Queenmaker 4

11 Aug

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Chapter Four

I was well used, by this time, to odd looks as I walked from the palace to my mansion.

It baffled me.  The distance between the two wasn’t that great.  It wasn’t as if I was trying to walk from New York to San Francisco.  But they still seemed to expect me to ride on horseback or in a horse-drawn carriage, rather than sully my feet with walking.  It was just absurd.

Fallon walked beside me, her dark eyes grim.  I suspected she wanted to say something, but wouldn’t – couldn’t – until we reached the mansion.  I felt a twinge of disquiet I didn’t want to look at too closely, after Helen’s words.  Fallon and I were lovers and … did I want to marry her?  I wasn’t sure.  My last marriage had ended badly and I dreaded to think what’ll have happened if I’d stayed in my own world.  Would Cleo have kept the kids from me, while demanding two-thirds of my paycheck?  Or would she have calmed down and come to more reasonable terms?  I didn’t know – and I knew I never would.  My kids were on the wrong side of the dimensional divide and I would never see them again.

I kept my eyes open as we passed through the crowd.  Hundreds of people – merchants and traders, soldiers and craftsmen, aristos and commoners – thronged the streets, some trying to make deals with the queen and her representatives, others trying to make plans for a future that might or might not include a powerful monarchy.  I knew hundreds more had fled – or been ordered to head to the enemy camps by their families – in hopes of making sure their world survived, no matter who won the war.  I kept a wary eye on the latter.  I understood their thinking better than they knew and yet neither I nor Helen could trust them.  They would switch sides the moment a clear winner emerged.

Fallon nudged my arm.  “There’s more of them,” she said, nodding towards a black-clad trio standing by the side of the road.  “How many of them are there?”

I frowned as I saw the Black Roses.  Queen Helen’s men were on the streets … and doing surprisingly little.  They weren’t directing traffic or stopping and searching passers-by or even harassing anyone who looked wealthy enough to draw their eye without being powerful enough to take revenge.  It was odd, in my experience.  The trick to taking control of a city was to make it clear that you were in charge, by making sure everyone was aware of your presence, while not tolerating any rivals.  Helen’s men simply were.

My lips thinned.  Helen’s decision to trust Lord Jacob was either genius or madness and I didn’t know which.  Not yet.  Could he be trusted, on the grounds blood was thicker than water?  Or would his resentment lead him into dangerous waters?  I wished I knew more about their relationship.  Lord Jacob could have been legitimised at any moment, if his father had been willing to take the risk of putting his daughter aside.  Why hadn’t he?  It was, to the locals, the obvious question.  Lord Jacob had the advantage of being male in a society that didn’t think women could rule.

The thought nagged at me as I reached the mansion and stepped through the gates.  The guards nodded to us, keeping their eyes on the crowd.  I hid my amusement with the ease of long practice.  It had taken weeks to convince them they didn’t need to bow and scrape in front of me, certainly not when it would distract them from their duties.  I was no newly-promoted junior officer who needed validation, nor was I am aristrocrat who got my jollies from everyone grovelling in front of me.  And besides, I was uneasily aware the warlords wanted me dead.  There had already been attempts to assassinate me.  One had come so close to success I knew I’d escaped through sheer dumb luck.

Chance and careful planning, I thought, as we entered the mansion.  More of one than the other.

My lips quirked.  Sigmund, my old Castellan, would be utterly horrified if he could see the mansion now.  The great chambers and ballrooms had been converted into offices and workshops, the gardens outside had been repurposed as training fields … hundreds and thousands of people, mainly commoners and soldiers, came and went every day, none of them even bothering to take off their shoes and show proper respect to the master of the house.  The noise wasn’t that loud, but it was impossible to ignore.  Sigmund … my heart twisted, recalling how the old man had betrayed me.  I’d sent him into exile, rather than killing him with my own hands or sending him to the block.  I still didn’t know if I’d done the right thing or not …

“We’ll go to the office,” I said.  “Coming?”

