The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 4

Teo paced outside the cell that his husband was sleeping in. Ren could sleep through anything, and was probably going to sleep through his own execution. The thought of that made Teo see red. Specifically the crimson red of a fresh wound as his vampiric eyes filled with blood and rage.

“You’re getting worked up over nothing again,” Ren called from their bed.

Teo peeked in. He’d been moving with the preternatural quiet than only a magic fueled predator could manage and Ren had still managed to hear him.

“I’m not worked up,” Teo said, the words so short and clipped that he wasn’t even able to believe them himself.

“Are you under the impression that I know you less well now that we’re married?” Ren asked his husband. “I mean it’s not like saying our vows made me forget knowing you for the last decade.”

“I’m not worked up,” Teo said after a long, slow breath, sounding more composed than he had the first time.

Ren groaned and rose from their bed. Teo walked away from the door and sat down at the delicately carved table that served as both a work and dinner area. Rather than sitting in the chair opposite Teo though, Ren walked behind him instead.

“I may not be as mystically aware as you, but trust me, I still know when you’re upset,” he said, looping his arms around Teo’s shoulders in a loose hug. “You’ve been getting steadily more worked up for a month now. Jumping at shadows and problems that aren’t going to come to be.”

“I’m not worried about shadows,” Teo said, his fears and irritation mingling into a snap in his words that he wished weren’t there. “I’m worried about you. Queen Alari has held you prisoner here for a month now.”

“I’m not prisoner,” Ren said for what felt like the hundredth time. “The Queen isn’t holding anyone here as a prisoner. She’s just ruled that the Grand Convocation is to remain in session until she is able to address the nobles again.”

“She could have addressed the nobles weeks ago,” Teo said. “She’s holding you and all of the rest of them until she can decide how she wants to get her revenge on you.”

“What revenge?” Ren asked, throwing up his hands. “Queen Alari is not her father, she’s done nothing but good for this realm since she gained the throne, and she’s stood against the kind of mayhem you’re thinking of at every turn.”

“That was before,” Teo said. “She’s different now. The woman who sent me to find you last fall when your father was acting against her hadn’t been through two challenges to her rule in less than a year. She hadn’t been betrayed by her Consort or by her noble court yet. I’m telling you, the Queen Alari who returned from the God’s Hall is not the same person who gave you the Ducal seat of Tel.”

He turned to face Ren so that the fears that he couldn’t voice might at least speak through his gaze. Teo wasn’t a native to Gallagrin, though with his marriage to Ren over the winter he’d become a fully recognized citizen. In Teo’s homeland of Inchesso, those who supported a throne were often the same ones who made plays to claim its power when they felt the time was right. If they were correct then the crown passed to their head, if not then it remained where it was. In either case though, a head would roll away from its shoulders.

Teo had left Inchesso when he was young, but not so young that its values hadn’t settled into him on a level that was difficult to question directly. He’d been perplexed when Queen Alari hadn’t slaughtered her enemies after the Unification War. In time he’d come to understand the necessity of preserving the realm’s strength, especially in light of the threat the neighboring realms of Paxmer, Senkin and the Green Council presented, not to mention the political balance with the Sunlost Isles and the other Blessed Realms, each of whom had ties with one or more of the noble families of Gallagrin.

When Halrek the Consort-King betrayed Queen Alari, Teo had readied himself for the streets of Highcrest to run with noble blood, but with two exceptions none had been spilled. In retrospect, the Queen’s restraint had been understandable there too – the parties who backed Halrek and the Duke of Tel hadn’t done so publicly and the true source of Halrek’s machinations seemed to lie in Paxmer more than Gallagrin.

The latest betrayal though? That had been all too public and it had involved far too many of the noble houses of Gallagrin. The Queen had too many clear targets to ignore this time and too many reasons to abandon from her previous merciful demeanor.

“Queen Alari has been through a lot,” Ren said. “No one with any sense would claim otherwise, but it hasn’t changed her. Look at what she’s done. If her father was still on the throne, everyone in Highcrest Castle would have died the night Sanli’s challenge failed.”

“And then there would have been another civil war,” Teo said. “She’s smarter than her father. She can’t eliminate the nobles until their armies are brought under her control. That’s what she’s waiting for.”

“That’s not possible,” Ren said. “There are Ducal armies that will stay loyal to their families no matter what, and even the ones who would switch allegiance will take longer to do so than the Grand Convocation can be held for. It would be years, if ever, before Queen Alari could be secure in her reign without the nobles.”

“Then perhaps she’s just delaying long enough to be sure she can win the civil war that’s going to erupt,” Teo said. “It’s not like she shied away from causing one the last time the leadership of Gallagrin wasn’t to her liking.”

Ren shook his head and wandered over to the enchanted icebox their room was supplied with. Brunch would be provided in an hour or so, but if he was going to argue, he needed a full stomach to work with.

