Day - Fronepu
The Queen took another generous mouthful from her cup as her squire Aelwyn set her steel corselet on the arming stand and turned his attention to unbuckling her travel-stained arming jacket. Mud had soaked into the scarlet silk, turning it the colour of dried blood.
The Northern Tundra had been plagued by unseasonal storms since the beginning of Summer and the Queen's progress from her estates in Tepmona had been hampered by heavy rains, the runoff making the fords in Seven Rivers treacherous to cross. It came to something when an expedition to fallen Wudenkin had proven less of a logistic nightmare than crossing the heartland of her own realm. As it was she'd been forced to march through the night, relying on the keen senses of her scouts to find safe crossings for the fusileers and their baggage train.
"Is there anything else you need Ma'am?" her squire looked at her through red-rimmed eyes, his youth as yet untempered to the hardships of campaigning.
"That'll be all Aelwyn. Go have a hot meal and a good night's sleep."
"Thank you Ma'am," he bowed and withdrew towards the Queen's outer chamber, as he did so colliding with Morag, the Lady of the Privy Chamber, and had she been of less matronly construction they doubtless both would have ended on the floor, instead the poor squire found himself tangled in a heap of feminine attire as both Queen and Lady broke into peels of laughter. Poor Aelwyn didn't know what to do with himself, his cheeks flushing red as his head emerged from a linen shift, and a torrent of profuse apologies spilled out as he struggled to his feet, all the while fighting the layers of fabric as he did so, followed by even more bowing and apologising as he pressed the garments back on Lady Morag, his short-lived attempt to regain some dignity turning almost immediately into a flustered rout as he fled the scene.
"That lad has barely the sense he was born with," Lady Morag placed her treasures on the Queen's bed, sorting them into ordered layers.
"He means well," Aibhlidhn stretched the knots from her muscles, at once both glad to be free of the constricting armour and yet missing the sense of purpose it engendered. Many years had passed since first she won her spurs on the distant battlefields of Sirion, daughter to her General and heir to the dynasty of Moira, greatest of all the daughters of Clan Dubhaine. It was a strange fate which had carried her here to these daimon-haunted lands, to be reunited with her with her great-grandmother so far from gentle Krimml and the ramparts of elfhame. Not that Moira would publicly acknowledge their kinship, one of that rare breed who'd rather foreswear their nobility than their duty.
"That he may Highness, but since when has good intent been proof against steel?" she clapped her hands and a half-dozen maids entered carrying heavy pails of steaming water.
"I don't think I have time for a bath Morag if I'm to lunch with Count Zatir."
"A gentlemen will always wait on a Queen with good temper Highness, and the more so when Her majesty smells sweet as honey wine," she looked pointedly at the cup in the Queen's hand.
"I'll have you know that was strictly medicinal m'lady, and had you trudged nightlong through the mud you might feel equally in need." The look on Morag's face suggested quite the opposite and Aibhlidhn resigned herself to the tender mercies and glamorising arts which were duly imposed upon her, washing away her weariness and replacing the passage of years with the fullness of regal splendour.
Zatar sat idle with one foot up upon the table as he awaited the Queen. The only other Queen he had met was his wife, but she's gone now and he felt he was due an upgrade anyway.
"You're wearing that?" a servant said, trying to drop the hint. Zatar looked down at his somewhat rugged leather and cloth tunic.
"What of it?" He replied, having never been questioned on his attire before.
"Sir, you're meeting a Queen, and your tunic has blood on it." The servant looked quite disgusted. Zatar eyed the dry blood splatter along his side, trying to work out how it got there and who's it was. before he could finish his thought, the servant continued "There's blood on your trousers too..." and true enough, there was a long splash of dried blood down his trouser leg. "What do you do again?" The servant asked.
"I run the bank. Why?" Zatar looked confused as to why he'd ask. The servant, clearly not believing this story, looked him up and down, before politely bowing his head and taking his leave.
"Weird folk round here" Zatar thought to himself. I haven't even found a single place to buy lottery tickets. No advertisements for wall insurance, the guards seem to be wearing realm insignia rather than their Business sponsor... "Do they even have rich mountain hermits? A bathory? Gentleman's clubs? What do they even do here?" he wondered.
Evening - Fronepu
Sometime later Aibhlidhn emerged from her chambers a riot of fashionable colour and pattern, a rustle of skirts and petticoats as her gown trailed the flagstones, to find Chamberlain Stefano, Captain Caedberga and three troopers of the Royal Fusileers waiting for her. The soldiers fell immediately into step behind her and the procession made a leisurely progress through the halls and passageways of the Royal Palace, allowing the Queen to address the business of the day.