The din slowly died away as we climbed to the uppermost floor.  I’d thrown some of the bedrooms open to my officers and staff, although a certain degree of paranoia had led me to rotate sleeping arrangements for my men.  If something happened to the mansion … the walls were strong, and there were powerful wards worked into the stone, but I was uneasily aware the defences were far from invulnerable.  I dared not give the enemy a chance to kill our entire command staff in a single blow.  It would be utterly disastrous.

“Violet wants to talk to you,” Fallon said.  I followed her gaze to where the former street urchin was lurking, looking out of place despite trading her rages for middle-class garb.  “Can we talk first?”

“Yeah.”  I motioned to Violet to wait, trusting her to speak up if it was truly urgent, then led the way into my office.  “It’s been a long day.”

Fallon said nothing as I poured us both glasses of water and passed one to her.  I frowned inwardly – clearly, something was bothering her – and sat on a comfortable armchair, rather than the sofa.  She would tell me, in her own good time.  I sipped my water and waited, feeling a strange twinge of unreality as my eyes traversed the office.  I’d done what I could to make it a more comfortable place to work – it had been so richly decorated, months ago, that it could have passed for a high-class hotel – but it still felt unreal.  I intended to make sure the new military headquarters, when we had a moment to build it, would look a great deal more functional, rather than being designed to cater to the warlord’s ego.  I’d felt my ego get worse when I’d taken the old chair – it had looked like a throne – and I’d known better than to let the feeling convince me of anything.  Even now, I could lose everything in the blink of an eye.

And besides, we sold the artworks and made enough money to raise more regiments, I thought, sourly.  Comic opera militaries never lasted long when they faced an enemy that put military efficiency ahead of appearance.  If we lose the war, we’ll be lucky if we are merely tortured to death …

Fallon took a breath.  “I … the magicians are coming along,” she said.  I was as blind as the average man to a girl’s true feelings and yet even I knew she was dancing around the real problem.  “We should be ready to coordinate the regiments as they take the offensive.”

I nodded, almost relieved she was focusing on business even though it was a delaying tactic.  It would be years, at best, before we developed working radios, let alone force trackers and everything else we’d used to coordinate modern armies in the field – micromanage, part of my mind added darkly – but magic could fill the gap.  Sort of.  It was crude compared to the old radio net, and I didn’t pretend to understand the limitations, but it was so much better than anything the locals had had before I’d arrived everyone was delighted.  And yet, it was a grim reminder there were parts of my new world that would forever be a closed book.  Magic was dangerously unpredictable.  If a powerful magician joined the war …

Fallon is one of the weakest magicians in the world and yet she can turn you into a frog with a snap of her fingers, my thoughts reminded me.  What can a full-fledged sorcerer do?

“That’s good,” I said.  I met her eyes, trying to be reassuring.  “What do you really want to discuss?”

She swallowed, visibly.  My heart sank.  It was going to be bad.

“I …”  Fallon stopped and swallowed again.  “Elliot, I’m pregnant.”

I stared.  For a moment, my brain refused to accept what it heard.  “What?”

“I’m pregnant,” Fallon repeated.  Her lips twisted into a bitter smile.  “It’s your fault.”

I … I had no words.  She could have punched me in the face and I would have been less surprised.  I’d assumed I couldn’t have more children … stupid, in hindsight.  I was only in my forties and I knew aristos who were still having children well into their sixties.  Sure, Helen might have a deadline, a point beyond which she couldn’t have children of her body, but I didn’t.  I was as fit and healthy as any man in the new world and … and I knew I could have kids.  I already had two …

My mouth seemed to speak without my brain’s input.  “I thought you were taking care of it.”

Fallon looked down.  “I thought I was too.”

