Divita swept down the hallway and then down the curving tower stairs to the second floor. She ignored the two guards at her heels and hurried to Tesjun Othar’s rooms. A small apartment had been given to the young secretary for the housing of his small family. She walked up to the unguarded door and knocked. A few seconds later, a comely young woman opened the door. She took in Divita’s presence, her eyes fixing on the coronet the Queen wore.
She gasped and fell to her knees. “You Majesty!”
Divita looked away from the girl to the room behind her, where the small family was gathered around a older woman who reclined on a sofa.
“Rise, child,” she told the girl then addressed the rest to the older woman. “May I come in?”
“Of course, your Majesty,” the older woman replied in a soft, breathy voice.
Divita frowned and hurried into the room.
As the guards turned to stand guard on the threshold, the young woman rose and turned expectantly to Divita.
“It is an honor to meet you,” the young woman murmured. “How may we assist you?”
Divita took in the children. There were two gangly prepubescent males and a little girl around five years of age.
“I am Queen Divita,” she told them. “What are your names?”
The young woman addressed her first.
“I am Ethis, your Majesty,” she said. “The two boys are Tion and Sjon. They are twins. An that is Epi, the youngest. Our mother is called Sora.”
Divita looked at each young person in the eye and smiled. “I am happy to meet all of you.”
“The honor is ours, your Majesty,” Sora murmured and coughed.
Ethis hurried to her mother’s side and sat on the low table next to the couch. She took her mother’s hand.
“Has a healer been to see you, Missus Othar?” Divita asked.
Sora sighed and shook her head. “We can’t afford a healer on Tesjun’s salary, your Majesty.”
Divita drew herself up to her full height. “That won’t do. I’ll pay for it.”
She turned on her heels and hurried into the hallway, where she flagged down a passing servant and asked him to fetch the King’s empathic healer. That done, she returned to the sitting room.
Ethis was feeding Sora from a mug. Once the older woman was done drinking, her daughter assisted her to lie down once more.
“I’ve sent for the Royal Healer,” Divita told them. “I’ll remain until she examines you.”
“We can’t have you pay for the treatment, your Majesty,” Sora protested weakly.
“Your son Tesjun is important to my son, Missus Othar,” Divita told her. “So, with all due respect, you have no say in this matter.”
Sora swallowed thickly and nodded. “Thank you. You have not told us–”
She convulsed with coughing until her oldest daughter helped her to sit up. When the coughing fit was done, Ethis helped her mother to lie down once more. She lay with closed eyes for a few minutes then opened her eyes. She looked at Divita.
“You haven’t told us why you are here, your Majesty.”
Divita sat on the nearest unoccupied armchair and arranged her skirts around her. “I wish to speak of a sensitive matter.”
Sora looked at her oldest. “Take the children and go into the next room, Ethis.”
The young woman flushed. “But mama–“
Ethis looked like she would protest again. She sighed and nodded, ushering the younger children through a door on the right hand side of the room.
There was a knock on the hallway door and then the healer hurried in.
She bowed to Divita. “You called me, your Majesty?”
Divita rose. “Yes. Please examine Missus Othar here. I’ll pay for any treatment you administer.”
The healer bowed once more. “Of course, your Majesty. Please excuse me.”
Divita walked away from the couch to give the healer privacy. She came to a window next to the small fireplace and pulled the curtains back to gaze down at the bailey. The snow that had been so pristine on the ground the previous day was now trampled and dirtied. Dozens of carriages crowded the bailey. Belihn had recovered enough to meet with petitioners and courtiers. He met with them in the Throne Room, where he had set up a semicircle of chairs for himself and his advisers to sit. Belihn refused to sit upon the throne until he was crowned king. She sighed and shook her head. He was such a stubborn young man. The coronation was a mere formality; Belihn ruled already.
She dropped the curtain and turned, studying the room. The sitting room was of modest size, with the small fireplace and two couches, back to back, two armchairs facing the couch upon which Missus Othar lay. There were three low tables of gleaming eishano wood and thick throw rugs over the rough stone floor. A long table stood against the right-hand wall. A large empty vase stood between two long white candles in their holders. Against the opposite wall was a low table with two armchairs on either side. There were no tapestries on the walls. Instead, large oil paintings of common folk toiling filled several key spots.
Divita blinked and turned.
The healer bowed. “May I speak with you in private?”
