Scene Five of the prologue is where I first get to show readers how tough Queen Viarra is. I imply it in scene 2 when Lady Synnis tells Ronnius about how her majesty slew five armed hoplites by herself, but it’s the following scene where I show readers just how freaking tough she is. Critically wounded, Viarra still makes a showy public appearance when her soldiers apprehend her uncle who sent soldiers to murder her brothers. She does this to show her people what she’s suffered while fighting for them. She seeks to inspire them to keep on fighting for their homes and families, despite her uncle’s treachery and the death of their king.
Too, I’m establishing here that while her uncle’s betrayal was the catalyst for her ascension to the throne, he is not one of the primary antagonists in the story. She confronts her uncle, the soldiers side with her, he hangs. First Empress is a drama about politics and empire building; the opening betrayal and revenge were never intended as the primary conflicts. (Scenes 1, 2&3, 4, 6)
The rain had long since ceased and the eastern horizon was just beginning to pinken when Ronnius returned to the apothecary shop with General Derron and the honor guard. At Derron’s insistence, Ronnius now wore a burnished-bronze officer’s cuirass and greaves with a ceremonial short sword on his right hip. At Tanna’s insistence, she accompanied him wearing a crimson gown and shoulder cloak. Eighteen of the Royal Honor Guard stopped and stood at attention, wearing polished bronze armor and helms with tall, navy-blue horse-hair plumes. Each guard bore a bronze round-shield with the royal crest, ceremonial swords, and bronze-tipped spears. General Derron personally led his finest white mare for the queen to ride.
A small crowd of citizens had already started to gather at the spectacle as Ronnius stepped up and knocked on the shop’s door. Moments later Elissa and Lady Synnis emerged leading the new queen. Her majesty stepped barefoot into the dawn, wearing only a bed sheet as a skirt and bandages covering only her chest, baring the stitched-up stab wounds on her abdomen for all to see. The black sutures glared out against her nearly pallid skin. Yet Ronnius couldn’t deny that she carried herself no less regally wearing bandages than wearing a formal gown.
Ronnius saluted as Queen Viarraluca straightened up in the orange light from the rising sun, reminding him that she was several inches taller than he was. Those intelligent jade eyes regarded her second-in-command imperially for a moment. “Report, Ronnius,” she ordered, only a trace of her earlier hoarseness evident.
“Of course, your majesty,” he replied crisply. Despite her stoic demeanor, Ronnius could tell his queen was in unimaginable pain. Again he wondered if this showmanship was prudent but knew better than to voice such concerns. “The Assembly has been called and gathers as we speak. We have confirmation that Duke Elladan will be in attendance. Your honor guard waits to escort you.”
“Thank you, Ronnius. What of my brother’s household? Were there other survivors of the attack?”
Ronnius bowed his head slightly at her question. “Eleven servants and one guard were found alive, most of them wounded, your grace. No survivors were accounted for among your family, I’m afraid. They even murdered your nieces and nephews.”
Those jade eyes narrowed, a look that Ronnius knew would scare the piss out of any man who crossed her. Two of her nephews were infants. “Very well,” her majesty declared, “we’d best set off.” As the queen stepped off, Elissa and Lady Synnis each took one of her elbows and led her gingerly to General Derron’s horse. The sun continued his leisurely journey over the Vestic Sea to the east as Ronnius and General Derron carefully set the queen sidesaddle on the white mare.
As Ronnius started to turn away, Elissa grabbed his elbow. “She may not look it, but she’s weak as a newborn right now,” the handmaid whispered to him. “She hasn’t slept and has been throwing up most of what we feed her. We finally got her to keep some broth and tea down a quarter-hour ago. You get her to that assembly safely, have her make her appearance, then get her resting as quickly as gods-damned possible, hear?”
“I hear,” he nodded. Elissa nodded in return and stepped solemnly back into the crowd.
As he started to turn again, Tanna grabbed his other elbow. She turned him to her and kissed him long and passionately. “Good luck,” she whispered as she broke the kiss, then scampered into the crowd.
The thought occurred to Ronnius that asking the curvy little nymph to marry him might at last be in order. As the queen’s steward, he was certainly in a position to finally impress the naysayers in her family.
“Are we ready?” General Derron asked, sounding and looking both amused and annoyed at his granddaughter’s public display of amour. Ronnius nodded and took his place at the queen’s right while the general moved to the left of the white mare.
“Your majesty?” Ronnius inquired, looking up at his queen.
