Dae ran her hand down Alari’s back gently tracing the outlines of the queen’s spine. Or at least Dae was being as gentle as she could. With three layers of royal silk already draped over the queen, locating where Alari’s spine lay was proving to be a tricky proposition.
“It’s ok if the over-corset is off center,” Alari said. “I only have meetings with the Wagoneers Guild and the Corsi Shipping Syndicate today.”
“You are speaking to an ex-handmaiden, Your Majesty,” Dae said. “We take the job of making you look your best rather seriously.”
Threading up the garment with one hand was a skill Dae had perfected years prior but, as with any skill, lack of practice blunted the edge of perfection a great deal.
“Adae, my dearest and most infuriating, if I wanted to look my best I would have assembled the small army which is usually required to engineer the royal regalia,” Alari said. Despite her complaints, Alari held still, arms reaching towards the ceiling to allow Dae the freedom to adjust the fourth and fifth layers of the queenly garb which Alari was being buried under.
“Are you casting aspersions on my training Your Majesty?” Dae asked. “Training which I will remind you, that you, yourself insisted I be subjected to?”
“It was convenient at the time,” Alari said. “We got to avoid hours of boring meetings and hours of even less pleasant balls, which you can’t tell me you were ungrateful for.”
“I recall being grateful then, yes,” Dae said. “Just as I’m grateful now.”
“So this is revenge?” Alari asked, turning to face Dae as Dae swiveled her around to work on the lacing that ran along Alari’s waist.
“Yes,” Dae said. “Revenge for you allowing yourself to be thrown out a window.”
“And yet, strangely, this is leaving me with the impulse to repeat that trip,” Alari said.
“You are welcome to try,” Dae said. “I would point out though that I have enough lace and ribbon here that I am reasonably certain I could mummify you before you reached the sill.”
“If this goes on much longer I may be inclined to take my chances,” Alari said.
“You’re grumpy when your discomforted, my liege,” Dae said. “Could it be that your wounds still bother you more than you claim?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” Alari said. “I am fully mended.”
Dae pulled the laced wrapping cord at the queen’s waist tight and her a squeak of pain escape Alari’s lips. With a triumphant smirk, Dae release the cord by a few inches.
“Fully mended I see,” Dae said, meeting Alari’s disapproving glare with a challenging gaze.
“Mended fully enough that I needn’t rest any further,” Alari said altering her claim in the face of Dae’s implied threat to tighten the waist cord again.
“And the Royal Chirurgeon agreed with that assessment did she?” Dae asked.
“She did not gainsay it,” Alari said, unwilling to meet Dae’s gaze.
“My Queen, my beloved Majesty,” Dae said. “I am sworn to protect you from all threats. Please remember that oath applies even, and most especially, when you are a danger to yourself.”
Dae straightened the last of the ribbons around Alari’s neck ruff and stepped back to judge whether any more adjustments were needed. Alari was right that the process would have been faster with the usual squadron of handmaidens who were responsible for dressing the queen. During Alari’s long convalescence though she’d been loathe to allow anyone except Dae to see the full extent of the wounds that Halrek’s betrayal had inflicted.
“I appreciate that my Adae,” Alari said. “But the quiet of winter is already beginning to thaw to a boisterous spring. As tempting as lounging in the royal bed is, there are wheels that must be set in motion before we are run down by history.”
“Paxmer has answered?” Dae asked, picking up the queen’s favorite brush and indicating for Alari to sit so that Dae could begin work the royal tresses.
“Not as yet,” Alari said. “And while that alone is enough to send a clear signal as to their intentions, we must be ready to respond once they take an overt course.”
“And the meetings today with the transport guilds?” Dae asked, sitting behind Alari and taking up a handful of her hair.
“Our royal court will see it as my returning to direct and active rule rather than acting through proxies as I’ve done for these last four months,” Alari said.
“The transport guilds may not be happy about that,” Dae said. “Your proxies have been more accommodating than you were from the accounts I’ve eavesdropped on.”
“That was at my urging,” Alari said. “The plot against me didn’t get as far as it did without a solid base of support from my nobles. I’m not ready to move against them yet, and I haven’t sifted those who claim to support me from those who actually do.”
“Telli was a great loss wasn’t he?” Dae asked, brushing the tangled ends of Alari’s hair out into smooth waves.
“He was an early supporter,” Alari said. “And he brought a solid contingent of the realm’s nobility with him when he joined my side of the war against my father.”
“Were they all following him, or did his presence give the undecided the courage to back you personally?” Dae asked.
“I suspect I will only know that for certain if I discover one of their daggers in my back,” Alari said.
“Then I’m afraid you’ll be left to wonder about them forever,” Dae said. “Or at least as long as I’m on the job.”
“Even you must sleep though my Knight,” Alari said.
“Which is why you’re allowing me to create the Queen’s Guard,” Dae said.
“Against my better judgment,” Alari said. “With Gallagrin uncontested once more, there is no one who can protect me better than myself.”
“And yet you still named me as your Knight,” Dae said.
“I am a selfish creature,” Alari said. “It was that or you were going to leave for Nath again.”
“I go only where you direct me,” Dae said, putting down the brush and gathering up three strips of Alari’s hair.
“So long as you are beside me, I need no other guardians,” Alari said.
