They contemplated the gold circlet with its winking yellow diamond for some moments. It sat on the red velvet cushion of the throne, waiting in judgment for the next person who dared to put it on. Miledy wondered which servant had placed it there. Had some loyal member of the staff plucked it bloody from the king's head and kept it safe until the remaining mercenary companies were finished taking their spoils of war?
The sword of the throne remained where it lay, the carpet around it charred, suggesting that someone had tried to pick it up, as well, and had mishandled that tricky task. General Roy had held the Fire Emblem when he touched it, and had been fine, but Miledy wondered if Exaccus had additional sorceries hidden in its scepter-like majesty, or if it was partially alive. Why had the legends never spoken of it?
It was the only piece of the king's regalia that remained. The circlet on the throne would be remade for Guinivere's head. The hard yellow diamond might go back into the royal treasury, or might return to grace her brow in a different setting.
“What is the value of that diamond, do you think, Miledy?” Guinivere asked softly.
Miledy felt her eyebrows shoot to her hairline, and realized moments later that her mouth was open. “Ah. Um. I'm not sure, my lady. We could ask an appraiser, or maybe Hugh could give us a rough estimate before he leaves tomorrow?”
“At the meeting with the ruling council tomorrow, I want to bring up the subject of selling the royal gemstones before either my new councilors or the Etrurian observer can mention it. I'll need to know how much value I can expect from the collection. It might best be used to hire mercenaries, or maybe it will take care of the war reparations.”
Miledy nodded. “Certainly, my lady. But, won't Etruria object? The former queen's dowry came from their coffers.”
“I have no claim over her jewels,” the hardness Guinivere was trying to build under her skin creaked with tension on these words. “I would only sell what belongs to the descendants of Hartmut. It wouldn't do to be called dishonest, after all.”
Miledy remembered one morning after Guinivere's eighteenth birthday when the usual bitterness in the breakfast hall of the Bern Manse surrounding family visits had erupted into accusations of theft before Zephiel could get Guinivere out of the echoing room. No one would accuse Guinivere of dishonesty now.
“What of your coronation, though?”
“I won't be the first ruler of Bern to have no crown,” Guinivere smiled almost forlornly at the weapon lying in the middle of the throne room, thinking perhaps of its maker. “And I won't be taking oaths of fealty until they place me on the throne in midwinter, in any case. We might have something made up by then.”
She said these things so gently. It was hard to remember that every word had the weight of law behind it now. Miledy saw a wry smile forming in Guinivere's eyes, and met it with her own. “Something simple, say, made in iron, so that you can feel the weight of your responsibility.”
“Oh, such a good idea, Commander Miledy. I was thinking copper, so as to discolor my skin in a proper penitential manner,” the queen replied brightly before laughing. “In all seriousness, though, the lack of crown doesn't worry me. One of my councilors has even suggested that it might be useful, in a symbolic way, to have a new crown made with Ilian metals and Islander gems just to show that we intend to negotiate with countries without interference from Aquelia.”
Miledy's smile froze in place. “My lady, did you remind this councilor that despite the trustworthiness of the royal family, Etruria's crown is subject to the whims of the nobility in a way that no ruler of Bern has ever countenanced, not even from their generals?”
“I said I would consider his suggestion.”
The specters of Etrurian wealth and how that wealth was controlled rose in Miledy's mind. “I will have the guards begin the old assassination protocols, then,” she said dryly.
The words turned Guinivere white as a sheet. There had been no need for those measures in over five years. Miledy didn't even know if General Murdock had left any records of the lengths one had to go to in order to protect a ruler who insisted on heading his own division of the army, and doing everything he could to stay open and approachable. At least Guinivere had that going for her, her brother had been much more difficult to protect.
In months past, Guinivere would have quailed, or changed the subject. When fear sank its hooks into her, it sank with a vengeance, as though to make up for the fact that Guinivere had always been well protected, and kept from dangerous situations. But in the instant she quavered a firmness settled around her mouth, and she straightened her shoulders. This was the Queen of Bern, proud as one of her mountains, if not as tall. “I trust that you will keep me safe, no matter who I anger.”
“This is why I am at your side, my lady,” Miledy bowed.
Guinivere clasped her hands in front of her. Some lords and ladies of Bern's court had the habit of playing with their seal rings when they were flustered. Miledy had always suspected that Guinivere would have been that kind of person, if she had ever owned a seal ring. Even as Zephiel's heir she had never carried one, keeping her seal in a courier case, possibly to keep anyone from noticing such a nervous tick.
“When the castle's guard duty extended to such things,” Guinivere began, hesitant, “My brother and General Murdock spent the dawn in the practice room, working on defense against unseen blades. I too, should continue that tradition, shouldn't I?”
This stymied Miledy. Despite being such a gentle soul, Guinivere had studied combat magic. Even with a simple fire tome she should be able to defend herself, and Ellen said that Guinivere would probably have been able to wield Aerola with the might of the Saint. “My lady, you are already quite capable, as long as you have a spell book.”
