THE QUEEN OF GAELINE
Once upon a time, in a land so far away that none of the maps in your library will lead to it, there lived a princess named Gail. She was a daughter of the Karbaan of NaRasch – the greatest and most powerful empire in all of Vessera. The Karbaan was the king of kings and all the great kingdoms, from Ekron to Gaeline, answered to his laws and paid him tribute.
Even though Gail was a princess, she had never imagined, since the day of her birth, that she might one day become a queen. Groschen, her oldest brother, was the only child of the queen mother, and therefore the crown prince. Beyond him, Gail had more than twenty half-siblings who were older than herself and carried a stronger claim to the throne. As if that were not enough, a princess of NaRasch could not even inherit her father’s position unless she married a prince who would then become the Karbaan and therefore defeat the whole point of her inheritance.
When Gail was very young, her mother – Emmerlay – had married a man named Marak. He was a good man, and Gail loved him, but her mother never allowed her to call him father, insisting that that title was reserved only for the Karbaan.
Gail’s family was not particularly rich. The Karbaan gave her mother a generous pension with which to raise his daughter, and Marak raised a good income as a guard of the city so they were by no means poor, but even a good income is nothing to be impressed with when compared to the right people. Most of Gail’s older brothers and sisters lived across the river in Anderland and were the sons and daughters of women born to wealth; Gail, meanwhile, lived in Megland on the other side of the river, and while she never in all her life went hungry or felt the sting of poverty, she was appraised as being something of a vagabond by some of her older siblings. If they took the bother of inviting her to their parties she seldom felt at home there. Now that she was older she rarely went across the river to Anderland, whether they invited her or not.
Therefore, it came as a great surprise to Gail when, a few days before her birthday, a messenger came to her house carrying a summons for her to appear before the Karbaan. The king was, by this time, growing quite far into his old age, and had not made the bother of issuing a summons in quite a few years. Thus it was with a fair bit of excitement and apprehension that Gail made herself ready to appear before him.
That afternoon she made the carriage ride with her mother across the river to the Royal City which lay south of Anderland, on a wide plateau overlooking the River NaRasch. The Karbaan’s palace stood at the height of the plateau. Its towers were the tallest point in all of NaRasch and could be seen at every gate leading into the city. They stood high over the courtyard so that when Gail climbed out of her carriage she felt like a grasshopper standing on the pavement in front of her father’s house.
The Karbaan was seated on his throne when Gail entered his presence. She had been told that this was where he spent most of his time of late; wrapped in furs and bent over on his scepter, his days mostly filled with complaints against his house and staff for the temperature of the room and the condition of the food. On this day, however, he sat up straight and had several old men and two scribes seated before him. He was blind in one eye, and the other could not make out anything beyond the bottom step of his platform, so it was not surprising that he did not see Gail until the attendant announced her.
“Ah, good!” said the king, waving for his attendants and guests to be dismissed. “Come, sit!” he motioned toward a stool which sat beside his throne – a stool which was normally reserved for the crown prince. Gail came from the floor of the throne room to the bottom of the platform and then hesitated, curtsying as the custom dictated. “Come along, child!” said the Karbaan. “I haven’t the patience to stand on ceremony. My old ears aren’t what they were.” He gestured again toward the stool.
Then Gail did not hesitate; she climbed the steps as quickly as she could, hindered as she was by her gown, which she was unaccustomed to since she wore it only when she came to the palace. Turning about, she sat down beside the king’s throne. Further back in the room she could see her mother, taking one of the forward seats in the viewing gallery.
“Now,” said the Karbaan, turning to lean upon the arm of his throne, “how are you, my dear?”
“I am well, my lord,” replied Gail a little stiffly. “Thank you for asking.”
The king shook his head as though perhaps he disapproved of her formality, but Gail - like every prince or princess - like every dignitary who might ever have cause to appear before the Karbaan - had been trained vigorously in school as to how to appear and speak to him, and now that she sat here she dared not abandon her training unless he commanded it.
“It’s coming around to your birthday in a few days, isn’t it?” asked the Karbaan.
“Yes, my lord,” said Gail, “my seventeenth.” Even as she spoke she thought what a strange mater it was that the Karbaan should know about her birthday. He had never paid attention before, either to hers or any of her siblings’. Gail doubted that even the crown prince got a ‘happy birthday’ from his father.
“Seventeen, hmm…” said the Karbaan, stroking his beard. “And what should you like for a birthday gift?”
“My lord is more than generous,” Gail replied, her mind racing amid her shock to find the words she must say. “I have need of nothing.”
“Of course not,” said the Karbaan, “but I did not ask what you needed. I asked what you wanted.”
