A WOMAN’S WORK… by Tanya Huff
It was obvious that the man outside the city wall was a Hero. His plain but serviceable armor-armor that had obviously seen several campaigns-did nothing to hide the breadth of his shoulders, the narrowness of his hips, or the long and muscular length of his legs. His hair gleamed gold under the edges of his helmet and even from her viewing platform on the top of the wall, Queen Arrabel could tell his eyes were a clear sky blue with the direct, unwavering gaze of an honorable man.
Over his left arm, he wore a simple unadorned shield, designed to deflect blows, not to support his ego by announcing his family ties to the world. In his right hand, he carried a sword. It looked like a hand-and-a-half, double-edged broadsword although he was so mighty a warrior he made it seem small. She could just make out a heavy gold ring on the second finger of his right hand. It was the only jewelry he wore.
“Prince Danyel!” He called, his voice clear and carrying. “Come out and face me. Let you and I settle the animosity between our two peoples! There is no need for war; we will fight man to man! He who wins our conflict will decide all!”
The queen raised her own voice enough to be heard by her people standing along the wall. “A gold coin to the archer who puts one in his eye.”
For an instant there was the sound like buzz of a hundred wasps.
Then a sound like a sudden hard rain on a slate roof.
Leaning a little past the battlement to get a better line of sight, the queen smiled. “Nice grouping, archers. Well done. Wallace!”
“Majesty!” Her personal aide leaped forward.
“Go down and check the fletching on those arrows-it looks like we have at least three winners.” Her archers were her pride and joy, even though she knew she shouldn’t have favorites among her extensive armies. “Take a wizard with you to make sure he hasn’t been magically booby-trapped, then strip the body. Bring the armor and the ring to me, have the body cremated.”
“And his horse, Majesty?”
The beautiful black stallion standing just to the right of the gate stared up at her with intelligent eyes.
“Mother! I wanted that horse!”
Arrabel sighed, turning to her son as the stallion whirled to escape and crashed dead to the ground, looking remarkably like a horse-shaped pincushion. “Horses don’t have intelligent eyes, Danyel. Nor are they able to determine who, in a group of people standing on top of a wall twenty feet over their heads, is in charge.”
Danyel frowned, dark brows almost meeting over his nose. “So the Hero knew I’d win and take his horse and the horse was to kill me later. The horse was enchanted and the Hero was a sacrifice.”
“I suspect the horse was no more than a backup plan. Heroes never think they’re going to lose.”
“I could have taken him.” At nearly twenty he was too old to pout but his tone was distinctly sulky.
She patted his arm as she passed. “Of course you could have. Captain Jurin.”
Almost overcome by adoration, clearly astounded that the queen knew his name, the captain stepped forward and saluted. “Majesty!”
“Send out a couple of patrols to make sure this Hero didn’t leave one of those annoying sidekicks skulking about in the bushes.”
On the way back to the palace, she smiled and waved and noted how pleased everyone her son’s age and younger was to see her. The free schooling she provided for her subjects until the age of twelve was paying off-it was so much easier to teach children how to think than it was to change their minds as adults. A strong apprenticeship program helped too. Idle hands found time for mischief and nothing straightened out a young troublemaker faster than twelve hours of hauling stone. City walls didn’t build themselves, after all.
It pleased her too to see so many babies around. Young men who tried to get out of the responsibilities of fatherhood were sent to the mines and their very fair wages were paid entirely to the mother of their child. Fatherhood seemed a good deal in comparison. And the sort of man that might succeed at rebellion soon thought better of it when he became responsible for the care and feeding of six or seven screaming children-said children guaranteed schooling and employment should the status quo be maintained.
One child had certainly done his best to sap her energy.
“What is it, Danyel?”
“There’s a girl standing on your statue.”
“That’s nice, dear.” Arrabel blew a kiss to a strapping young man and smiled to see him blush. “Which statue?”
“The one with your hand on the head of the beggar brat. Mother, you’d better pay attention to this!”
Sighing, she turned and glanced toward the statue in question. “Don’t point, Danyel. It’s common.”
He dropped his arm with a sullen clank of vanbrace against breastplate. “Well, do you see her?”
It was hard to miss her. “Andrew, stop the coach.” As the six archers in her escort moved into new defensive positions, the queen shifted over to stare out Danyel’s window.
The girl had a head of flaming red hair and stood with one booted foot on the beggar child’s stone head and the other tucked into the queen’s bent elbow. Gesturing dramatically, she pitched her voice to carry over the ambient noise of the streets and shrieked that the queen cared nothing for her subjects.