“Oh,” I said.  “And …”

I forced myself to think.  It was vanishingly rare for a properly brought up young woman in Johor to have sex outside marriage, unless she was a magician.  The unspoken rules were clear – and as misogynistic as they came.  A woman’s virginity was one of her most prized assets – to herself and to her family – and if she lost it, even through rape, she would be disgraced.  Bastards.  No one chooses to be raped.  And yet, the rules didn’t apply to magicians.  I had no idea if it was because magicians could cast contraceptive spells or simple fear of what a witch might do, if she was subjected to a torrent of misogynistic invective, but it didn’t matter.  I’d assumed Fallon could keep herself from falling pregnant.  And I was wrong.

Oh, the nasty part of my mind whispered.  And are you sure she didn’t set out to get pregnant to lure you into marriage?

I told that part of me to shut up.  Fallon wasn’t Cleo.  She wasn’t … she wasn’t so dependent on me she’d do something incredibly risky, not when we couldn’t be sure we’d get married and live together.  I was a powerful nobleman and my marriage was a matter of state … something else, I reflected ruefully, I had trouble accepting.  Fallon could end up cast aside if she miscalculated, for all she was a magician.  And our child might end up like Jon Snow.  I still wondered why he hadn’t simply walked away from his bitch of a stepmother.  Being pissed at your husband for cheating on you was understandable, but taking it out on the bastard child was unforgivable.

And yet … my mind spun.  I wasn’t sure how I felt about her.  I wasn’t sure how she felt about me.  Did she have feelings for me?  Or had she come with me because she saw a chance to ride my coattails to glory?  Or … I told that part of me to shut up too.  I was going to become a father, again.  I’d sworn to myself I wouldn’t become my father – the bastard had abandoned his children – and I meant it.  I hadn’t left my older children – not willingly – and I wasn’t going to leave this one too.

I took a breath.  “Are you sure?”

Fallon nodded, without looking up.  “I was late,” she said, without going into detail.  “I … I cast a spell to check, then went to the healer.  She confirmed I was pregnant.”

“Oh.”  I needed time to come to terms with the sudden change.  I knew I wasn’t going to get it.  My thoughts were a mess.  I’d put down roots and yet, part of me was afraid to put down more.  If I was trapped in the city … I told myself, angrily, I wasn’t trapped.  There was no reason I couldn’t leave, taking my wife and child with me.  I’d been careful to put some money aside for emergencies, just in case.  “I … how long?”

“The healer said I was about six weeks pregnant,” Fallon said.  “It must have been …”

Her skin darkened.  I flushed, grateful – again – that my complexion hid it.  If she’d conceived the very first time … it felt unbelievable and yet I knew better.  My mother had made it clear to me, when we’d had the talk, that unprotected sex could – and perhaps would – lead to pregnancy, even if it was the very first time.  Fallon was in the prime of life.  There was no reason she couldn’t get pregnant.  And she had …

I wondered, suddenly, what her family would think of it.  They hadn’t been able to pay for her magical education.  The best thing they could have done for her, back in Damansara, was arrange a good match to another merchant, someone who wanted an intelligent and educated wife to help grow his business.  It was sickening to me and yet, it was just a reality of life in my new world.  A woman on her own was dangerously vulnerable. 

That will change, I told myself.  The influx of new ideas and technology would reshape the entire world, no matter what the warlords tried to stop it.  And the next generation will know freedom.

I put that thought aside, then reached for her.  She had to be wondering what I intended to do.  Would I accept the child – accept her – or pretend she was just my mistress and the child had been fathered by someone else or … or what?  I knew officers in my ranks who’d arranged for their mistresses to marry their junior officers, to put a veneer of legitimacy on their bastard children.  I didn’t pretend to understand why anyone would go along with such a scheme, particularly when everyone already knew what was happening even if they claimed otherwise.  There had to be limits, surely?  I’d bitched and moaned about my former commanding officers – some of whom had been time-servers, others dangerously unaware of the realities of modern war – and none of them had ever done anything like that!  And if they’d tried, their court martial would be the shortest formality on record …

“Fallon,” I managed.  “Will you marry me?”