At that, Gail’s mouth dried up. What answer could anyone give the Karbaan of NaRasch to such a question? Should she ask him for something quite trivial and risk appearing ungrateful, or should she ask something grand and risk the limits of his generosity, making herself appear greedy? Her mind was still racing with all the ill-advised possibilities when the king spoke again.
“I should think a kingdom would be a grand enough gift for a daughter of mine,” said the old man. “What do you think?”
“My lord?” replied Gail, not quite understanding or believing what he was saying.
“Wouldn’t you like to have a kingdom of your own?” repeated the Karbaan. “I should think every princess would.”
“Your majesty,” said Gail, trying not to stutter, “you have twenty-two children older than I.”
“What about Gaeline?” asked the Karbaan, ignoring her statement, “Do you know of it?”
“Yes, my lord,” replied Gail.
“Of course you do,” said the old king, appearing pleased with himself, “Yes, I think it will be perfect.”
“My lord,” Gail began to protest, but the Karbaan was no longer listening to her. He was struggling to his feet and motioning for his attendants. They came rushing and before Gail could get his attention he was upon his feet and the scribes sat with their pens poised.
“By order of the Karbaan!” began the old king, his voice now particularly thin from being raised. Gail recognized these words as the beginning of a proclamation and immediately dropped from her seat onto her knees as she knew the law of NaRasch dictated she must.
“I hereby grant as a gift to Gail the child of Emmerlay - and to her descendants - the kingdom and lands of Gaeline and all of its properties to be her family possession from this day forward!”
Then he sat down. For a moment there was no sound besides the scribbling of the scribes’ pens. Then the old king sighed heavily. “That is all,” he said, turning once again to Gail, “you may go.”
“Yes, my lord,” the princess managed to say. Then she found that she was rushing – almost running – from the throne room. She did not stop until she had rounded the corner into the long foyer beyond.
When Emmerlay found her at last, she was standing before one of the great picture windows, staring vacantly through it at nothing in particular. Gail’s mother came beside her, wrapping her in her arms.
“I don’t know how to be a queen,” said Gail in a voice barely above a whisper.
“It’s okay,” chided Emmerlay. “It’s alright.”
“He gave me Gaeline…” said the Princess, as if she had not heard.
“I know,” said her mother.
“What should I do?” asked Gail, turning at last to look at her mother.
Emmerlay held her daughter at arm’s length, fixing her with her eyes. “Absolutely nothing,” she said, her voice growing stern. “I don’t know what he was thinking, but I promise you this edict will not last. Your father is very old, but he will come to his senses soon. For now, the only thing we can do is wait.”
And so wait they did. They returned home and spent the rest of that day busying themselves in an effort not to overthink the matter. Never before in the history of NaRasch had a gift such as this been given by the Karbaan. Princes and generals had been sent to kingdoms to rule them in his name, but this was something else entirely. The old king had given away part of his empire and that was a thing unheard of.
“It will take only until his advisers see the edict,” Gail’s mother promised her. “Then, he will call us back, and strike the entire affair from the record.”
And so, for the rest of that day they waited, expecting a summons to come at any time. But it did not come that day. Nor did it come the day after. A week passed and business as usual went on within NaRasch. Gail spoke to no one about her birthday gift, and no one seemed to know anything about it.
When ten days had passed and Gail’s birthday had come and gone, Emmerlay went alone to the Royal City to appeal to the Karbaan. She returned late in the afternoon, saying that she had been refused audience. This came as no surprise, for it was rare that the Karbaan granted audiences to even his children. But it did nothing to comfort Gail or her mother.
Two more weeks passed. Then one morning, when Gail went outside, she found that all the flags of NaRasch were flying at half-mast. The old Karbaan had died peacefully in his sleep early that morning – or had the chandelier fallen on him? No one seemed to be able to relay the clear story.
That same afternoon a funeral was held for the old king. It was done with such little ceremony and such short notice that only a handful of people received news of it in time to attend. By the time Gail received news of her father’s burial it was nearing dusk.
That night rockets flew from the keep of NaRasch, signalling the coronation of the new Karbaan. Within a turn of the clock from his father’s death, Groschen feasted in the high hall and took his seat upon the throne of NaRasch. By sunrise the next day eight of his father’s old friends had been arrested and hanged on charges of treason. A few governors grumbled over the way things had been handled, and these too found more than their share of trouble. After that, the kingdom changed hands swiftly. The rest of the governing body either pledged their allegiance to the new king or resigned their position. Within three days of the old Karbaan’s death, the business of NaRasch had resumed and people were talking as if there had been no change at all. After all, the old Karbaan had been in the throes of death for many years.
It was two weeks later when the home of Marak and Emmerlay in Megland was disturbed in the middle of the night by a knock at the door. It jolted Gail from her sleep, but as it was not immediately repeated, she rolled herself over, seeking a more comfortable position. The knock sounded again, this time louder. Light flooded the front room as Emmerlay struck flame to a lamp. As yet there had been no voice from outside.