Divita led her to the hallway outside and away from the guards.
“What ails her?” she demanded at once.
The healer grimaced. “She has lung rot, your Majesty. Advanced. She must have worked in some occupation where it was always damp. I can treat her, but there is no guarantee she will survive.”
“We’ve no choice,” Divita told her. “Be aggressive in your treatment.”
“Of course, your Majesty. I will administer the teas right away. Also, I’ve gone in with my empathic abilities and healed what I was able to heal, but I’ve never encountered such an advanced stage of the disease. I will clear away the rotten tissue and then give her teas to strengthen her and speed recovery.”
“Thank you,” Divita murmured.
The healer bowed. “Of course. Excuse me.”
They returned to the sitting room and Divita sat down in an armchair and watched as the healer sent a servant to boil teas before settling next to the patient and beginning the act of healing what she could. The healer faintly glowed as she began the process of healing Missus Othar. The treatment took a quarter of an hour. When she was done, the healer sat back, looking pale and exhausted.
Divita smiled. Missus Othar had more color and seemed to be breathing with more ease.
When the teas arrived, the healer made the patient drink one entire cup.
Divita scrunched her nose at the strong astringent smell of the herbs.
“Bitter,” Sora muttered and grimaced, handing the empty cup to the healer.
“Now you must rest,” the healer told her. She rose from her perch and turned to Divita. “She must drink the tea three times a day: upon waking, at midday and before retiring.”
Divita nodded. “I’ll make sure she does.”
The healer reached into her cloth bag and retrieved a thick bag of herbs. She handed the bag to Divita.
“Here are the herbs, your Majesty.”
“Thank you,” Divita said, glancing at the bag.
“A large tablespoon of the herbs per cup. Steep the herbs for at least ten minutes for potency.”
“Understood,” Divita told the healer.
The healer bowed. “I will return in two days to make sure she is recovering.”
“Thank you,” Sora said softly.
“Of course,” the healer assured her and hurried off.
Ethis ran into the sitting room. “I’ll make sure to steep the herbs, your Majesty.”
Divita smiled and handed the bag to the young woman. “Were you eavesdropping?”
Ethis blushed. “I wanted to know what the healer said.”
“Don’t concern yourself,” Divita told her. “Be sure you give your mother the treatment three times a day.”
“Yes, your Majesty.”
Divita walked to where Sora lay and perched on the edge of the low table. “I must speak with you, Missus Othar.”
“Please call me Sora, your Majesty.”
Divita took the woman’s lean, cold hand in both of hers. “Then I insist you call me Divita.”
Sora looked horrified and made to pull her hand from Divita’s. “I cannot–“
“I insist. Please.”
Sora gazed into Divita’s eyes for a few seconds before she sighed and nodded. “Very well.”
“I have two favors to ask of you,” Divita told her.
“The first is I would like your daughter, Ethis, to become a lady-in-waiting for Alona, who will be Queen. Alona is young and impressionable and innocent and needs allies in court.”
Ethis gasped and squealed. “I can be a lady-in-waiting?”
Sora rolled her eyes. “Go and see what your siblings are up to, Ethis.”
The young girl sighed and angrily strode from the room.
Sora looked apologetically at Divita. “I’m sorry, your– I mean, Divita. She is impulsive and proud. And nosy.”
Divita chuckled. “That’s fine. I have two strong-willed daughters myself. One of them insists on wearing men’s clothes.”
“As much as I would like Ethis to be a lady-in-waiting, who will help me with her siblings?”
Divita patted the older woman’s hand. “Leave that to me. I’ll hire you two servants for your use: one will be a caretaker for your children and the other will run you household.”
“No!” Sora protested. “I can’t allow you to do that, your Majesty!”
“Divita, please,” Divita reminded her. “And you have no say. Being a lady-in-waiting will increase Ethis’ prospects of landing a good marriage. Now. My second request.” She sighed, wondering how to broach this. “Is your son, Tesjun, atoliy?”
Sora started. “Tesjun has never spoken to me of his preferences, your– Divita. I’m sorry. It will take me some time to come to terms with being on first name basis with the Queen Mother.” She took in a breath and released it. “Tesjun is very private, your Majesty. In his nineteen tender years on this world, he has taught himself to read and write and went out to work when he was fifteen. You can imagine the few prospects he had, but he managed to land a job in a tavern as a server. He is resilient and enterprising, but he is private and solitary. I know he loves his family and has always worked hard to help me support us. When I fell ill last year, he gave up his dreams for an education and took double shifts at the tavern. Now, he is secretary to the young King!” She gazed into Divita’s eyes. “You ask me if he is atoliy. Why?”