"Good Morning Your Majesty," Stefano was taller than average though a back stooped from a lifetime at a scrivener's table, made that hard to recognise. A bureaucrat of advancing years, his neatly trimmed hair and beard were touched with bold streaks of grey. In his arms he clutched a sheaf of papers, some bearing the State Seal, others the Seals of Ar Agyr's Great Houses.
"Good Morning Chamberlain, and what have you to trouble me with today?"
"Just the usual Ma'am," he passed her the topmost document, "Starting with this week's summarised tax accounts for your inspection."
"These seem in order Stefano. A good week for the Kingdom" Aibhlidhn glanced at the neatly copied columns of figures, once more thanking providence that her mother had taken the time to teach her letters and numbers at an early age.
"His Grace the Duke of Jylmark requests guidance on further building works."
"Send him a bag of gold towards a new granary," by this time they were nearing the Great Hall "And what of Dukes Marzo and Bob?"
"Both report modest increases in population Ma'am and there is some discussion of how best to restructure militia garrisons against future need."
"That has to be down to their Lordships' will."
"Very Good Ma'am," he bowed as much as his stooped spine allowed and hurried away to attend to his duties.
"Caedberga," Aibhlidhn turned her attention to chief the of her guards.
"I shan't be needing your presence in the Great Hall."
"With all due respect Ma'am the gentleman is preceded by his reputation..." the sentence trailed off.
Summer Evening - Fronepu
Greyson arrived at the Great Hall after his march from Seven Rivers. His men were tired, but they were in good spirits after the battle to the north of the Capital the day before.
He deployed the men at the entrances and exits to the Great Hall and throughout the Hall itself. He was the type of man who trusted, but work was needed for him to trust others. The Queen was receiving a guest Greyson did not know, and such, did not trust. Hence the security. He was not requested to do so, he simply took it upon himself to do it.
One could never be too lax when the Queen was near. Eyes on everyone and everything was his motto for times such as this.
Summer Evening - Fronepu
As the Queen's party drew nigh the Great Hall she did her best not to smile at the subtle increase in security, small detachments of bowmen discretely standing watch amongst the colonnades or posted at arrow slits and on overlooking balconies. They were Greyson's men if she wasn't mistaken, handy lads in a tight pinch much like their master though as regular troops perhaps not a match for the imagined dangers they faced.
Aibhlidhn recalled an occasion when as an eager young knight newly blooded in battle and keen to prove she was made of the same stern stuff as her late mother she took similar pains to guard then Prime Minister Ivo during a state engagement, only to have all her arrangements reworked by her Aunt Brigdha. Even then the Margravine had been well known for her attention to detail in matters of espionage and the crestfallen Aibhlidhn had redoubled the effort she committed to her studies, determined one day to be as knowledgeable and as astute. Even now with a successful career as a General behind her the Queen still wondered when that day would arrive.
Of course life in the Elven Republic was considerably less dangerous than here on Beluaterra, not only for the want of Daimons and the cultist servitors working secretly to return them from the Netherworld, but also for the incomparable wealth and power of the Elven people. Nowhere else in all her long travels had she encountered such majesty and magnificence as she had taken for granted in her youth.
The Queen determined to find some suitable favour to bestow on Sir Greyson for his consideration and to encourage his future endeavours. For now though a little good-natured military humour seemed in order.
"Caedberga, what do you think the odds are if they fall foul of Count Zatar?" Aibhlidhn spoke unguardedly, seemingly oblivious to the watchers and yet clearly directing her comments at them.
"That would certainly be unfortunate Ma'am," Captain Caedberga's tone was characteristically deadpan when she was on duty, "Sir Greyson would be writing quite a few letters of condolence in such an eventuality. I trust he keeps his inkwell full."
"Then it's a good thing we're here to protect them, eh Captain?"
There was little danger of course in this particular meeting, Count Zatar being a landed aristocrat of Ar Agyr's neighbour and long-time ally Thalmarkin. Admittedly his penchant for sneaking into other peoples' vaults was to be discouraged - at least with regard to Agyrian vaults - but she'd been impressed by his aptitude for such work. She was reminded of Dame Esel, a good personal friend with a talent for such things who sadly had retired from public life some months earlier.
As the doors of the Great Hall opened before them a trio of cornets blared from the shadows, playing the arresting refrain of Clubs and Claws, known colloquially as Indigestion of the Bears for the unsettling effect it was said to have on the digestion.