“There were fewer lives lost in the Unification War than the Butcher King would have killed in the same period of time,” Ren said. “I’m telling you, Queen Alari is not consumed by the madness which lead to her father’s downfall.”

“I want to believe that,” Teo said. “I do. But I look at this room and I know what it was used for under the Butcher King’s rule and I know what it would be used for in Inchesso. Whatever else happens, I cannot let that happen to you.”

“It won’t,” Ren said, placing a tray of food from the night before onto the table and reaching over to hold Teo’s hand.

“You can’t know that,” Teo said, frowning.

“But I can have faith that it’s true, based on the faith I have in the Queen,” Ren said.

“It’s a strange and unsettling thing to hear someone speak of faith in their monarch,” Teo said.

“Not like that in Inchesso?” Ren asked.

“It seems to be a rare thing here too,” Teo said. “Present company excepted, noble’s don’t seem to be worth the respect their given, much less a level of faith that would be worth risking your life over.”

“I’m not sure that I should be excepted from that reckoning,” Ren said. “Allowing Sanli’s challenge to proceed was not my finest hour.”

“There was nothing you could have done about that though,” Teo said.

“At the time I would have agreed with you, but in hindsight I’m not certain I can,” Ren said. “There were stratagems I could have employed, I think, to disrupt the event or at least delay the proceedings until the Queen returned from her meeting in the God’s Hall.”

“And would any of those plans have seen you alive at the end?” Teo asked.

“In theory, some of my ideas might have been survivable,” Ren said.

Teo stood up, and forced himself to breath.

“That’s not good enough,” he said softly. “I know I’m not being rational about this. I can’t be. Not with you. I can’t…you can’t…”

“I know.” Ren’s voice was gentle. “It’s who you are.”

“Because I’m a vampire,” Teo said, feeling the blood magic that bound him to Ren burning brightly in his veins.

Ren laughed at that, and the sound of him chuckling broke the vicious circle of Teo’s thoughts.

“Becoming a vampire just changed your diet,” Ren said and stood to face Teo, grasping his husband’s shoulders. “You’ve been exactly like this since the first moment we admitted we were in love.”

It was Teo’s turn to laugh, though his was more rueful than Ren’s had been.

“That sounds terrible,” he said. “How could you have married a creature like me.”

“Well you are uncommonly handsome,” Ren said. “And you can bend a sword into a pretzel, and you’re close to unkillable. So perhaps I simply married you for your body.”

“Oh, is that all it was?” Teo asked, a playful mood sweeping over him in response to Ren’s teasing. He pulled Ren in close so that they were gazing eye to eye from only a few inches away.

“Yes,” Ren said. “Purely physical,” as he traced his fingers over Teo’s chest.

“Then I suppose I needn’t worry about you at all,” Teo said with a look of mock indignation.

“But you will,” Ren said. “And for that I have an idea.” He pushed away from the embrace and watched a mix of surprise and wariness steal over Teo’s face.

“And am I going to like this idea?” Teo asked.

“You’ll like the outcome of it,” Ren said.

“But not the execution I take it?” Teo said.

“Probably not,” Ren said.

“What do you have in mind?” Teo asked.

“You’re worried about what the Queen is going to do with us,” Ren said. “So we’re going to head to her tower and speak to her.”

Teo looked at his husband blankly for a minute for asking “What?”

“We’re going to talk to Queen Alari,” Ren said. “We’ll see what she has in store for us and the other nobles.”

“I’m sorry, you said some words, but what I heard was ‘we’re going to commit a very elaborate form of suicide wherein we deliver ourselves straight to the one who is looking for an excuse to kill us’,” Teo said.

“That might indeed be what we’re going to do,” Ren said. “But if so, you have to admit that at least we’d be getting all the waiting and worrying done with, yes?”

Teo looked at him for another long moment, taking in the underlying seriousness of Ren’s demeanor.

“I can’t talk you out of this, can I?” he asked.

“No,” Ren said. “I think it’s well past time that we speak with Her Majesty. She’s never questioned me about that night and I don’t know if she’s gotten a full picture of what happened yet.”

“And if she does know everything that went on and doesn’t care?” Teo asked.

Ren shrugged.

“Then we’re probably to be the first to fall victim to a resurgence of Royal Madness,” he said. “If so though, we’ll still be doing Gallagrin a service.”

“How?” Teo asked.

“Like a canary in a mine, our deaths would signal to everyone that something is very wrong at the heart of Gallagrin and that might give our fellow nobles time to escape before the whole thing collapses.”

“Wasn’t this supposed to be an idea that I would like the result of?” Teo asked.

“I suppose it would be more accurate to say that in either case you won’t hate it,” Ren said.

“Not hating something because I’m too dead to feel anything at all isn’t my idea of comfort,” Teo said.

“Life with me is never comfortable is it?” Ren asked.

“Still better than what it’d be without you though.”

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