“That would go farther if she wasn’t standing in front of the hospital you had built,” Danyel muttered.
The people loved the hospital. Arrabel loved it more. With all healers working for the crown at salaries too good to walk away from, the crown controlled who got healed and how.
“The queen has turned you into mindless drones in her glittering hive!”
People who might not have noticed the girl noticed the queen and the crowds began to quiet, half their attention on the flamboyant redhead and half on the royal coach.
“The queen has taken away your freedoms!” The last word fell into a nearly perfect silence and the girl’s eyes widened as she stared over the heads of the crowd and realized who was in her audience.
“Like their freedom to starve?” Arrabel asked. “Do go on with what you were saying,” she added, adjusting her paisley shawl more securely around her shoulders. “But I’m afraid I can’t stay to listen, I have a country to run.”
The crowd roared its approval as she gestured for her driver to go on. Had they not been well aware of her opinion on wasting food, she felt sure the girl would have been wearing a variety of produce in short order.
“It’s weird how those types keep showing up,” Danyel snorted, settling back into the velvet upholstery. “Each of them more ridiculous than the last. No one even listens to them anymore.”
“I’m glad to hear that.” She already knew it.
“Still…” He scratched under the edge of his vanbrace until he caught sight of her expression then he stopped. “This one seemed to really believe what she was saying.”
“Did she? I didn’t notice.” Mirroring her son’s position, minus the scratching, Arrabel made a mental note to have Wallace arrange a “tour of the provinces” for the young actress when she showed up at the palace to be paid. If even Danyel had noticed a certain conviction in her performance, the girl had become a liability. The last thing Arrabel wanted was for the people to start thinking.
Wallace was waiting for her in her private receiving room, the Hero’s armor and ring on the table.
“The wizards have checked it thoroughly, Your Majesty. It’s nothing more than the well-made armor it appears.”
“And the ring?”
“Also free of magical taint.” He picked it up and handed it to her with a slight bow. “It bears the eagle crest of Mecada.”
It was heavy and so pure a gold she could almost mark it with her thumbnail. “A gift to the Hero from King Giorge?”
“It seems likely, Majesty.”
“He’s really beginning to annoy me. This is what, the third attempt at myself or my son this month? Send this to the mint,” she continued tossing the ring back to her adviser before he could respond. “It’ll just cover what I paid those three archers to kill him.”
It was only chance that a fortnight later the queen was inspecting new recruits in the outer courtyard near enough to the palace gate to hear a voice raised in protest.
“Oh come on, mate, what I get for this here load’s gonna feed my family this coming cold. You’re not after burning up the food in my family’s mouths are you?”
In the courtyard, Arrabel smiled at the twenty young men and women who had just been congratulated on having passed the stringent physical and mental tests required to wear the Queen’s Tabard, reminded them to write their mothers weekly, and then dismissed them into the care of her Captain of Recruits. He was a genius with young people. Once he got their training well under way, they’d protect her with their lives. By the time he finished, even death wouldn’t stop them.
Moving quickly, her escort falling into place around her, she arrived at the gate in time to hear a second protest.
“But I’m from all the way out in New Bella! How would I have heard that Her Majesty wants all hay delivered in tight bales?”
“Are you suggesting that my word has not reached New Bella?” she asked in turn, stepping out of the shadows. “Because if that’s the case, I can repeat it more emphatically.”
Very early on in her rule, she’d discovered that nothing spoke with quite so much emphasis as a troop of light cavalry armed primarily with torches and accelerant.
The carter paled as the pair of gate guards clanged to attention. “I’m sure I was the only one who didn’t hear, Majesty!”
“Good. Unharness your…” She raised a brow at the animal, which rolled its eyes so that the whites showed all the way around and fought the reins trying to shy away from her.
“Is it? Well, get it away from the cart, I’d hate for it to be injured.”
To his credit, the carter had the mule away from the cart in record time.
One of the gate guards dropped a lit torch into the hay, which burst into flames and ejected a medium-size nondescript man who leaped toward her, smoldering slightly. The six arrows that suddenly pounded into his torso knocked him back into the fire.
“Mercy, Majesty!” The carter dropped to his knees at her feet and laced rough, work-reddened fingers together. “He threatened my family, said he’d slit their throats in the dark if I didn’t help him.”
