Ulfen Guard, by Akeiron

ulfguardUlfen Guard, by Akeiron (art direction by Andrew Vallas)

“Their rage and pride is focused on a sharpened point.” —Attila: Total War, in-game lore

Happy 2017, lovely readers! I hope everyone had a stellar holiday season, regardless of what holidays you celebrate. Starting the new year off with this stellar spearwoman design from the always-awesome Akeiron.

So, of the handful of Norse words I know, ulf is their word for ‘wolf,’ which to me says a great deal about our Ulfen guardswoman, in terms of both character and world building. As wolves had sacred significance in Norse culture, it’s possible that the Ulfen Guard are clerics or guards of the temple of Freya. As wolves are pack hunters, it’s possible the Guard are huntresses, patrolling the countryside for brigands or tracking fugitives from justice. As wolves are powerful fighters, perhaps the Guard are bodyguards for the local Earl or elite infantry for the Olaf. As wolves can be nomadic, it’s even possible that the Ulfen Guard are a mercenary company, fighting as sell-spears for the highest bidder. Our heroine’s armor and equipment are perfectly suitable for any of these roles.


If I were to guess, I’d suspect our heroine’s fur cloak came from some variety of arctic wolf, perhaps a trophy taken from a successful hunt. Regardless, the fur pelt should keep her warm though the biting northern winters. Our lovely wolf’s cuirass is a fur-lined or fur-trimmed leather with studded steel disks sewn into the padding. The leather should provide effective deflection against arrows and spears while the studded plates help absorb blows in heavy melee. A leather skirt helps keep her hips and upper legs similarly safe, while loose wool pants allow for quick movement over arctic terrain and solid stances when fighting on the shield wall.

Leather gauntlets keep our guardswoman’s fingers warm and well protected during heavy spear-play. Her hide boots, meanwhile are thick and insulated for long treks through deep snow. Our heroine’s primary weapon is a long spear for goring wild boars or orc brigands, with a short dagger for backup. Her shield protects from axes and arrows and works great for knocking around marauding snow-goblins.

Another huge thanks to Akeiron for the use of his guardswoman for the blog. Please feel free to check out his other online galleries. Thanks for reading, as always, folks! Take care and stay awesome!

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Season’s Greetings, 2016!

drows3More Santa’s Dark Elves!

Not much to report at the moment. Just wanted to wish my lovely readers a joyous holiday season. Take care and thanks so much for reading folks! Stay awesome!

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Intrepid, by Sir Tiefling

intrepid1Intrepid, by Sir Tiefling

“Whoever is first in the field and awaits the coming of the enemy will be fresh for the fight; whoever is second in the field and has to hasten to battle will arrive exhausted.”
—Sun Tzu

Hi folks! I realize it’s been a few weeks since last I updated, and over two months since I offered a regular writeup. For which I apologize. I’ve been focused on a lot of other things all at the same time and was just never really able to get my act together to work on the blog—despite how important this blog is to me. To maybe make up for it and to celebrate the winter season, I’ve lined up several winter heroines for discussion over the next few weeks. My first is the intrepid Emrah, by Sir Tiefling.

So I’m pretty sure I thought Emrah was an Eowyn fan art the first time I saw her. She’s a stellar shield-maiden design. And to be honest, she kind of looks like Miranda Otto. Though, having read Elizabeth Moon’s The Deed of Paksenarrion recently, I notice our heroine also matches Paks’s description fairly well. Or she could be a Celtic adventuress. Or a Viking adventuress. She could be a soldier, scout, warrior, bandit, guardswoman, militia, infantrywoman, paladin, mercenary or raider. She’s an all around effective design for just about any kind of fighting adventuress.


A sturdy leather or woolen hooded cloak keeps our heroine warm and sheds the snow during travel or combat. Emrah’s chain-mail shirt offers flexible protection from brigand clubs and goblin knives in the thick of a melee. I like as well the heavy wool shirt beneath her mail, for both warmth and armor-maintenance. She also wears a long battle skirt of pliable leather to protect her legs from frostbite or sword-bite. If I have one recommendation for the overall ensemble, I’d suggest making the cloak and perhaps the skirt fur-lined for additional cold protection.

