When Teo was summoned to the Queen’s chambers for his second visit, he was reasonably sure that he wasn’t going to leave the room alive.
He was a vampire. He was a foreigner. He was on the wrong side of a dispute with one of the Queen’s trusted backers. Each of those placed him in a poor position. Taken together, he couldn’t imagine how they spelled anything other than a death sentence.
The thought should have bothered him. On a hazy, intellectual level he knew that. It had been a long time since he’d last fed though and far from fearing for his life, Teo found that even the will required to place one foot in front of the other was almost beyond him. If his visit to the Queen was going to mark the end of his days, he felt like he could accept that. In one sense, his life had ended years before on an ill-fated hunting trip. In another sense it had ended when he was cast out of the Duke’s service and cut off from Ren. One last blow, the one that ended his shambling existence would be a mercy he might not even feel at all.
So he trudged onwards, stopping at the door to the Queen’s private audience chamber to allow the page at the door to announce his arrival. His attention wasn’t what it should have been, but as he was escorted in to see the Queen, Teo was reasonably sure his name hadn’t been called. He couldn’t see how that was possible though. It wasn’t like the Queen was going to be waiting for him to appear before her.
The page led him to a narrow desk. Many things were out of place about the room. It was much smaller than the audience chamber the Queen had used the last time they met, there were stacks of documents covering every available horizontal surface in the room, and the Queen was waiting in a simple chair behind the desk.
Teo paused as the page closed the door, leaving him alone in the room with the kingdom’s sovereign ruler. A sovereign ruler who was without her crown, her seal of office or any of her official regalia. The woman who sat before him wore only plain clothes and none of the jewelry or makeup which regularly adorned the monarch of Gallagin. Her hair was still set in a royal fashion, and her bearing bore testament to the power and responsibility she carried but someone passing her in the castle’s corridors could have been forgiven for not recognizing their Queen. At least not until she spoke.
“You look as though your health is failing,” the Queen said. There was neither sympathy, nor reprimand in her voice. Instead Teo heard a quiet calculation ticking forward inside her.
“I suspect that my looks are not deceptive in that matter,” Teo said. He remained standing because he had no guess as to what the proper protocols were for meeting royalty in such a situation.
“Sit,” the Queen said. “I would send for a physician but if my tutoring is correct, there is little any of them could do for you.”
“I fear you are correct Your Majesty,” Teo said and gratefully sank into the chair on the opposite side of the desk from where the Queen sat.
“I don’t believe they can help you, but perhaps I can,” she said.
“Forgive me, but my condition, my bloodline, is not easily aided by others,” Teo said. “I fear any help you could offer would do little to restore me.”
“I do not offer to feed you,” the Queen said. “I know the bond of intimacy which you require to regain your strength, but there is still something I can offer which might restore you for a time.”
“I would be your eternal servant, if you could ease this burden,” Teo said. He hadn’t the strength left to fight for his own life, but he hadn’t yet lost all desire to retain it. The world was still appealing if for no other reason than Ren was still a part of it.
“I have enough servants,” the Queen said. “What I find myself critically short on are trustworthy agents.”
Teo took a moment to absorb that, struggling to imagine how he could possibly serve the Queen in his current condition.
“Once pledged, you may rely on my service and my discretion,” Teo said. “But I fear the services I am capable of performing for you are limited to such tasks as the youngest Page in your employ could handle with ease.”
“I know I am not engaging you at your best,” the Queen said. “But for the service I have in mind, I believe you will be able to rise to the challenge. I require you to save Rendolan Greis Telli, second reserve heir to the Duchy of Tel.”
Teo didn’t hear her words. Not clearly. His fatigue addled mind had played too many tricks on him already.
He tried to speak, to ask the Queen to repeat what she had said, but he couldn’t. For a long moment, Teo couldn’t form any words at all.
“Rendolan has vanished from his father’s estate and is the subject of a determined hunt by the Duke’s best soldiers,” the Queen said, continuing on as though no silence had fallen. “Where he flies, whether it is away from Gallagrin or towards his father is something no one seems to be able to determine. No one except, I believe, you.”
“I’m…I’m sorry, your Majesty,” Teo said. “You wish me to do what?”
Hope and fear and anger and love each grabbed a corner of Teo’s mind and tore his thoughts into an unruly hail of disconnected pieces.
“Find Rendolan,” the Queen said, making the matter clear and simple and impossible for Teo to do anything but agree to. “Save him from whatever peril he is in.”
“And then what?” Teo asked. He had no memory of standing up, but he was on his feet and they were anxious to turn towards the door and fly back to Nath, to Elinspire or to the gates of hell themselves.
“That will depend greatly on the circumstances you find him in and why he fled his father’s estate,” the Queen said. “It’s possible that he escaped the captivity his father placed him under for your sake. In that case I invite you to return to my protection.”
