Impatiently jamming her tangled hair back behind her long ears, Queen Celedrail sighed again, annoyed at that horrible soreness in her back and hips. Pregnancy was such a bother. Everything stretched and popped and ached. All her food, her energy, her blood: all of it went to that growing parasite in her belly. Oh, she was certainly excited to see her firstborn, but on days like this, days when everything hurt and nothing was good enough, she was just as eager to get the loathsome creature out of her as she was to be a mother.
Lady Rosemary lingered at her elbow, chattering endlessly about that stableman, the one that had come soon after her and disappeared again just a week ago: about his startlingly white hair and haunted eyes, his strange and noble manners, his aura of infinite sadness. Celedrail knew that no matter how long he had stayed there shoveling manure, he would have continued to amaze them all without doing anything amazing, and only she would ever understand why. Even now that he was finally gone, they were still talking about him, never allowing her to forget him.
Finally, Celedrail snapped at her, “Rosemary, enough! I do not want to hear about him now any more than I did last year!” The young girl fell into rebuked silence, stunned by her typically kind companion’s cranky outburst, and they proceeded down the hall under a cloud of ill feelings. Finally, the queen sighed and muttered grudgingly, “Sorry, Rosie. It has been a rough day.”
She nodded knowingly. “It is not easy. I understand.”
And that was what Celedrail loved about Rosemary the most: the fact that she did understand, that she would never say it if she didn’t truly mean it. The sweet child knew nothing of the subtlety and intrigue of the royal court, but she somehow always knew exactly how the lonely young queen felt, and that helped to ease the ache of her exile.
They entered the dining hall, warmth, laughter and the smells of good food greeting them inside the double doors. The porter at the door snapped to attention and announced, “The Queen Celedrail var Ethperok and her Lady Rosemary of House Srinoris.”
Celedrail smiled in spite of her misery as the little country girl at her side preened at the title. They walked through the hall as regally as they could manage, Celedrail leaning on her lady for support as another painful cramp assailed her belly; she had been hurting all morning, all week, really. She looked up and saw her husband watching her approach. She was nearly a year pregnant, her face pale with pain, and had just rolled out of bed, her hair uncombed, her dress wrinkled, unadorned; despite this, Celedrail knew she was the most stunning creature there and the thought pleased and amused her. It would always be that way, she was certain, and none of them would ever understand why she struck them so. It was just like that stableman.
She scowled, the unbidden comparison souring her pleasure. He was the cause of this whole mess. She couldn’t stand having him so close that she could sense him despite everything that had happened and she was glad that he was finally gone again. Even so, she wondered where he had gone and why, and that small part of her that still thought of him with old fondness was saddened at the loss of the last tie to her previous life. She was almost certain he no longer meant her any ill, not after all these long hard years in this foreign land, but she still worried a little, especially for the coming child. Despite fleeing to another land, despite his position compared to hers in that place, even despite the crimes he had committed against her, she knew he still had power over her.
As they came close, she turned her attention to her husband. There was incredible love shining in his eyes, completely unabashed worship of her. She returned his smile, but she shared little of his feelings. Hers was not a heart entirely accustomed to love or admiration, even after the years as his wife. She supposed that, as far as his kind went, he was the best, but this life was still a far cry from what she had expected for herself even a few short decades ago. He was certainly good to her in his own quaint little way, but she still missed her previous life, back before everything went wrong and she had to flee with him, both to protect and be protected. She knew she loved him, but it was more the fondness she might have for a favored pet than what he felt for her. The thought saddened her and she wished she could love him like he loved her. It seemed nice to have something to love beyond one’s realm and one’s self. She mentally frowned. She no longer had a realm to love: only herself. She shook her head, banishing those thoughts. She knew her dear Father would not be pleased and, even though they had been separated for years and probably would remain so the rest of her mortal life, she knew what was expected of her. Despite the sincere regrets and disappointments, she really was a sweet natured girl, if she hadn’t been so abominably pregnant, and she would never tell her darling Galandorn how unhappy she was sometimes. It wouldn’t do to hurt his feelings. She had made her decisions and she would not punish him for how they turned out. Her smile became a little more sincere and she rested a hand over her huge belly, silently thanking him for giving her hope again.
Another cramp spread through her lower body and she leaned heavily on her lady, grimacing. Her husband was up in an instant and hurried to her side.
“What is wrong, nivah?”
She was panting softly. “It has been a long year. I just wish this baby would hurry up and come.”
He chuckled softly. “I know. Me, too.”
Annoyed, she shook her head slightly; no, he didn’t know. She granted him a strained smile through the prolonged pain. “Soon, though, right?”
“Very soon,” Rosemary interrupted. “Celedrail, I think we should go back to your room.”
The royal couple looked at her in mild surprise, and then Celedrail frowned, already ill-tempered without these annoyances. “But we just got here!” Her radiant eyes flashed dangerously and Rosemary flinched at the power in them.
