Princess Adha sat at the bay window gazing out at the valley, where her father had ridden among the trees on his boar hunt. Not that she could see much under the moonlight. She had been waiting for hours. The boar hunts could take up most of a day, but not this far into the night. He should have come back by now. Something was wrong.
She got confirmation when her attendants announced that Captain Geler had arrived… alone. Adha ran as fast as she could to the throne room. Blood covered the Captain's shirt.
"Your Highness!" he cried, kneeling. "I bring terrible news." He breathed in large huffs. "The king… Bandits…"
"What happened?" Adha said. "Is my father all right?"
"I… we did everything we could…" He lowered his eyes to the ground. "He took three arrows. His guards are bringing him back as we speak, but it's a struggle. They're injured, too."
Adha glared out at the crowd around her—the servants, the visiting nobles, her cousin Ora—and shouted, "What's everyone waiting for? You heard him! Bring a medic! Gather the soldiers! Any delay could cost His Majesty's life!"
The crowd scattered, leaving her alone with Ora and Captain Geler. But the delay might not matter. Three arrows. Depending on where they hit, and how long the guards took to arrive, there might not be much hope, even with a witch. Orlynne witches were talented healers, but even they had their limits. "Captain," she said, "how far ahead were you of His Majesty?"
"I couldn't say." He remained on his knees. "The bandits were relentless. His Majesty ordered me to run ahead so the castle could make preparations."
"And where were these bandits from?"
"They wore no uniform, and said nothing as they attacked. I'm afraid I have no answer."
"Then perhaps you can answer my next question. How could a reigning monarch surrounded by armed guards have fallen victim to mere bandits?" She could feel the growl in her voice scraping her throat. Her cousin Ora, still a little girl, took a step back. Captain Geler whimpered, but didn't answer.
Adha turned away from both of them. If worse came to worst, then in a short time, she would no longer be Her Highness. She had thought she might have years before her time on the throne, if it ever did come. At times she even flirted with the idea of leaving for a convent, for a life of quiet simplicity, forgetting even the idea of royalty. But her family's lineage was sparse. Her father had no siblings, and neither did she. Her mother passed when Adha was younger than Ora. Without her father, and without herself, they would have to go with Gilbert, Ora's shiftless bard of an older brother. And he wasn't here.
She silently cursed Captain Geler, her father's guards, even her father herself, for foisting this on her before she was ready. If one could ever be ready.
Footsteps echoed from down the halls. Adha snorted in a deep breath. Until her father arrived, until his fate was certain one way or the other, Adha was regent of this castle.
A trio of witches rushed into the throne room, two women and a man. Several mats hovered behind them, levitated by their magic. "How many do we need?"
"How many are on their way back?" Adha asked Captain Geler.
"Two were killed by the bandits immediately."
Adha spun back to the witches. "One king, one captain, and three guards."
The witches laid out the mats side-by-side along the wall, laid out the sheets, and set aside their equipment. As Captain Geler lay down, the First Lieutenant appeared and bowed. "Your Highness! We have fifteen units ready for your orders."
"Spread out over the valley. Subdue any bandits you can find. Try to capture as many as possible. If you can't avoid combat, do what you must, but leave at least one alive. Whoever finds my father, have him send out a flare and bring His Majesty straight back here. Right away!"
The Lieutenant stared up at her for a moment, his mouth drooping open. Ana hadn't expected anything like that to come so clear from her mouth, either. She had never had any interest in military matters. Everything simply fell into place just now like a puzzle piece.
She went to the throne as the Lieutenant ran off.
But she did not sit down. As far as anyone knew, the king was still alive. She was not queen yet. Instead she fell into her own seat, leaving her father's empty.
Ora stepped up to her with hesitation. "Is… is there anything you need me to do?"
"Just stay with me," Princess Adha said. "Right now I need family more than anything." The only thing left was to wait for the Lieutenant to return with his troops. She prayed that none of the arrows struck anything vital, that the witches over there could heal the wounds easily. She'd seen soldiers die before, brought in after a campaign. The thought of such a thing happening to her father, of him experiencing such agony, made her sick to her stomach. What was she supposed to do without him? How could she ever hope to take his place?
"When I was your age," she told Ora, "my father used to take me to Ornhuist, to go fishing. He loved fishing. I think if he never had royal blood, he'd have joined some crew and gone out to sea. We haven't gone to Ornhuist in a few years. We were planning on going again in the summer, when the lakes are plentiful."
"I'm sure he'll be fine." Ora patted her hand. "His Majesty's strong. A simple bandit couldn't kill someone like him."
"Hm." Of course Ora would say that. The man was a giant compared to her. Even at his age, he could sweep her up and prop her on his shoulder without breaking a sweat. But even if he lived, would he ever be the same again? Adha had met soldiers who limped from campaigns that took place before she was ever born, and others who'd had limbs removed outright. Her father may be king, but he was still human.
