Gloriana forced herself to stop chewing on her thumbnail. She smoothed her skirts and patted down her hair. She shouldn’t be so nervous. She had been invited to the queen’s private sitting room countless times in the past, but today, her appointment felt less like an invitation and more like a summons.
She’d really done it this time. She had only meant to have a little fun. And fun she’d had. A little too much fun. How was she to have known that Hans, someday to become High Baron Arla, was already betrothed? He certainly hadn’t said so when he’d been wooing her with fair words and gifts. He’d said she was the prettiest woman in all Talehndor. Who could resist such flattery as that? Of course, he’d also said she was the smartest, so she should have known right there that he was only trying to get beneath her skirts, which he’d done, or near enough to make arguing the point useless.
The door opened, and Aerdrin, Queen of Arinkell and Star of Talehndor, beckoned her inside. Gloriana had sworn an oath of fealty to Aerdrin even before she’d become the queen. Gloriana was a member of the Sisters of the Star, an ancient order of women charged with guarding the deepest mysteries of the kingdom. The most important of those mysteries was the prophecy that foretold of a terrible time of destruction for Talehndor, but also of the woman who would save Talehndor. Aerdrin was that woman, and she had fulfilled the prophecy and saved the kingdom. Oath or no, Gloriana would be loyal to her forever for that. What’s more, she’d come to consider Aerdrin a cherished friend. It pained Gloriana that her behavior might have disappointed Aerdrin or caused her trouble.
“Thank you for coming. Please, come in and have a seat.” Aerdrin dismissed the servant standing by and poured them each a cup of tea herself. “Lady Lisette came to see me,” she began. “Apparently, you were discovered in…”
Gloriana held up a forestalling hand. She knew quite well what condition she and Hans had been in when Lady Lisette had discovered them. The last thing she wanted was to hear a recounting of the details from Aerdrin. “I’m sorry.”
“You needn’t apologize to me. I didn’t bring you here to chastise you. It’s only that Lisette has built up a head of steam about the business, and I fear she means to spread word of it around the city.”
“It would hardly matter. They all think me a feather-headed tart anyway.” Gloriana tried to say it matter-of-factly because it was true, but being true didn’t keep it from weighing like a stone on her heart. She coughed to try to mask the tears welling in her eyes.
Aerdrin wasn’t fooled. “Now, now… what’s all this?” She put her arm around Gloriana and dabbed away the tears with an embroidered handkerchief.
Just then, the door to the study opened and Kaid, king of Talehndor, stuck his head inside. “Aerdrin, Love, I thought we might…” He stopped abruptly when he saw Gloriana in a puddle of tears.
The pair were very newly wed, so Gloriana had a pretty good idea what he thought they might do in the queen’s private rooms in the middle of the afternoon.
“Never mind,” he said, “I’ll come back later.”
“Wait,” Aerdrin called, “I believe you can help.”
He looked at Gloriana, then at his wife. “I doubt it,” he said, and there was more than a hint of desperation in his voice.
“Tsk.” She shooed him away with the handkerchief. “Useless,” she said to the door that had closed very, very quickly. “The man is the ruler of a kingdom, yet he is rendered completely impotent by the sight of a crying female.”
At the word impotent, Gloriana couldn’t help glancing at Aerdrin’s very round belly. It was common knowledge to all who could count to nine that the king had got her in her present condition well before the night of their wedding.
“This,” Aerdrin patted her belly, “is why I have no intension of scolding you for your actions. You’re young and beautiful, and you behaved the way young and beautiful people behave. Are you in love with him?”
“No!” The tears began again. “It’s just that I never seem to do anything right. The entire city is just waiting for the day when I follow in my mother’s footsteps and become a prostitute in earnest.”
“Shhh.” Aerdrin patted and soothed, but she didn’t refute the generally held opinion of Gloriana. “Would you like to leave the city for a while?”
She sniffled and wiped her nose. “What do you mean?”
“Kaid received a request from Forest Gate, a village in the far east of the kingdom. They are without a village wise woman. The outlying parts of the kingdom are still very traditional in their beliefs. They asked Kaid to send a priestess to perform their harvest rites. It might seem a trivial matter to you and me, but it is of the utmost importance to them. I thought to send you, along with an appropriate traveling companion, of course.”
Her heartbeat quickened at the idea. Her role among the Sisters of the Star, aside from protecting Aerdrin, was to oversee the purification of all tools and weapons– hardly a position of any significance. To lead the ancient rites, to actually commune with the Goddess — she’d never let herself do more than dream of it. Even now, she made herself temper her excitement. “But I’ve never before led the ceremonial rites.”
“I know that.” Aerdrin squinted into the middle distance. “What one has done in the past often has shockingly little bearing on what one is called to do in the future.”
Gloriana knew that Aerdrin had the gift of prophecy and started to ask if it had been that gift that made her choose her for this task, but she stopped herself. From what she’d seen of prophecy, it offered more confusion than clarity. If something momentous and fateful awaited her in Forest Gate, she would rather not know about it.