his hands in mock surrender and the begins to gather and stash his magical items.
“I also need to contact my ambassadors in both lands. My sister is married to Mehrina’s Star-Born brother. She was at the ceremony,” As bad as the relationship I have with my sister is, I’m worried about her.
“We’ll find her, Annie. Don’t worry, I’m sure she’s okay,” Aeron says, his voice barely above a whisper.
“Yeah, she’s a tough one,” I murmur in reply and everything goes quiet for a few moments.
“Is Arlenfen Star-Born?” Aeron asks suddenly, still putting his symbols and books back into a chest in the corner.
“No- Mehrina is, though, or her brother would have been Guide of the East Lands,” I reply, my mind still in whorls over the prospect of war.
“Oh, I didn’t know that’s how it worked. I always presumed it was just the oldest sibling who became Guide,” he muses quietly.
“No, it’s the oldest Star-Born in the family or, failing that, the oldest ungifted child. Laneau is older than me and would have gotten the throne, had I not been Star-Born,” I leave it unsaid that it’s the reason she resents me so much.
“How does she feel about that?” He asks, rendering my discretion pointless.
“She got sent off to a land she hates to be with a man she’d never even met. She definitely got the worse deal and she knows it. It’s all the worse that she spent her first five years as the crown princess and then it was taken from her when I was born,” I keep my face turned away from him as I say this and busy myself straightening the rugs. It feels uncomfortably personal to say such things but he has to know. He’s my husband after all and besides, it could affect how relations pan out.
“She blames you?” He asks, finishing his tidying and turning to face me in a way that means I have to face him too.
“She has to blame someone for her own peace of mind,” I skirt answering the question. “We have to go. I want to meet with The Watchers as soon as possible.” I’m just grateful that he agrees.
Standing in front of the assembled council, I explain the situation as fully as I can. I leave out the hour in Aeron’s cellar because he asks me to. I take the scolding for behaving so recklessly as to open a mysterious envelope so impulsively and I wait for their judgement and advice. Elder Nikolai, the leader of The Watchers, finally stands up.
“The North-Lands is a peaceful nation. We do not go to war. Provocation will be met with peace,” he rasps. I can’t believe it. He wants us to just open our gates and arms to Arlenfen’s armies?
“We’ll be slaughtered! They won’t just be coming for cake and hunting!” I gesture with my hands, clearly frustrated.
“If we do not fight, what cause is there for retaliation?” He retorts, spreading his arms questioningly. The sleeves of his purple robes hang almost to the ground.
“Arlenfen quite clearly wants to become the guide of the North-Lands! If we allow him to come in, he’ll take over. He won’t just let me go,” my voice is clearly showing how exasperated I am. I ought to be able to control myself better than this.
“How do you know Arlenfen would be a bad leader?” He asks calmly. His voice is like two stones being rubbed against each other.
“He’ll kill me,” I reply, my voice laden with steel. “He will kill me publicly to break the spirit of any resistance.”
“Have you considered what would be best for the nation, Annalisa?” His eyes narrow. Anger rises further within me. Does he really feel that aggressive, war-waging Arlenfen who threatens peaceful nations would lead our nation better than I?
“Are you criticizing my rule, Nikolai?” My voice is slow, low and dangerous.
“Of course not, Lady Annalisa,” he replies, realising that criticizing my rule would make his position here less stable. No matter how large his spiritual influence, I am still his Guide. “But do you not think that it is finally time for all nations to be united?” He asks, quietly.
I’m so shocked it takes me a moment to remember to breathe. Not only is it treason to speak of one-man rule, but it’s also a taboo subject. Kendoreith has had separate lands for three hundred years and it’s very proud of that fact. The system was started as safety net for the people following the assassination of the unspeakably evil Queen Valentina. Ours lands still bear the scars of her rule. Unitists are a shunned and secret group.
“I must say, Nikolai, I didn’t have you down as an Unitist. I’m sure King Jorleif would be very interested to hear such news,” I smile poisonously at him, my threat perfectly clear. I want the Council’s backing for war.
“I’m sure I could persuade the council to reconsider their position on this matter,” he says, his face devoid of emotion or colour. No, wait. Actually, he looks a little green around the edges.
“That would be wonderful, Nikolai,” I reply sweetly. I turn on my heel and begin to walk out of The Watchers' Halls, my gaze flickering to Aeron who is regarding me with an unmistakeable mixture of respect and faint amusement. “Oh and Nikolai – I will do whatever it takes to protect my people. Never forget that.” I call over my shoulder, loudly enough to be heard over two sets of retreating steps.