Our heroine’s gloves are durable leather for warmth and protection without hindering her swordsmanship. Her pants are simple woolen tights, loose for effective movement in combat. Lastly, her boots are durable leather for traversing rugged, snowy terrain. Her primary weapon is a standard longsword with a dagger for backup. While it’s possible our heroine might dual-wield with the dagger in her off-hand, her armor and ensemble don’t really lend themselves to the high-dexterity movement and quick footwork that dual-wielding tends to require.

While, to me, the outfit suggests either a solo combatant or member of an adventuring party, it could work just as easily for a soldier in any kind of mercenary or infantry company. It’s a smart, all-purpose outfit for an adventuress on the go.

Another huge thanks to Sir Tiefling for the use of his art for the blog. Thanks, as always, for reading, folks! Take care and stay awesome!

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Book Review for Of Fire and Stars


Quick review for Audrey Coulhurst’s Of Fire and Stars. (Illustration by the always awesome Nate Hallinan.) Smart, brave heroines: check. Girl-love: check. Murder-mystery that threatens to spark a war: check. I’ll try to keep from being too spoiler-y, but I realize my track record for that isn’t the best.

It was Nate’s charming illustration that first drew my attention to Fire and Stars. It’s how I ended up buying it for my Kindle on the release date and reading it over the next two afternoons. On the surface, Stars is about two smart princesses trying to solve a murder-mystery in order to prevent a war. And if that isn’t cool enough, there’s also a lot going on beneath the surface: politics, arcane-phobia, and fear-mongering that our heroines have to contend with.

Princess Mare is kind of that tomboyish-horsewoman (cowgirl-ish?) archetype, more interested in riding or having a few drinks with the guards than in courtly pursuits. She loves riding more than anything and knows all the secret ways in and out of the palace. Though the other characters accept Mare for the way she is, few of them really respect her or acknowledge her skills and smarts. The other members of the court look down on her, convinced that she’s frivolous and never going to find a proper marriage with her attitude—and, sadly, Mare worries that they’re right and undervalues herself because of it.

Princess Denna is more the bookish type and is in an arranged engagement to Mare’s useless tosser of a younger brother. D is one of these unfortunate princesses who has been in a political engagement since she was a baby, and her life has been training for her future marriage. Additionally, Denna is a magic user trying to keep her powers hidden. Though magic isn’t universally reviled in the story, the kingdom she’s marrying into views magic users as dangerous heretics. Denna’s greatest fear is failing at both.

When a nobleman close to both heroines is murdered, Princess Denna and Princess Mare learn to respect each other’s abilities and work together to solve the murder and save their kingdom from a needless war. Naturally, they’re going to fall in love. (Not a spoiler so much as an incentive.) Yes, I recognize there are a number of popular tropes at work within the characters and story, but I felt like they were smartly applied in ways that kept the story charming and engaging.

I think what I liked best about the story was Audrey’s effective use of the trope where a street-smart character and a book-smart character discover that they work really well together. I felt that it was applied effectively and consistently throughout the story, and that both princesses had excellent opportunities to demonstrate their smarts and skills. Additionally, it means a lot to me that both see value in the other’s knowledge/skill set. Mare immediately sees the usefulness of Denna’s understanding of arrow trajectories, research smarts, and historical knowledge. Meanwhile, Denna respects and admires Mare’s courage and worldliness and even goes out of her way to learn from the older princess. Plus never do they compete or try to show off to the other or to anyone else. It’s a charming dynamic that I feel is woefully underused in fiction in general.

I liked as well that being gay or bi was treated as something normal in the novel’s world. Throughout there are references to men dancing with men, noblewomen having flings with serving women, and same-sex marriage as a recognized union. Princess Mare is openly bi and admits to trysts with men and women before meeting Denna. I appreciate that the societal pressures that keep our heroines from admitting their feelings for each other center around Denna’s arranged engagement to Mare’s brother.