I wondered, suddenly, what I’d do if she said no.  She had to be thinking it.  She wasn’t completely without options, far from it.  She had magic … she didn’t need to marry a man technically old enough to be her father.  If she said no … I tried not to think about the possibilities.  The child was mine.  I would be a part of his – or her – life and that was all there was to it. 

She look up at me, her eyes bright with tears.  “Do you … do you want to marry me?”

My heart twisted.  She knew the realities of the world at a very primal level.  They were part of her life … I told myself, savagely, that they were part of mine too.  I wasn’t the American solider deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan or somewhere else now, not the person who did a tour of duty in a poor and wartorn country before shaking the sand out of my boots and going back home to the real world.  I wasn’t even an immigrant who could concede defeat and go back home.  Back on Earth, I’d been detached from the locals while I was on deployment.  Here … I wasn’t.  And it was high time I accepted it.

“Yes,” I said, simply.  It wasn’t even a lie.  Fallon was beautiful and intelligent and she had magic, all of which made her an asset to an up and coming nobleman.  She might not have the birth for one of my exulted rank … but neither did I! The very thought was absurd.  I doubted the aristocracy, or what remained of it, would be throwing their daughters at me.  “I do.”

I took a breath.  “I’ll make the arrangements at once,” I added.  I wasn’t sure how the locals would react, when someone counted backwards and worked out I’d impregnated Fallon before marrying her, but there was no point in taking chances.  “If you stay here as my Castellan …”

“No.”  Fallon met my eyes, evenly.  “I’m coming with you.”

“The child …”

“Will be perfectly safe,” Fallon said.  Her tone brooked no argument.  “Besides, you have to meet my parents.  Properly.”

“You have to take care,” I insisted.  I wasn’t sure what to say.  “Going into battle could …”

“I will be perfectly safe,” Fallon said.  “I have faith in you.  And the army.”

I wasn’t sure what to make of that.  The army might be the most powerful and capable force on the planet, at least as far as the locals were concerned, but to me it was dangerously ramshackle.  We’d expanded, and then expanded again, and expanded again after that … there were too many soldiers with too little training, very few of whom had seen any kind of fighting.  If my army had been armed with modern weapons and sent to battle a USMC company, the jarheads would have scattered us in short order.  I dreaded to think what would happen if the warlords, who had no qualms about hiring mercenaries, managed to catch us by surprise.  There were limits to how far we could train the men before the shit hit the fan.

“I hope you’re right,” I said, reluctantly.  Legally, once we were married, I could command her to stay behind.  Practically, even trying would destroy our marriage before we even tied the knot.  “Be careful.”

“I will.”  Fallon managed a smile.  “And now you’d better go see what Violet wants.”

I stood and bowed.  “Yes, My Lady.”

9 Responses to “Queenmaker 4”

  1. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard August 11, 2022 at 2:03 am #

    Great last line! 😀

    • AC Young August 11, 2022 at 4:37 pm #

      I wholeheartedly agree.

  2. bobjstewart@reagan.com August 11, 2022 at 3:41 am #

    Hi Christopher,

    It’s been a while since I’ve looked at your posts. I’ve kind of lost interest in your writing, but I used to enjoy them a lot, particularly the professor and his history of the collapse of civilization. For old times sake, I thought you might find an alternative, and somewhat critical, review to be of some help, or at least thought provoking. I’m not into wokism, and I don’t wish to cancel you or anything else that would upset you. In fact I hope you’ll find some of my thoughts helpful. I was born while WWII was just wrapping up, and I expect my reading habits and standards are not the sort of thing needed to secure a mass market. Which is to say, you may have perfectly reasonable goals that I simply can’t understand. So don’t feel as though you need to respond to me. Take these words for what they are … just one man’s opinion.