“I—I am not speaking of offensive fighting. I know Zephiel studied that as well during those times, however, I m not Zephiel, and am never going to want such knowledge in my head. But I—we've been with an army for over a year, and I know fighting men and women have a physical instinct for protecting themselves that I lack. I don't need to kill an attacker, but I do need to hold them off and disarm them, if necessary. If I am to give my service to Bern, I need to stay alive long enough for that service to be of use.”
It was as though iron bands constricted Miledy's chest as her queen outlined the very necessary reasons for this addition to her schedule. “I—Sir Gale would have been most suited to this task. He could train even the rawest of recruits, my little brother being the last example of his tutelage. But Zeiss might remember enough—”
“Sir Ziess is at the far end of the eastern mountains, establishing new patrol routes, and seeing to mercenary protection there. We all agreed he would be the wyvern lord least likely to come into conflict with the Sacaens in the borderland. I can't withdraw him, without causing the council to raise their eyebrows, and possibly make the Lycian and Ilian observers to turn as hostile as the Etrurian lord, thinking that I am trying to cause small summer wars. Besides, I want you to teach me, Miledy. Starting tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow, then,” Miledy nodded, biting back any protests that might have been lurking as selfish, feeble worries. “I have taken to fencing in the north court yard in the mornings with the remaining unpromoted wyvern knights. They arrive at the awakenings bell. I would expect to see you at the low stars bell before that. If we draw too much attention, I will look into a more private location, but—It would be good for Bern to know that the ruler still cares for the army, no matter how reduced.”
Guinivere immediately relaxed, enough so that it drew attention to the fact that she had been tensed for a refusal. “Wonderful. What would you suggest I wear to practice? I'm most likely to be attacked while wearing court regalia, but learning to fight—”
“Wear something you wouldn't mind cleaning out an armory while wearing,” Miledy advised. “We can work on what to do while you're being hindered by your clothing after we've taught you how to protect yourself generally.”
Miledy tried not to picture assassins hunting her queen from the shadowed corners of the throne room.
Wool and autumn colors clung to Guinivere, who had taken Miledy at her word, and worn a gown that might have come from the winter trunks of one of her ladies-in-waiting. There were two in the court at the moment, and they boasted good enough families that they would have had some embroidery or decoration somewhere. Even though the wool had been woven into the finest, softest cloth possible with the material, and the dye was rich and even, Guinivere's elegance looked austere compared to the extravagant styles of the Etrurian nobility that had been adopted in most places that recognized a monarchy.
Miledy speculated that there was a certain young healer in Etruria who would decry the turn to Ostian sensibility. But Guinivere had always favored single colored simplicity, and looked best in it.
“Where should I stand?” Guinivere wanted to know, peering around the dawn dim courtyard with its compliment of weapons, and chalked placement lines that must be a total mystery to her.
Miledy had been considering her lesson plan with the terror she used to reserve for the drill sergeant's unannounced inspections. “Today, and until I say otherwise, you will be practicing how to fall. Assuming that they don't kill you with the first stroke, an assassin is going to try to unbalance you to make you an easy target for that killing stroke. You need to be able to fall in such a way that you can get back up, and ready to repel attack. You will have to fall, face forward, and take the impact on your hands, and then push yourself upright. It is not easy—your body is going to do all that it possibly can to not fall face forward. And your hands will hurt, before this is over. Hurt a lot.”
Guinivere smiled shyly. “Which is why you don't get many scribes or musicians attending these sorts of lessons?”
“Exactly,” Miledy agreed. “I'll show you how to do it, and then you get to try.”
Years of learning to fall from a wyvern's back when it was landing wrong, or trying to get rid of its rider gave Miledy more practice at this than most, but it was still a movement more familiar to a barroom fighter than a royal knight. She wished she had someone to help her off balance, but Guinivere wasn't ready to knock anyone's feet out from under them. It was the stiffest fall and catch ever performed, but that was the point. No body wanted to fall.
Guinivere couldn't even get her legs to buckle at first. Miledy thought of dark cloaked assassins stealing down the corridors of the main keep, apologized to her queen, and kicked the back of Guinivere's stubborn knees. Guinivere went down with a cry that wrenched at Miledy's conscience. She twisted naturally as she fell, too caught up on the moment to forcibly take control, and as a result landed heavily on her shoulder.
Miledy reached out a hand to help her rise. “Let's go through that one slowly,” she brought her hands to Guinivere's fine shoulders. “Your knees give,” she pushed down, forcing Guinivere to bend. “They can't bend fast enough to keep up with your upper body. You topple forward,” she pulled Guinivere slowly down. “What happened here?”
“I,” Guinivere paused, frozen in half contorted place by her knight's hands. “I forgot to move my hands?”