Thus I love how in the end, it’s our princesses’ feelings for each other that helps each accept themselves, despite the societal pressures placed upon them. Denna’s love and acknowledgement helps Mare accept herself and acknowledge her own identity and value as a person. Mare’s love and acceptance shows Denna that her magic isn’t something to be afraid or ashamed of, and that there’s more to life than being the perfect wife and princess. Though the murder-mystery brings them together and gives them a chance to display their skills, it’s their growing affection and acknowledgement of the other’s wisdom and bravery that helps each learn to love and acknowledge themselves. It’s an uplifting dynamic that I’d love to see more often in fiction.

If I had one minor beef with Of Fire and Stars, it was an overuse of that trope where most of the adult main characters are either stubborn and ineffectual or secretly villains. In fact, about the only adult character who takes both princesses seriously is the one whose murder sparks the main conflict. And it’s not so much that I felt the trope was badly applied (I mean, I get that Denna is the new girl who doesn’t know the workings of the court, and everyone is used to not taking Mare seriously). I just felt that it was over-applied. I felt that too many of the authority figures were overly resistant to the the idea that the evidence was problematic. It was to the point that I was half-convinced that the murder was a conspiracy and all of the grown-ups were in on the assassination.

Wow, so much for a ‘quick’ review. Lots to say, apparently. On the whole, I loved the story and definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys YA fantasy or wlw romances. It’s smart and uplifting, and I’d love to see more tales like it. Thanks for reading and take care, folks!

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First Empress Prologue (scene 6)

So here’s the ending of the prologue to First Empress. Originally the prologue ended with Viarra confronting her uncle at the end of scene 5, but later I had an idea that I hope puts an unexpected twist on Viarra’s character. It’s a short scene that doesn’t even include Viarra, but hopefully it opens up some interesting implications about the novel’s world. As always, any feedback is welcome!

“Come to gloat, General Derron?” Duke Elladan accused as the general dismissed the guard outside his cell.

Derron waited for what Elladan suspected was long enough for the guards to be out of earshot before replying. “No, in fact I came to thank you,” the general replied, tossing a wineskin into the cell. “Believe it or not,” he continued, “you saved me a great deal of time and effort. You did what you saw as necessary for our people, and, despite appearances, you succeeded better than you could have imagined.”

Elladan frowned as he sniffed the wineskin: an aged white wine with a hint of belladonna and henbane—relatively quick and painless, despite the disorientation and nausea. He’d be dead in less than two hours. Beats dangling to death, at any rate, he decided. “Are you trying to be cryptic or condescending, General?” the duke asked as he took a sip of wine. “I can’t tell which.”

“I know how hard it was for you to make that decision to murder your brother’s family,” Derron told him, leaning against the cell bars, as if in casual conversation. “I was in the process of making a similar decision, if for a different outcome. I loved those four young men like my own sons; in fact I was hoping to marry my granddaughter Ryllia to Prince Dollan. Arrol gave every indication of wanting to continue his father’s pacifistic goals, but without a plan of action for accomplishing them. Kallis was a scholar with no interest in ruling. Emmet and Dollan were intelligent enough, but neither had any manner of decision-making capabilities.”

“They were good, solid sons of Kel Fimmaril,” Elladan agreed as he took another drink, “but not one of them had any business taking up the throne. And now we’re stuck with that damned girl as queen. So tell me how the situation has improved, Derron.”

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say they had no business on the throne,” Derron disagreed. “I think any of the king’s sons could have made excellent caretaker monarchs—ones good at maintaining stability and status quo. Unfortunately, a caretaker monarch is not what we need right now.”

Elladan took another long drink from the poisoned wineskin. “Right, we’re in deep shit,” he agreed. “You probably know this better than I do.”

“No, the shit got much shallower last night,” Derron corrected. “And I have you to thank. For the first time since the old king died, I have hope.”

The duke stared at the old general for a long moment. “Maybe the poison is going to my head already, but I swear you sound sincere, General. Viarra is tough and smart, but do you really think putting an inexperienced, untried woman on the throne is an effective plan?”