On the other hand, something about what Ora said made Adha think. There had always been bandits, and until now, none had been so demented as to ambush the king. How did they even get into the hunting grounds?
"Captain Geler," Adha said, "could you tell any sign of where these bandits were from?"
"No, Your Highness." He sat up, and a witch nudged him back down.
Adha said, "Did they say anything? Make any demands? Do they speak our language?"
"They did, but they didn't ask for anything. They simply attacked."
Adha felt a black cloud form within her. "Were they townspeople? Farmers?" The thought of her own people attacking her father…
"Perhaps," Captain Geler said. "There has been unrest in recent months. Last year's harvest was poor. The bridge in Amas has collapsed. Forgive my boldness, but it could be said that perhaps His Majesty has been slow to respond."
"But that wouldn't call for open treason."
One of the witches chimed in. "I know some people are upset that their favorite chariot racer got arrested."
"Not Toza?" Adha said. "The one found to be kidnapping farm girls and holding them prisoner in his stables?" Adha saw the distress on Ora's face, and patted her on the shoulder.
"No one ever said blind loyalty had to make sense." The witch rinsed her hands in a bowl of water. "Some people, you could have anyone on the throne, as long as the races start on time."
Adha leaned on the arm of her chair. "But to go this far…" If this was a true rebellion, they wouldn't stop with her father. Her own head might be on a pike before this was over. She might have to deliver worse to any rebels before that happened.
"Your Highness." Another witch, a young man with violet hair, stood up. "May I have a word?"
He stepped up and kneeled in front of her. He glanced at Ora, and Adha directed her to stand aside, out of earshot. Adha leaned forward to listen.
"There's something Captain Geler isn't telling us," he said. "I used my magic to analyze his wounds, and they don't match the blades typically used by farmers or highwaymen. Nor do they match the known weapons of any foreign enemies. He was wounded by the weapon of a fellow guard."
"Then… one of the guards betrayed the others? Or more than one?"
"Perhaps. I even considered the possibility that a bandit could have stolen a weapon. But why avoid mentioning such a thing?"
"You're not suggesting… He…"
"We won't know for certain until the search party returns."
Adha took a long, slow breath. "Does Captain Geler have an interest in chariot races?"
"I wouldn't know."
Adha heard the jingling of armor and chain mail. A sentry ran into the throne room and stumbled to a stop. "Princess! The flare! They've found your father!"
She sprang from her chair. "Open the gates, lower the drawbridge! Make sure nothing obstructs their passage through! Witches, do you have everything you need?"
"We'll be fine."
And she sank back down. The sentry left the doors to the throne room open on his way out. Ora shuffled up quietly and said, "You sounded exactly like a real queen just now."
"Please." Adha rubbed her eyes. "Don't say that." Tears were pouring faster than she could wipe them away. "Don't say that." Ora had never known Adha's mother. Sometimes even Adha's memory of her was as dim as a night mist. What she did remember was a soft-spoken woman who seemed to respond to everything with a joke, and a mother who could be kind at some times, and unbearably distant at others. Adha was nothing like her.
She was just starting to wonder if they'd show up at all when they came in like the flood of a burst dam. The sentries carried the surviving guards in on gurneys, along with the king. Adha ran to him as soon as she saw him. His skin had turned as pale as his beard. He was unconscious, but still breathing. The sentries laid him and the guards down and transferred them to the mats. The witches immediately got to work, roping the sentries in as assistants.
One witch said, "The Captain told us three guards had survived. Here there are only two."
"Sergeant Fuio succumbed to his wounds before we arrived," the First Lieutenant said. "He's on his way to the morgue. We already sang the Hymn for him."
Adha hovered over her father as the purple-haired witch waved his hand over him. The king had ventured out in blue. His blood had stained it into dark wine.
One of the guards groaned. "Captain… Captain Geler…"
"Not now, save your strength," his attending witch said.
Ora stayed in the corner, watching from a distance.
"I'm right here," Captain Geler said, still on his mat. "I'll be fine."
The guard groaned again.
The king breathed with incredible struggle. The witch grimaced in frustration. Adha had feared the worst, and now the worst was here.
"I'm sorry," the witch said. "He's already lost so much blood. All I can do is…"
A sob pushed up through her throat. "I know." The witch could ease his pain. Nothing more. Even magic had its limits.
The king's eyes fluttered open.
The witch said, "Your Majesty!"
The king looked straight at Adha, and smiled. "Ah… There you are… I made it."
Then he died.
Adha stood and stared down as peace returned to her father's face. The witch ceased his magic and stood up and began singing the Hymn of the Soul.
