Fears

Now, Laveth sprawled before her dressing table in an unqueenly fashion and studied herself in the glass. It was a large glass and rare, brought from afar after the birth of a son, but for the moment, Laveth was interested neither in appearance nor expensive treasures.

Something was amiss.

Mirella, her favored handmaiden was late, very late. Laveth had tried to control her anxiety by primping but had only succeeded in jumbling rouge pots and rice powder, and scattering jewels. She’d painted her lips vermillion; twice she’d wiped them clean. The shuttered window overlooking the bailey garden had been opened and shut, opened and shut again, while the rushes, disturbed by her constant pacing, wafted the sweet scent of chamomile and costmary from the floor. Laveth was at her dressing table because her old nurse, Nan Mara, had finally asked her to sit down. Again, her hand strayed to the lip salve, pinching up a bit of beeswax and rolling it between her fingers.

What was keeping the girl?

First, she’d fed the boy — he was being weaned and the process messy — but it gave her an excuse for not attending this last odious session — then the maids had sponged her, powdered her, and helped her dress. She had donned a lavender silk only to change to yellow. Since the baby’s birth, lavender no long brought out her complexion. Her heavy blonde hair had been braided and wound about a gold coronet. She had replaced her aquamarines with pearls, and now night had fallen in earnest.

“Where on earth is Mirella?” The Queen continued to look in the glass, directing her question to the figure sewing in the corner. A pair of hooded eyes looked up quickly and met her green ones in the glass. “It’s time for the feast,” she continued. “Way past.”

The old woman gathered the material in her lap. Nan Mara, Laveth’s childhood nurse, brought from Glynnis Fen, was embroidering a pillow for the youngest royal head. She pulled through a final thread and snapped it with her teeth.

“Aye, past time it is.”

Laveth rose from the bench. The two women regarded each other steadily: one young and fair, the other olive-skinned with black eyes no bigger than raisins winking from the folds of her lids. A thrush’s low call filtered through the shuttered window; the child stirred on curtained bed. The Queen looked away first, throwing up her hands in exasperation.

“I know what you’re thinking,” she said to her nurse. “Can you never leave me in peace?”

“There can be no peace. Soon the boy will walk. What then?”

“That is months away.”

“Weeks.”

Laveth walked to the great bed and pulled back the linen cover. Axel Augustus, heir to the Casoria throne, lay in the center of the feather mattress beneath a coverlet of softest fur. A drop of milk rested in the corner of his mouth. With the tip of her finger, Laveth gently rubbed it away. The child kicked but didn’t open his eyes.

“He is so peaceful. I cannot bear to see him go.”

Nan Mara crossed the room to stand beside the Queen. In her youth, the old nurse had been tall and thin; now she was thin and bent. She did, however, manage to convey her former height as she dared to pull back the blanket from the young prince.

“Peaceful . . . for now. But how long will he draw breath when Elymas sees that foot?”

She pointed to the baby’s thickened sole.