“Who is it?” asked Emmerlay, placing her hand on the lock, but waiting to release it. Marak was gone on watch and not expected back until dawn.
“Open in the name of the Karbaan!” cried a voice from beyond.
Emmerlay released the lock, and the door came open as four imperial soldiers pushed into the room, dressed in full armor, and wearing the red silks of the royal house. These had been the Karbaan’s bodyguard until the coronation when Groschen had reinstated the Black Watch after more than a two-hundred-year absence.
“Where is the princess Gail?” the ranking officer immediately demanded.
“She is in bed,” replied Emmerlay evenly. “Where else should she be at this hour?”
“Rouse her!” commanded the officer. “The Karbaan decrees that she be immediately brought before him to answer to his charges.”
“What charges?” demanded Emmerlay, looking as though she had half a mind to drive the soldiers from her home with nothing but her lamp.
“I have not heard,” replied the officer. “The charges were not given for me – only the order for haste. Now get her up and dressed. Do not make us drag her from her bed. We will wait outside.”
Gail, having listened to the conversation, was already searching in the darkness for her clothes when the imperials left and Emmerlay came in to light her lamp. Wordlessly they wrapped themselves against the night chill and went outside.
A coach awaited them on the pavement with another three imperials. The ranking officer helped them in, but refused answers to any further questions, assuring them that he knew no more than they. The door was closed and a lock snapped in place, and the carriage pulled away.
Rather than taking them into the Royal City, the carriage turned onto the northern road and drove up into Anderland over the less-used bridge. By back roads and alleyways they came at last to the king’s summer home in the north of Anderland. It seemed strange to them that they should be brought here as it was now late fall, but none of the questions they asked their guards received answers. It was perhaps an hour before they had reached their destination. As they drove into the grounds of the summer palace more guards came out to meet them. Their escort helped them out of the carriage and took them through the lush gardens, past the watchful eyes of the black sentries who stood guard about the perimeter.
Oil lamps burnt brightly inside the palace, illuminating a large collection of artefacts and souvenirs from distant lands - tribute to the new Karbaan’s adventurous life. Gail had been here once before when she was quite young, but that was so long ago that she only vaguely recognized it. The imperial guards led them through the house, toward the private quarters of the Karbaan. At every corner was stationed another Black Watch, each statue-still and hidden behind a dark mask.
The two Watch who guarded the king’s office parted when they saw the imperials coming. The ranking officer went ahead to push through the light curtains and speak briefly to the Karbaan before standing aside to hold the way open while his prisoners passed through. The moment they were in the room he disappeared along with his men.
The candles within Groschen’s study had green shades that cast a pale glow about the room. Only a single lamp on the King’s desk lit his work. Two more members of the Black Watch stood on the inside of the door, armed with spears.
Groschen sat at his desk, bent over a document that must have consisted of several hundred pages of the format symbols used in royal documents. He rose as they entered the room, his face expressionless, but at the same time filled with an undefined hatred. This was the way that Gail remembered him being every time she had seen him. The King wore a cloak even in the warmth of his study, and through the gap where it did not meet in front, Gail could see the faint glitter of chain mail. She had never seen her brother in armour before; he never wore it, even when he left the city.
Groschen did not stand when she entered. He hardly even looked up from his work. “Princess Gail,” he said, and his voice sounded tired. “You are hereby brought before the Karbaan of NaRasch to answer for your crimes against my empire.” For the interest he showed he could have been reading off the ingredients of a pot of soup.
“My lord,” said Emmerlay abruptly, stepping forward. “What madness is it that draws the royal family from their beds in the middle of the night? Unfounded as your charges may be, speak them and release us so that we may return to our home.”
“Unfounded?” said Groschen, looking up from his work. A spark of fire burned in his eye. “I shall forgive your outburst this once, Emmerlay, for I see that you are unaware of your daughter’s conduct. My extended hospitality has been spurned, and I have been betrayed by my own flesh and blood; do not speak to me of being drawn from your bed.” Then he once again turned on Gail.
“My father, may he rest deeply, gave you a generous gift, did he not?” said the Karbaan. “He intrusted to you the entire realm of Gaeline and made you her queen. Is this not so?”
“It is,” said Gail.
“And yet you, having been the subject of his supreme generosity, choose instead of gratitude to enter into rebellion against NaRasch and plot his downfall!”
“Madness!” snapped Emmerlay, throwing Groschen a look which had straightened Gail many a time. “What proof have you of this?”
“Documents and reports,” said Groschen, “prisoners and traitors – the work of my Black Watch will not be answerable to a lady of the court. There is a rebellion rising among the ungrateful subjects of NaRasch, and Gail has been more than cooperative with them. She intends to lead Gaeline in open rebellion against my empire and so undermine everything my father worked to create! I will not let this happen.”