    First of all, do a search on the phrase “and yet” in any of your novels. There are 9 in Chapter 4. I expect there are hundreds in some of your works.

    Why is this so? I suppose this is to engage the reader in the difficult choices that need to be made as the character proceeds, but it becomes trite and artificial, and way too predictable. Foreshadowing is only useful in tiny doses. If you have written a proper lead up to this point, then the reader should be wondering about the problem without you having to bat him on the head with a 2×4. It is the character’s response to this situation that engages the reader. Create the needed circumstances, and let your character develop. Alternatively, just state the problem and the solution and move on (not recommended.)

    Next, your characters never seem to age and become more competent. I think Emily is your lead in one of magic series, and she continued to behave as an insecure teenager thru the many volumes I read. Let her grow up and become confident in her assessments and decisions. Let her blow a few, and learn from them. But do it by example. One of the most aggreviating authors I occasionally dabble in is M R Forbes. He (she, it, them, whatever) writes a novel as though it is a collection of stage directions for a play. After carefully planning the novel, the character gets to the point where something is to be learned or acted on, and instead of creating the actions and words that demonstrate the required development, the critical issue is disposed of with a few sentences. Again, this is like a director whispering directions to an actor who doesn’t seem to be able to understand the circumstances and the needed actions to get on with the story.

    You also seem to wallow in self-doubt and insecurity. Hamlet is not the sort of thing that I enjoy. I like stories about someone like Alexander the Great who cuts the Gordian knot. You have a lot knowledge and I think you should be more forthright in leading with your feelings. I plan to read your recent book review next, and I expect you’ve got a lot of useful insights. These should be the foundation of your novels.

    Well, enough of me. I hope you and your family are doing well and are ejoying good health. The CV19 thing was a massive propaganda event with hopelessly inept policies. A recent paper from Thailand found that of 301 13- to 18 year olds who had dwo doses of the Pfizer mRNA experiment, 54 had abnormal EKGs, 6 had valve problems in their heart, etc., One had to be hospitalized. Worse, in the UK, 95% of all deaths associated with CV19 are multiple boosted. The vaccine is likely killing the very people who have been convinced they need it. It is a disgrace and another sign that our institutions need to be massively renovated. Thousands should be jailed, but not your usual suspects. Instead the members of medical certification boards who force vaccinations on virtaully every doctor and nurse should be financially ruined and jailed. Such madness. Didn’t we learn anything from Wilson and Hitler’s racial demagogery? Phrenology??? Really???? Science by (manipulated) consensus??? Really???

    Take care! Bob Stewart Southern Puget Sound (USA)

    • Matthew W Quinn August 12, 2022 at 3:14 am #

      There’s also making word clouds on something like Wordle, which allow you to see commonly-used words.

    • Dale Switzer September 1, 2022 at 10:51 pm #

      I disagree that the characters don’t age. There are 20 SIM-Emily books but they only cover a few years and she ages quite a bit in that time. Goodness, she is just a young girl, by the end of the series she is making world-shaking decisions. Come on, don’t you think that decisions upon which hundreds of thousands of lives hang deserve just a little self-doubt.

  3. davidmatthewson August 11, 2022 at 7:31 am #

    Didn’t see that coming!

  4. Terry August 11, 2022 at 1:00 pm #

    Really like this story though I don’t Normally read fantasy. More shard sci fi guy. Have the first book among many others of Chris’s works.

  5. Fred Mora August 12, 2022 at 1:56 am #

    Solid chapter, reads well, nicely done! I like the details about how the palace has been put to a better use. And Fallon’s surprise compensates for the lack of action.

    Typo:
    rages – rags

  6. George Phillies August 12, 2022 at 11:24 pm #

    He took a while, and had sensible reasons for not asking her, but he did the right thing. At some point they need to have more of a heart to heart conversation about his world and why it led him to hesitate asking her to marry him.

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