“Yes, you did,” Miledy nodded, surprised, because this was not the answer she was looking for, even if it was correct. “Good for catching that. Get your hands ready as fast as possible. But even if you had your arms in the right position, they would be useless. You turned yourself,” the grip on the shoulders gently twisted Guinivere's torso pulling the injured shoulder down, “right here, and this traps one of your arms, and forces at least one of your feet from a swift recovery of balance. Now, are you all right?”
“My shoulder stings,” Guinivere rubbed at her dress briefly.
Part of Miledy wanted to call the lesson into theoretical ground until Guinivere felt better, but she had not said to stop. “Do you want to stop?”
“No! We must continue.”
“Yes, we must. Please stand where we started,” Miledy said, trying not to think to hard about the next kick, or the one after that.
Guinivere fell twenty five times before Miledy called for a break. The queen sat on the smooth flagstones in the pool of her dress, and massaged the wrist that kept taking too much of the falls with the hand that always tried to avoid the pain. Miledy feared to see tears in her queen's golden eyes, but they were dry, as the knight sat down next to her.
Guinivere glanced at Miledy, “You practice doing this every day?”
“No. I practice standing in the way of these kicks that I am administering to you every day,” Miledy replied. “You want, however, to physically protect yourself, not to protect someone else. It's a different study. Is your hand all right?”
“Oh, yes. I shouldn't be signing too many documents, but that is what the royal seal is for,” Guinivere edged closer to the knight commander of her guard. “Is every day going to be like this?”
“For a while. I hope to have you ready for doing tumbles and rolls in three days,” Miledy confessed. “And then next week, we might get as far as disarming a person attacking you with a dagger. You know, there's a Lycian greeting where you clasp forearms just to prove to each other that there are no wrist blades in evidence?”
“No? Really? General Roy never did as much to me,” Guinivere looked thoughtful. “Should I have checked him in such a way?”
“I wouldn't advise it now. It's supposed to be common in Ostia and Araphen, because the families of both cities are often at odds with one another over the direction the Lycian League should take, but it's generally considered a greeting of equals, rather than one queen to a general,” Miledy managed to hide her grin at the idea of fifteen year old Roy of Pherae even entertaining the concept of assassination. Maybe he might now, but not when they had first met.
“Mmm. Ostia, you said? Somehow, I think if Lady Lilina meant me harm, the first indication any of us would have would be the scorch marks where I used to be standing,” Guinivere mused. “Do we even know anyone in Araphen's ruling family?”
She lay her golden head against the sleeve of Miledy's old doublet, still holding her wrist out and running her fingers over the scrapped skin of her palms. Miledy took the hint, and took the injured hand in her own, feeling the heat of irritated flesh and blood. Unbidden, her free hand took it upon itself to wrap around the shoulders she had allowed to bruise for the sake of future survival.
“No, and young Lugh and Chad are too good to consider something underhanded,” the knight's voice came out in a quiet murmur. “I suppose we could suspect Ray of something devious, but what does he care for who rules Bern?”
“We have the greatest military archive in the known world,” Guinivere pointed out, a little defensively. She had always been very proud of the libraries, in her quiet way. “Not to mention the best collection of writing deemed heretical by the Eliminean church. Not even Aquelia's great university has managed to collect such a variety of philosophy.”
“Well, that isn't really fair. The Holy Tower is in Aquelia—they can't very well keep heretical theories lying around where students can look at them.”
“I want to build a university,” Guinivere murmured dreamily. “Something outside of the military academy, I mean. Something those children from Araphen could go to, and learn more about magic and the thoughts of priests like Bishop Yodel.”
“If that is your wish, my lady, you should propose it. Don't we have to institute the reforms to the military academy the Lycians are insisting upon, in any case? Why not find a way to fund a university while you are at it?” Miledy could not believe how daring she felt, just mentioning the notion.
Guinivere turned her head to look up at her knight commander. Miledy's stomach flipped over, seeing the earnestness in the expression she was confronted with. “But, surely the Etrurian observer would object.”
“Perhaps, if he sees it as an attempt by Bern to give people access to that proud collection of heresies our arm of the church is so pleased with. However, he might not see anything sinister in it. And if you made this proposal formal at the summer meeting next year—when, as rumor has it, a new, rather musical king, with sympathy for common people will have taken the Etrurian throne, you might even find an ally that our Aquelian keeper can't argue with.”
The smile Guinivere turned on Miledy was radiant. “I will think about it. You might be right.”
“And I will ensure that you have the time at you need to draw up this proposal,” Miledy promised, deepening the embrace across Guinivere's shoulders, glad that there was no sudden tender finch against the contact.
Indeed, the queen of Bern settled into the embrace with a pleased sigh, rising to her feet only when the sounds of boots and claws announced the young bucks of the remaining wyvern flights. As Miledy cast about for her sword, she was still smiling from the kiss that had brushed by her mouth, so close to the dreams she had, and yet wish so much further to go. Well, that could be saved for other days, and other practice sessions.