“That…” Teo stopped at a loss for words again. He felt as though he’d been parted from Ren for centuries and had lost track of any real count of the days. The beating Teo received from the Duke had been unnoticeable in the face of the pain that separation entailed. It wasn’t merely the empty days which passed that tore at Teo’s soul though. The vision of an endless future spent alone, growing ever more hungry and ever colder was the worst torment Teo had ever endured. Against the horror of that future, hope had carried him forward, diminishing with each day like a candle running down to the end of its wick.
That was why the Queen’s words didn’t fall on deaf ears, but rather disbelieving ones. There was so little hope left in Teo, that the offer she placed before him was beyond his ability to imagine as real. He couldn’t allow himself to believe in a future that included a real chance to even see Ren, much less save him from his father’s machinations. To allow himself to hope for such a thing opened up the door to losing the last irrational dream which sustained him, and Teo couldn’t risk that. It was all that he had left and literally the last thing that kept his heart beating.
He couldn’t risk losing that, but he did anyways.
It was barely a choice. On one side was an existence he couldn’t imagine continuing and on the other was the man he couldn’t imagine losing.
“That is very kind of you,” Teo said, forcing himself to breath. “But what if he did not escape for my sake?”
Teo’s love for Ren was an odd thing. It had begun when they were young and was as selfish and foolish and wildly giving as any young love is. Since rising as a vampire though, Teo’s bond with Ren had changed. He needed Ren on a more fundamental level than he ever had. He could have become possessive and controlling. The fear of losing Ren could have made Teo a miserable, greedy monster. Instead of fear though, the bond between them had become one of profound gratitude.
Teo knew what Ren gave up to be with him. For Teo their relationship was the cornerstone of his existence, but for Ren it was a choice. In all the years they’d been together, it had been a choice which Ren made freely and willingly and with joy in his heart. It was how their relationship had to be. If Ren resented his role, the emotional closeness which empowered Teo’s soul would be absent and any feeding the vampire tried to do would yield little more than empty blood.
Because of that, Teo had always insisted that Ren follow his heart. When they fought, which happened as it does in any relationship, it was within boundaries of respect and love (which didn’t always happen in relationships). Thanks to the communion they shared, their reconciliations were never that difficult though. Teo derived his happiness from Ren, and Ren from Teo. If Ren’s happiness had required it, Teo would gladly have starved to the point of extinction or burned on a pyre.
It was that level of devotion that allowed Teo to contemplate that Ren’s flight from the estate in Elinspire might have been motivated by a reason other than himself. Indeed, Teo’s heart prayed that Ren wasn’t suffering in attempt for them to be reunited. The thought of Ren injured, hunted, and frightened was abominable, but being the cause of that pain was an even a worse prospect.
“If my suspicions are true,” the Queen said, “then I believe you will find that Rendolan has acquired some rather damning information about the Duke of Tel. I can just about make out the shape of what he might tell you from the pieces which are laid before me but I need the precise details on what Telli has planned before I can act.”
“Forgive me Your Majesty,” Teo said. “But if you believe the Duke to be guilty of a crime, can you not recall him and force him to answer the charges which you can lay at his door already?”
The Queen smiled at that.
“I wish it were so easy,” she said. “Perhaps when I am an old creature and as firmly entrenched upon my throne as my father was I shall hold such power.”
“I believe you are already a greater sovereign than the late King was, Your Majesty,” Teo said. “Your people adore you.”
“Some of them, perhaps,” the Queen said. “But though I wear the Mantle of Gallagrin and can claim sole dominion of this land, I cannot and will not try to claim the hearts of its people. That was the mistake my father made.”
“The people were terrified of King Sathe from everything I was told as a boy,” Teo said.
“Yes, and thus he held their hearts in sway, driving them with fear as I would shepherd them with love,” the Queen said. “But my love is not as strong as my father’s fear was.”
“I believe it may be stronger than you know,” Teo said. “If you replaced the Duke with another, I believe the love of you people would ratify the choice more strongly than their fear of him would disapprove of it.”
“That may be true, but there are other nobles who would find the fear of similar treatment a most motivating factor,” the Queen said.
“You are Gallagrin though,” Teo said.
“Yes, and that is the central problem I am sending you to address,” the Queen said.
“Your Majesty?” Teo asked, confused.
“I am Gallagrin. I hold the Pact Spirit that is our kingdom’s heart,” the Queen said. “Whatever stratagem Telli has conceived, I should be secure in my throne against it. And yet, if I am right, the Duke of Tel has set himself upon a path where I have no choice but to destroy him utterly. So one of those two statements is in error, and, as yet, I lack the vision to see which it is. That is why I am sending you to do the one thing I know you must accomplish.”
The Queen locked gazes with Teo and the inflection of her voice changed. She spoke not as a woman, or a Queen, but as Gallagrin itself.
“Save your beloved and bring the information he carries to myself or my nearest agent. You do not have leave to fail in this duty.”
Teo was outside the castle before he was aware of moving. The strength that surged through his body came from his last reserves but he spent them without care. Even without the royal command, this was a mission he would not fail.