“If you are attacked again, it won’t be by poison and it won’t be by a few assassins,” Dae said and began braiding the queen’s hair. “The next strike against your life will be backed by overwhelming force. After what we did to Telli and the Paxmer prince, the price of failure is too clear. Anyone who attempts to oust you will make sure they have a completely decisive advantage to put in play.“
“Then why place innocent men and women in the path of destruction like that?” Alari asked.
“To raise the level on what will count as a completely decisive advantage,” Dae said. “Ideally I won’t need to protect you from any attacks because I’ll be able to convince people to not attack you in the first place.”
“And how is the search for those extra protectors going?” Alari asked.
Dae finished off the first thin braid and gathered up three strips of hair from the other side of Alari’s head to start the next.
“Not as well as I’d hoped,” Dae said.
“The applicants for a position in the Royal Guard failed their test?” Alari asked.
“Not for a position in the Royal Guard,” Dae said. “Kemoral was happy with what he saw.”
“But you were not,” Alari said, seeing the shape of Dae’s thoughts in nothing more than her words and the tone she spoke them in.
“They were miserable,” Dae said. “One simple physical challenge and they met it with nothing except complaints. They didn’t display the first instinct towards teamwork or any signs of creative thought. I gave them simple rules and they met the challenge without ever testing the boundaries of what they’d been told.”
“Some people do follow instructions better than you do,” Alari said. “That’s not technically a sin you know.”
“I am aware,” Dae said. “I am also aware that a talent for following orders unthinkingly may make them excellent material for the Royal Guard, but your protectors are going to need to be able to see things coming from unexpected angles and react accordingly. Ideally I want people who have that capacity but who don’t think like me.”
“You don’t want them to share your blindspots,” Alari said
“Exactly,” Dae said. “I only have two eyes, I want a hundred watching out for you, in all directions, at every hour.”
“I feel quite safe when your eyes are with me,” Alari said.
“I find that comforting too,” Dae said and then sighed as memory overwhelmed her. “Six years. Six foolish years.”
“If not for those years, we would not be here today,” Alari said. “I regret every wasted moment of them, but I do not regret the today which they led us to.”
“You are wise, my Queen,” Dae said, a warmth blossoming in her chest. “I do not regret our today or our tomorrows either.”
For a moment the queen and her knight, enjoyed a satisfied silence covered by the familiar ritual of hair braiding. Whatever training the queen’s handmaidens received, none of them ever quite mastered the simple act of weaving Alari’s hair the way that Dae had.
For the palace personnel, it was a task which required skill and technical proficiency so that they wouldn’t draw the hair too tight or craft the slim braids with one of the strands being too large or too small.
For Dae it was more than a skill though. It was a form of communion. She didn’t simple weaving Alari’s hair. She spoke to her princess with each layered crossing and her princess responded in kind.
As always the process took less time than Dae would have preferred but as much as she dared claim for it. In the end, Alari looked wonderful, though to Dae’s eyes that had little to do with the preparation of the royal regalia or the careful design of the queen’s hair but rather everything to do with Alari herself.
When Dae met Alari, she had been impressed with the princess’ poise and presence. The child Alari possessed only a small fraction of the force of personality she developed as she grew into her role as queen though. If Dae looked for it, she could catch a glimpse of the girl she first met lingering within the queen, but the years had both given and taken so much that the woman who was the queen was as much an exciting mystery to Dae as the princess had ever been.
“There was one candidate who looked promising though,” Dae said, jumping back to an earlier point in their conversation to take her mind off how intense it was to be with her princess again.
“I thought no one passed your test?” Alari asked.
“No one bested the mountain,” Dae said. “Or me. But there was one who displayed the kind of thinking and perseverance I was looking for.”
“What did they do?” Alari asked.
“I asked them to climb the mountain in a storm without their pact spirit’s help,” Dae said. “The one who impressed me was at the back of the pack and wasn’t going to make it on her own, and none of the other idiots thought to help her.”
“Were you trying to kill my applicants?” Alari asked.
“No, no,” Dae said. “I just wanted to break them in a somewhat specific manner.”
“And how did this one break?” Alari asked.
“She jumped off the mountain,” Dae said. “And flew down to the base camp we’d setup.”
“So she cheated?” Alari asked.
“Yes, but she did it right,” Dae said. “I’d told them they couldn’t use their pacts to climb up the mountain. She only used hers to get back to safety and then as soon as the storm was over she started climbing up again, without her pact spirit’s help, as instructed. The rest of us were coming down the mountain by then, so I had her turn back but I want to see her again. There might be something I can work with there.”
“Good,” Alari said. “That’s excellent. Then perhaps you’ll wind up with two candidates for the Queen’s Guard.”
“Two?” Dae asked. “Who’s the other?”
“The Duchess of Tel has agreed to pay us a visit at last,” Alari said.
“Duke Telli’s daughter is coming here?” Dae asked. “I thought Ren said, she was sickly and couldn’t move till the spring.”
“He didn’t use the word sickly,” Alari said. “He claimed she was beset by a troubled spirit and needed to address that before she could withstand the trip from Elinspire.”
“What does that mean?” Dae asked.
“I don’t know,” Alari said. “It might be that her period of mourning her father has passed and she feels ready enough to confront his killer.”
“Why would you think that?” Dae asked.
“Because she claims she doesn’t care for the title of Duchess,” Alari said. “And that she is coming here because her dearest wish is to meet you.”