“Lies,” spat Emmerlay. “No wonder you brought us in the middle of the night. What an outrage this would be if the royal court were to hear of it!”
“Silence!” Groschen ordered. “The justice of the Karbaan is not to be questioned. I see that love for your daughter has blinded you. You must be removed from the situation until your head has cleared.” He motioned to the guards at the door and they came forward to escort her from the room.
“Ancients damn you, Groschen,” said Eemerlay, her eyes locked with the king’s. “You are no Karbaan. You are a traitor and the usurper of your father’s throne!” Then the guards took hold of her and led her from the room. She swore again as they drug her out, calling curses upon the king. Groschen heard it, and clearly her words struck a chord with him.
“And now to the matter of the traitor,” said Groschen, “this… queen of Gaeline. What shall we do? Should I declare war and conquer my own land over again? Must I make a peaceful nation into subjects of war?” He appraised Gail for a moment before he went on. “No, I think not. After all, I have her queen in my custody. Gaeline will not cause me any trouble. I must merely increase the guard within her cities. And you, my sister…” he paused again, presumably to let his words sink in, “my sentence, Gail of NaRasch - for your crimes against my empire - is imprisonment. You will be given into the keeping of the Black Watch to be kept in Shadokoep. Perhaps when my enemies are crushed under my feet, you will see the folly of your deeds and beg my forgiveness. At such a time I will be pleased to grant it.”
Then the Karbaan looked again to the door. “Guards!” he called. Immediately, two more Black Watch appeared. “Take the prisoner to Shadokoep,” said the king. “Bring her to Lord Badural. He will know what to do.”
The Watch came forward to take hold of Gail, as they had done to her mother, but she waved them back, turning again to Groschen.
“I never asked for Gaeline,” she said, her words cold and sharp. “Had you asked, I would have gladly given it back. But you know as well as I do, Groschen, that none of your allegations are remotely near the truth.”
“Time reveals all things,” replied her brother. “You will have an abundance of it where I am sending you to. Use it to gain wisdom, my sister.”
Then the Watch came and led Gail away. As she left the room she looked back and saw something she had not seen before; behind the king, in the shadows at the back of the room, stood a woman. She was tall and beautiful and cloaked all in shadows, but the thing that Gail noticed the most were her eyes. They shone red in the candlelight and were locked upon Gail with a stare that made even the king appear friendly. She thought afterward that she had never before seen the sort of hatred which she had seen in them in those fleeting moments. It was a look that would haunt her dreams for weeks to come.
It was a different carriage that awaited the captive princess in the courtyard. This one had bars over the windows, dispensing with the illusion that she had any choice in where she was going. The door locked behind her and the carriage pulled away from the curb.
The ride from Anderland to the eastern end of NaRasch lasted the better part of an hour. Unlike the imperial escort, the Watch now took a direct route, keeping to the highways within the city. The sky beyond the wall was beginning to grow light as the carriage neared Shadokoep, and Gail could see its outline silhouetted against the skyline.
The fortress home of the Black Watch was perhaps one of the oldest structures in NaRasch, besides the Royal City. The twin towers of the greater keep stood a little apart with their inner walls parallel and their outer walls sloping away so that together they formed a triangle with a gap through which the rising sun could be seen from the palace of the Karbaan. Behind these the greater bulk of the keep ran north and south into wings which joined with the outer wall of the city, and further behind still the remainder of the keep jutted out upon a terrace which stood over the plateau of the Squalor below. Shadokoep in its entirety was composed of a black stone which was not to be found anywhere else in the realm of the Karbaan – a stone which even at midday refused to reflect even the faintest glint.
The Black Watch kept the fortress and, as far as Gail knew, no one but the Watch had ever seen the inside of it – besides their prisoners, that is. It was well-known that the prisons of the Watch lay in the southern wing, and they among all the dungeons of NaRasch could boast that no prisoner had ever escaped. As for the watch themselves, they all dressed alike, going about all in black, with long robes over their plate armor and visors on their helmets which concealed their faces. There were some among the more imaginative inhabitants of NaRasch who held that the Watch were not even human.
The courtyard of Shadokoep’s southern wing was surrounded by a wall half the height of the city wall. Its single gate opened just long enough for Gail’s carriage to pass through. Then the carriage came to a halt before the great doors of the keep’s south wing, and the Black Watch stepped down to let the princess out. At the same time, the small door within the greater gate of the keep was opened from within. It took Gail less than ten paces from stepping from her carriage to passing through the door into the keep. The portal closed behind her and there was a ratcheting sound as the locking mechanism dropped into place, as though to emphasize the finality of her bondage.