“No, Viarra was our backup plan,” Derron told him flatly. “A role her grandfather and I started preparing her for since she was six years old.

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First Empress Prologue, (scene 5)

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.

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First Empress Prologue (scene 4)

Shoot. So I figured out yesterday that I completely forgot to post the remaining scenes from the First Empress prologue to SSH. Sorry about that. I’ll post the rest today and tomorrow.

So I lied in my intro to scene 1, there’s actually six scenes in the prologue, I just divided them up into five posts. This scene features Queen Viarra talking shop/politics with Ronnius after the physician, Esset, finishes bandaging her. Ronnius was originally one of the characters I’d considered as a significant other to Viarra, before she and Elissa came out to me as lesbians. Instead of Ronnius’s rescue of the title heroine in the prologue leading to an eventual relationship, Queen Viarra rewards Ronnius by making him her kingdom’s steward when she’s away. As always, any feedback is most welcome. (Scenes 1, 2&3)

Ronnius wasn’t sure how long he’d been asleep when Esset quietly woke him. The window was still dark, but the noise from the commotion outside had apparently died down. “Her majesty is stable and wants to see you, young Ronnius,” Esset told him. Ronnius nodded groggily as he stood and stretched. “Damned girl refused any opium to reduce the pain. I stitched up her wounds, as well as several internal injuries. In a few weeks I’ll have to go back in and take those stiches out,” Esset continued. “That handmaiden was a terrific help, and I’m letting her sleep for now. Her majesty suggested I head down to the hospital now to volunteer and to see if they found any other survivors at the estate.”

Ronnius patted the apothecary on the shoulder. “Thank you. Keep an ear open while you’re there,” he suggested. “Find out what rumors are flying around and what Duke Elladan and General Derron and the others have been saying.” Esset grunted an affirmation, then turned and slipped out the front door.

Ronnius entered the candlelit back room and closed the door quietly behind him. Queen Viarraluca smiled weakly up at him from one of the doctor’s cots. Even broken and bandaged, his queen managed to look regal. There was strength of spirit in those jade eyes that he’d never paid attention to before. He couldn’t explain it, but somehow he foresaw her becoming one of the greatest queens to ever reign. She squeezed his hand as he sat in the chair next to her cot.

They sat without talking for a long moment. “Hell of a way to begin your reign,” Ronnius finally said, more to break the silence than anything.

Viarra smiled, shaking slightly. Then she winced in pain. “Please, don’t make me laugh, it hurts to do so right now,” she admonished him hoarsely.

“I wanted to thank you, Ronnius,” she continued, “for everything you’ve done tonight. You saved not only me, but likely the entire kingdom as well.” She paused. “I saw Lord Vennis’s body on the path when we met those watchmen. You killed him?”

“I did, your majesty.”

“That must have been hard; he was very close to you,” she replied.

“He was as my brother. But at the moment I killed him, I didn’t see him as such,” Ronnius admitted. “He’d revealed his part in his father’s plot against the king. I couldn’t be a party to that, nor could I just sit by and let it happen.”

Her majesty looked at the ceiling. “We’d long suspected the Duke was plotting to seize control, but all indications were that it centered on marrying his son to me. Arrol, General Derron, and I thought that we could buy time to unravel his plans by having me play ‘hard to get’ with Vennis—by making them think he had a chance with me and that I could be manipulated. Apparently his father saw through that. Not even our worst-case scenarios anticipated so sudden a violent takeover.”

“Duke Elladan caught us all off guard with this—even Vennis didn’t know about it. Bastard executed his gambit perfectly.”

“No, he didn’t,” Queen Viarra disagreed, looking back over at him. “I’m alive, aren’t I?” Ronnius smiled when he saw her smug little smirk in the candlelight. “No, the fatal flaw in his plan was that it hinged entirely on all of the people between him and the throne dying tonight. With us dead, he could tell the nobles and commoners anything he wished, despite the obvious blood on his hands.”

“And with you alive, he is a dead man.”

The queen coughed as she nodded. “Publicly by noontime, if at all possible,” she agreed. “It’s an unfortunate necessity, but the people need that catharsis while they mourn the loss of their king.”