“My son has an interest in him,” Divita replied.
Sora’s eyes widened. “The King?”
“Even so, although he has not been crowned yet.”
Sora gasped. “Goddess preserve us! I only wish I knew if the boy is atoliy.”
“I suppose I should speak to Tesjun myself,” Divita mused and released Sora’s hand. She patted the older woman’s hand. “I will approach your son myself, Sora. Worry naught.”
Sora frowned. “But what if Tesjun is not atoliy?”
Divita rose. “My son won’t take back his gifts. Tesjun will remain in university and will receive his degree. They do not have an agreement; Belihn does this because he sees that your son will be of use to him as a future barrister and adviser. If they become lovers, it will not change what Belihn considers his duty to help Tesjun succeed.”
“We are so honored and grateful,” Sora whispered, her eyes glistening with unshed tears.
Divita smiled at her. “Now rest, Sora.”
Sora closed her eyes and nodded.
Divita left the Othars’ apartment and returned to hers. She sent a servant to fetch Tesjun while she paced in her expansive sitting room. There was a fire in the wide fireplace and the sitting room was cozy and warm. The servants had drawn the curtains open and she saw that snow had begun to fall once more. She wondered where Tifa, Ilmi or Ta’rehn were. Her children had their own lives and what full lives they were. She hardly ever saw her them, save at their dinners twice a week. If she hadn’t insisted on their weekly dinners, she would never see her willful progeny.
There was a knock on the hallway door and she nodded at the servant, who went to open the door.
Tesjun Othar stepped into the sitting room and bowed. “Your Majesty sent for me?”
“Sit down, Mister Othar. I do have something I wish to discuss with you.”
They sat down across a low table, Divita on the couch, Tejsun in an armchair.
The young man looked expectantly at her.
“How are your classes going, Mister Othar?” she asked.
“They go well, your Majesty,” he replied with some surprise. “They are challenging, for I have not had a formal education. But I am keeping up.”
She arranged her skirts around her. “That is good. I want you to know I had the Royal Healer examine your mother. She has advanced lung rot, but the healer thinks an aggressive regimen might help her recover.”
Tesjun gasped. “Thank you, your Majesty!”
Divita held up a hand. “I also asked your mother if your oldest sister can take on the duties as lady-in-waiting for the new Queen. To that end, I will hire two servants for your family: one to care for the children and one to run the household until your mother is fit enough to resume her duties.”
His features registered upset. “I can’t–we can’t have you do that, your Majesty! His Grace already pays for my education–“
“Cease,” Divita snapped. “I won’t be gainsaid. I need a lady-in-waiting for Alona Oh’nahry. Your sister is of age. Besides, this placement will surely guarantee a marriage proposal from a courtier.”
He expelled a rush of breath. “I don’t know what to say, your Majesty.”
“Nothing. Say nothing. I do have a favor to ask you, Mister Othar.”
He bowed. “Anything.”
“Anything?” she asked with deceptive mildness. “Then answer me this: are you atoliy, domeinsji or atol-domeinsji?”
He reared back as if she had struck him. “What…why do you ask this?”
“Answer me, Mister Othar.”
He sat back in his chair and his gaze slid away. “I…I’ve never had a lover.” He swallowed a mouthful of air and released it with a hiss. “I find men and women equally entrancing, but I’ve been so busy with working. I’ve never developed an interest in any one person, your Majesty. Begging your pardon, my lady, but why do you ask me this?”
She cocked her head. “My son is infatuated with you, Mister Othar.”
Blood infused his face. “The K-King?”
He gasped and shook his head. “He’s said nothing to me.”
“And he won’t, but I need him to be happy. Is there a possibility of you developing feelings for him?”
“That I don’t know,” he replied honestly. “I’d have to think about this. I mean, he is beautiful to behold and a kind person to boot. I just….I just don’t know if I am truly atoliy.”
She rose. “Think about it, Mister Othar.”
He rose and bowed. “Of course, your Majesty.”
“I will have your answer in three days, Mister Othar.”
He swallowed and nodded. “I will have an answer three days hence, your Majesty.”