Viarraluca nodded down at her escort. Derron signaled to the honor guard and took the reins of the queen’s horse. The honor guardsmen formed a box around their new monarch, and the procession stepped off at what Ronnius hoped looked like a slow, stately pace. In truth, it was a slow, gingerly pace to keep from further agitating the queen’s injuries.
“Give me your hand,” her majesty whispered to Ronnius. He extended his left arm up to her, and she grasped his wrist in her right hand. He could feel her squeeze tighter whenever her pain increased.
There was no cheering from the crowd as the honor guard made its way to the assembly hall—no cheering and only the occasional whisper. Indeed, an overwhelming sense of awe seemed to have fallen over the crowd on either side and behind them. Any conversation or commotion ahead of them immediately ceased as citizens moved to make way for the procession.
The lack of colorful clothing in the crowd seemed to add to the somberness of the procession. Ronnius remembered a merchant friend once telling him that the variety of colors worn by a group of citizens is one of the most telling indicators of a city’s economy. Most of the assembled citizenry wore earth-toned garments or that red-violet color that came from those bitter, wild berries that grew in the hills and woods on the north side of the island. The only exceptions he saw were faded garments in colors that the islanders no longer had access to. And with no new merchants selling dyes or dyed textiles in their markets, the color shortage was likely to continue for a long while. Ronnius took this as a sign of things that needed to change—of trials their island faced and problems their new queen would need to overcome.
Periodically Ronnius looked up to check on her majesty, her unkempt copper hair gleaming in the morning sun. She kept her right hand on his arm and left hand on her knee as she rode sidesaddle next to him. She never looked down at him, but kept her eyes and face fixed forward.
The procession stopped only once on the journey, when the white horse stumbled over a loose cobblestone in the agora, eliciting a gasp from the crowd. Ronnius felt the queen’s grip tighten on his arm and he looked up in horror to see her face contorted in agony. Viarra sat hunched forward, left hand clutching a wound on her right side. Her eyes were clinched shut, but tears rolled down each side of her majesty’s nose and down each cheek. Derron noticed as well and signaled the vanguard to a halt.
“Your majesty?” the general asked quietly.
“Don’t move,” came the rasping whisper from between clinched teeth. Her breaths came in and out as painful hisses.
The procession stood still for what felt like hours, concerned murmurs fluttering throughout the crowd. Someone gasped as scarlet drops oozed from between her majesty’s fingers. Ronnius realized with sickening dread that the small but sudden jolt had torn her stitches, not just on the surface, but possibly internally as well. No one moved for agonizing minutes, Viarraluca’s battle with the pain playing out on her face. It was agony that would have felled a lesser human being. In the back of his mind, Ronnius doubted whether a greater human being existed.
The escort and crowd finally began to relax as her grace slowly straightened herself out. She let go of her side and of Ronnius’s arm to tear a large section of her skirt to use as a bandage. The tear exposed nearly all of her right leg, but the makeshift bandage held, to the relief of all present. Viarra wiped her hands on what was left of her skirt and signaled the vanguard to continue. She took Ronnius’s arm again as they started off.
A group of city guards approached as they entered the courtyard in front of the assembly hall. “So it’s true,” the guard captain said as he jogged up to the procession, “her highness did survive the attack.” Ronnius was never positive, but he thought he saw the man weeping.
General Derron dropped the reins and walked over to the guards. “Is Duke Elladan within the assembly hall?” he asked their leader.
“I believe so, my lord general,” the man confirmed.
“Take two of your men and fetch him from the hall,” the grizzled general ordered. “Use force if necessary—or if you feel like it.”
The guards saluted and rushed to comply. The crowd parted to let them pass. Queen Viarra continued to clutch Ronnius’s wrist as they waited, but he felt her hand trembling and her grip weakening. He squeezed her wrist in return. “Not much longer,” he whispered up to her.
Several minutes later, the guards returned, dragging a fussing and fuming Duke Elladan between them. Ronnius noted that one of the guards had his kopis drawn. The steward had to force himself not to laugh as he realized that the duke was too busy with his temper tantrum to notice what was going on. The guards hauled him forcibly through the crowd and threw him at General Derron’s feet.
Duke Elladan started to protest, but turned silent and pale as he saw Queen Viarraluca astride that white mare. With jade eyes and copper hair glistening in the sun and her battle scars and bloody bandage bared to all, the queen gazed down at him with cold contempt. No words were spoken, but the naked look of helpless, silent terror on the Duke’s face was plain to everyone present. It wasn’t the last time Ronnius saw someone with that expression, but he only ever saw Queen Viarra create this reaction in people.