“I know,” she explained meekly, her gaze dropping submissively. “But I think we need to get back to your room. You might be-”
Surprise registered on her delicate features, blotting out her anger. “Oh.”
Galandorn frowned a little, worried. “Really? Are you sure?”
Still supporting her queen, the lady shrugged, turning her mistress back toward the doors they had just entered and dreading the stairs they would have to climb. “I cannot know exactly when the child is coming, but these cramps are getting pretty close together. Even if it is not time, she should at least lie down until they pass. She should probably rest, too, just in case.”
Fidgeting with nervous uncertainty that was entirely unbecoming of a king, he helplessly asked their backs, “Should I get the physician?”
Rosemary nodded as they started toward the door again. “We will meet him up there.”
Another cramp sent the young queen to her knees.
It was amazing the difference a little baby could make; one week of motherhood had transformed Celedrail’s heart. She knew she was dying, but it did not matter so much anymore, not as long as her little daughter was safe. She smiled slightly. They would all think it was so strange; they would whisper about it for decades to come. The birth had gone flawlessly. She had seemed so strong. Everything was going so well. And now she was slowly fading away and there wasn’t a thing any of them could do about it. Already, she hardly had the strength to eat anymore. She couldn’t walk, couldn’t even get out of bed. Another week perhaps and she would be gone: such a short sojourn in this land. She smiled a little in spite of the situation, wondering idly if they would blame the baby… or perhaps something more creative, like poison. It wouldn’t matter to her. Very soon, not much would matter at all. In a strange way, she found it almost funny; she was that desperate to enjoy her last few days in this world.
She rolled onto her side, nestling closer to Galandorn. He sleepily draped an arm over her waist and was still again. She loved him; she would miss him. Already, she was plagued by regrets. She had never wronged him, but, still, she had never cherished him like she should have, like he deserved. It was strange how brightly an impending death lit everything. He would mourn her until he died and she knew he would spoil their daughter rotten, but she loved him all the more for it. Rosemary would just have to see to her training until everything else was ready. Celedrail shifted her head up onto her folded arm. If she strained a little, she could just see the carved wooden railing of the crib over her husband’s shoulder, sheltering the tiny, frail High Princess, her only hope for making things right again. One week… so much had changed.
“Does she know what she has done?”
“Does it matter? Whether she knows or not, we are still in a lot of trouble.”
He sighed, shaking his head. “It matters to my opinion of her.”
Her voice was heavy with scorn, immediately defending her old friend. “And I suppose you give him no blame at all.”
He shook his head. His voice was bitter, too, but there was an underlying regret that was missing from his companion’s tone. “My opinion of him has taken a beating, too; you know that.”
Indicating to the scry she had just opened, she growled softly, “None of that matters now. Look…”
A cloaked figure knelt in the woods, praying fervently to his god. Suddenly, he stiffened and fell backwards, convulsing violently as his fingernails tore at his throat. The hood of the cloak fell back and they could see his terrified, snarling face. A gurgling scream forced itself out of his clamped jaw. The seizure lasted a few long minutes. Just as suddenly, he lay limp, the only signs of life in the occasional twitch of the limbs. After several silent minutes, he pulled himself upright, clinging weakly to a tree for support. A few failed attempts later, he stood unsteadily for a moment and then stumbled awkwardly through the forest, his movements clumsy and unsure. Breath rasped in and out of his throat unnaturally; a feral smile twisted his face, somewhere between a grin and a grimace. Occasionally, his left leg twitched under him, sending him sprawling against a tree for balance, and then he would be up and walking again, slowly improving. Tripping on a root, he fell forward onto his face and lay still for a long time. Then he looked up at the watching spies and laughed raggedly through clenched teeth that were beginning to bleed. “Hello again…”
She immediately closed the scry, a little frightened that he had been able to see them. She pursed her lips grimly. “This is worse than I thought: a Mouth.”
“But how is that possible? I thought he was still bound.”
“He is, but not like he used to be. The chains we placed on him are falling apart.”
He thought for a moment. “Yes. I had expected we would have more time than this, but…” He shrugged, not bothering to voice the unforeseen catalysts they were both thinking of. “Very soon he will be free again. In many ways he already is.”
She nodded slowly. “Even so, it is more difficult for him now, not like it was before.” She concentrated for a moment and then announced without emotion, “The Mouth just died. Yes, it is definitely more difficult. He has little control.” Sighing, she looked to her companion, asking a little helplessly, “Is there anything we can do?”
He closed his eyes, reaching tentatively to the source of his power. After a long while, he whispered, “No… no, there is nothing we can do. Great God help us, it is out of our hands. Only she-”
She interrupted immediately, “No. Her hands are too small for this. She is not nearly ready.”
“Do you really think she has time to become ready?”
“You know His will concerning this. She must be old enough to choose.”
He sighed. “I know. But what if that is too late?”