Ronnius frowned. “Unfortunate in what way?”

She frowned up at him. “Truthfully, do you think my brother was a good king?” she asked, cocking her head slightly.

He sighed, realizing where she was going with this. “Truly? No, I don’t think so. He was a good man, but a weak king. His passive policies were weakening our status among the other kingdoms along the northern Vestic Sea. Because of your father and brother’s reigns, we have dangerous enemies, few allies, and plenty of predators hovering around, waiting for us to show any sign of weakness. Though we’re not currently at war, it’s just a matter of time.”

“Actually, we have no allies,” she confirmed, looking back at the ceiling. “And just behind the predators lurks a host of scavengers, just waiting for us to fall. The only reason we haven’t been invaded yet is because several of our more powerful opponents are busy fighting someone else at this time. I’m sure Voris and Ireth would both love a rematch with us, if they weren’t already at war with each other. Ovec and Fildor aren’t in much position to move against us on their own, but they’ll want to make sure they profit from our downfall. And I’ll put money down that within a month Andivel’s messengers will show up trying to extort tribute money from us. We desperately need a strong ruler to lead us through this storm, and I feel that Duke Elladan genuinely believed he could be that ruler—that he could save our people. And because of his belief, he now must die.” Her voice seemed to grow wistful.

“At any rate,” she continued, looking back at him, “I’m glad we’re on the same page with this. I agree with your assessment, as does General Derron. May I confide something in you?”

“Anything, your grace.”

“General Derron and I were working on a plot to depose Arrol and Kallis, to force them to step down and put Emmet on the throne with me as his first-in-line. It was supposed to be a bloodless military coup forcing them into quiet retirement or—worst-case scenario—exile. But we were far from having a concrete plan ironed out. Not that Elladan could have known about any of this.”

“So, Elladan did essentially what needed to be done, but not in the way that you needed it done,” Ronnias nodded. “For what it’s worth, I think I could have supported your plot if you wished me to.”

She reached out and squeezed his hand again. “It’s worth more than you think,” she assured him. “Make no mistake, I love my brothers and will mourn them on my own time. That time is not now. I don’t like the idea of being our kingdom’s only hope, but if I’m going to save our people, I need to act quickly. To do this, I need intelligent, capable people working under me—I’m starting with you. Fetch Elissa and Lady Synnis, please.”

Elissa was slow to awaken, but Ronnius had the both of them in that back room only moments later.

“Kneel, Ronnius,” the queen commanded. Ronnius knelt. “Patrician Ronnius, this night you have shown your loyalty to our people and to the Crown a dozen times over,” her majesty declared, placing a hand on Ronnius’s forehead. “I make it my first act as queen to reward you for your bravery and dedication. Before these witnesses and Ferra, our patron goddess, I hereby appoint you as my Steward, my second-in-command. Rise, Steward of Kel Fimmaril.” Ronnius felt a jolt at her words. The shock made standing up shaky, but he felt his eyes water as he contemplated the magnitude of her gift. If there was anything he’d have denied his queen before, he would do it or give it freely now.

“As my newly-appointed Second, my first order for you is to find Lord Fillan,” she continued. “Let him know that I’m alive and instruct him to call an emergency meeting of the Assembly of Archons—assuming no one else has already done so. Secondly, find General Derron and tell him about the assembly meeting. Have him meet me here at dawn with a full honor guard and one of his finest horses. I want full colors when I ride to the assemblage—highest possible profile.”

Ronnius started to ask if she was up to such a demonstration, but decided that second-guessing her wouldn’t be the wisest first act as her steward. “Shall I see about obtaining better attire for you then? Perhaps a set of officer’s armor?” he asked instead.

She shook her head. “No. I want the people, my people, to see me as I am. In fact, I may remove some of these bandages and let them see the scars and stitches on my belly. I want them to see what I’ve suffered for the sake of the kingdom.”

“It will be as you say, my queen,” Steward Ronnius replied, saluting—or at least hoping he saluted correctly. He bowed, then left.

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