All other talk in the throne room ceased. Others joined in the Hymn—first the other witches, then the soldiers, for whom the Hymn was a nightly ritual. As they sang, Adha paced toward the throne. She did not add her voice.
Soon the Hymn ended. The First Lieutenant cried out, "The king is dead! Long live—"
"DON'T!" Adha shrieked loud enough to be heard in Ornhuist. "Not now."
Still, though, she could no longer question or protest her fate. She took a seat on the throne. Even with the cushioning, it was the most uncomfortable chair she'd ever sat in.
One of the guards cried out again. "Traitor! Murderer! Captain Geler! He led us to the bandits! He started to flee when they attacked!"
"Slander!" Captain Geler shot straight to his feet. "You dare dishonor your fallen king with such accusations! You inflicted these wounds on me! You are the traitor!"
"You talk about dishonor?!" the guard said. A witch and a sentry had to hold him down to the mat. "You gambled on the races, put everything on Tozus! This wasn't even for politics! It was for your debts!"
"We could ask your friend there, but he seems in worse shape than either of us."
"You'd be right," the third witch said. "I'm not letting him regain consciousness in this condition."
"I'm telling you, arrest the Captain!" the guard said.
"Everybody shut up!" the Princess said. Leaning on the arm of the chair, she sent a glare over the throne room. "Were any 'bandits' captured?"
"Yes!" a sentry said. "Our unit brought in three. No telling yet about the others."
"Bring one of them here. One who looks like he knows the most."
The same sentry ran out. Adha was amazed at how little she felt right now. As if all feeling inside her died along with her father. Feeling like this, she could not promise to herself she'd act like a princess.
No, her time as princess was done. If God and fate and those bandits didn't want her to be one, she supposed she wouldn't.
The guard came back with a burly young woman with hair like unruly black wires. She wore gray with a brown tunic. As soon as the sentry brought her in, she said, "Your Majesty."
"His Majesty's dead," Adha said. She pointed to the sheet covering the body. "That's him over there. You don't seem like much of a bandit. Tell me, do you enjoy the chariot races?"
"I've been known to attend a few. And little Miss Monarch, you could at least ask my name. It's Loze. Tozus is my brother."
"Ah, so I guess your position's understandable. Were you part of the group that attacked the king?"
Loze smiled smugly.
"Okay. Listen, thanks to you and your comrades, my reign is off to a terrible start. My father has been murdered. And regardless of whoever loosed the arrows, I have reason to believe that one of these two men betrayed him." She gestured to the guard and the captain. "But I don't know which. Perhaps you could tell us."
Loze kept smiling, and said nothing.
"So that's how it is. Do you not know? Or, no, I got it, maybe they both betrayed him. Or neither. They could be so distraught that they blame the first person they see. Am I getting warm?"
"I'm sure I sound hilarious to you," Adha said. "Just this morning I was joining the ladies of the castle in their sewing circle, without a care in the world. Now I have a king to bury, an army to command, and criminals to bring to justice. I hold your life in my hands."
Loze said nothing.
"I could have you killed on the spot. I could order your brother executed. I could even ban the races."
There were shouts from the guards. "There'd be riots!"
"No, you're right. I could be a compassionate ruler. I could set you free. I could set your monster of a brother free, inflict him on the world all over again."
Loze said, "It wouldn't do any good. After all, there's still the matter of the king's overgrown droppings sitting on the throne."
An icy draft blew from the open door, brushing against Adha's cheek. "Put her back in the dungeon."
The guards dragged Loze out and shut the doors behind them. Adha stood and started toward the side doors. "We're obviously not going to solve this problem tonight." She gestured to the guard and the captain. "Keep those two under watch once they've recovered. Ora, come with me."
The girl followed her out. Her face was smeared over with tears. "Is… is everything going to be okay?"
"It'll be fine," Adha said. "We'll find out whoever was responsible, and bring them to justice, and restore peace to this kingdom."
Ora snatched her hand. "But you'll be queen, not the princess. You'll have so much work to do, and we won't be able to spend any time together. It won't be the same. The work will be so important. Already it's not the same."
"No. It won't be the same. Just… promise me something. Whatever responsibilities I have, don't let me forget that I'm still your cousin Adha."
Ora rubbed her face, probably not understanding completely. But then she said, "Okay."
"Thank you." Adha and Ora arrived at her bedroom, with Adha's bed on one side and Ora's smaller bed on the other. In coming days Adha might have to move to her father's old chambers, but not tonight. For now, wherever she slept, that would be the Queen's bed.
Before going to sleep, Queen Adha looked out the window over the valley, blackened by night. The valley where her father had been betrayed. The valley that now belonged to her. Somewhere below, she heard chants, at the same time both joyful and mournful. They must have started when they thought she couldn't hear them.
Long live the Queen!
Long live the Queen!