The queen sighed, ignoring the screaming as the wounded assassin burned. “How could he slit their throats if he was hiding in the back of your cart?”
“Once you took him away from your family, he couldn’t slit their throats and all you had to do was drive up to anyone in a Queen’s Tabard and tell them what you had hidden in the hay. Since you didn’t do that, I can only assume one of two situations apply. The first is that you were delivering him of your own free will. The second is that you are too stupid to live.” Twitching her skirts aside, she raised her hand. “Since the end result is the same for either,” she told the body as it fell, bristling with arrows. “It’s not particularly relevant which applies. Now then…” She turned to the gate guards. “… this is exactly why we don’t allow carts filled with loose hay into the city. Do you understand?”
“I’m pleased to hear that. We’ll let this incident stand as an object lesson…” The assassin had finally stopped screaming, “… but I’m disappointed in both of you-a rule is a rule and although you didn’t allow the cart through the palace gate, you did let the carter argue. That might have given the assassin time to slip inside and then how would you have felt?”
“Terrible, Majesty,” admitted the guard on the left.
“Terrible,” agreed the guard on the right, his eyes watering a little from the smoke.
“I certainly hope so. If you want to make it up to me, you can find out who let this cart into the city because I’m very disappointed in them. Wallace!”
“Majesty!” Her aide stepped over a bit of burning wheel.
“I don’t imagine there’s enough left of the body to identify but check his weapons. Let me know as soon as you have something. Oh, and Wallace?” Arrabel paused, her escort pausing in perfect formation with her. “See that the mule is given a good home. Something about it reminds me of my late husband.”
“His knives are Mecadain, Majesty.” Wallace laid all four blades in a row on the table. “As were what was left of his boots.”
There was no point in asking if he were sure. He wouldn’t have told her if he wasn’t. “King Giorge again.”
“I was planning to invade Mecada next spring.”
“I think that’s why he was trying to remove you, Majesty.”
“Yes, well, you’d think that someone who didn’t want me to invade would put a little more effort into making friends and a little less effort into annoying me.” The queen walked around the table slowly, her heels rapping out a piqued beat against the parquet floor. She stared down at the knives and shook her head. “When I look at these, I’m very annoyed.” A slight, almost inaudible sound drew her attention to her aide. “Oh, not at you, Wallace. At King Giorge. Tell General Palatat that I’d like to see him and his senior staff. And then find me a few bards who wouldn’t mind a new wardrobe and an all expense paid trip to Mecada.”
“A new wardrobe, Majesty?”
“I think we should let the people of Mecada know what their king has gotten them into and the bards will be able to reach more people if they’re not so obviously mine.”
Arrabel was the sole patron of the Bardic College. It was amazing how many bards preferred to sing warm and well-fed, permitted to travel freely about the land wearing the queen’s colors. Of course, there were always a few who insisted on suffering for art’s sake-so Arrabel saw to it that they did.
The queen accompanied her army into Mecada, turned a captured border town into a well fortified command center, and stayed there.
“You won’t be riding at the front of your army, Mother?”
“No, Danyel. When the ruler rides at the front of the army, she only gets in the way.”
“And there is also the great danger you would be in, Majesty!”
She glanced across the war room at Captain Jurin standing amid a group of staff officers and sighed. “Thank you for considering that, Captain.”
“I’m not afraid,” Danyel declared.
Arrabel settled her shawl more securely around her shoulders and stared at her son for a long moment. He squared his shoulders and raised his chin. “I’m sure you aren’t,” she said at last. “Chose then whether you stay here or ride into battle.”
“I will ride into battle!”
She sighed again. “You’re beginning to remind me so much of your father. You’ll be treated as nothing more than a junior officer, say…” Her eyes fell on Captain Jurin, “… a captain. Wallace.”
“Have a captain’s uniform made for my son.”
Danyel stared at her, appalled “But-”
“Billy goats butt, dear. You’ll obey your commanders because their orders come from General Palatat-”
“But, Mother, I’m a prince!”
“-and General Palatat,” Arrabel continued mildly, “speaks for me.” She took his silence for assent and smiled. “Don’t grind your teeth, dear. Of course you’ll keep the lines of communication open between the battle and this command center,” she told the general. “But I trust you and your staff to do their job.” Which went without saying really because they wouldn’t have their jobs if she didn’t.
Queen Arrabel’s army had the advantage of numbers, training, and motivation. King Giorge’s people, invaded only because they were next on the list, had only the moral high ground.