Miranda shifted on her throne. She glanced at Eilhu at her right. His patchwork armour was dark with scars and dents from the battles he had fought for her. His eyes glinted with promise and her cheeks flushed with heat at the frank intensity of his gaze.
A servant announced Lady Sophia’s arrival and she sat up on her throne. She lifted her chin to present a posture of authority.
Sophia strode in, flanked by two of Miranda’s guards. Her steps were confident although the war had not turned out as well for her as it had for Miranda. She glanced around the throne room, with her arrogance muted for the virtue of necessity. Her loss had taken a toll on her physically. Her hair had turned white and thin, her bones pressed against her alabaster skin and each swallow was visible like ripples on a moonlit lake.
Miranda stepped down from the throne and gestured to the table before them. Sophia sat down and folded her hands in her lap. Miranda took the chair at the opposite end of the table and sat down. Eilhu remained at the throne. She knew that he would be at her side in a moment and the comfort of it warmed her blood.
‘You look well.’ Miranda said.
Sophia gave a polite laugh, showed her teeth.
‘We both know that’s not entirely true, your highness, but thank you.’
Miranda gestured to a servant.
‘I thought we should eat. I imagine the trip has brought on quite an appetite.’
Sophia blinked and took in a shallow breath, ran her tongue over her lips.
‘Times have been hard.’
Miranda enjoyed the shifting look of hunger on Sophie’s face as the billowing scent of hot food reached them.
A servant set goblets on the table and filled them with wine.
‘Which is why we should see this as a time to renew alliances.’
Sophia peered at the goblet set before her with suspicion. Miranda picked hers up and took a deep sip.
‘We’ve been served from the same bottle, milady, I would have to risk as much as you.’
Sophia drank. The wine was spiced, perfect to ward off the chill of the evenings. She had not drunk such a fine vintage in years and struggled to hide her delight at the richness of flavours. She set the goblet down and smiled.
‘Then if we are to share such a fate, it is a good way to go.’
Sophia called a toast to her queen. A flicker of a smirk was born, grew and died there. Miranda chose to ignore it and resisted the urge to look at Eilhu.
The food was simple but exquisite fare. A mixture of dishes from their respective lands. Salmon farmed from the lakes of The Night’s Forest. Pink, juicy beef wrapped in fresh pastry. Cheeses from the milk of cows that lived and died a few miles away.
After they had eaten, they sat in a comfortable, sated silence. Sophia pressed her hands together.
‘What, my highness, has prompted such generosity?’
A move towards the overt had betrayed her frustration. Miranda took a sip from her goblet.
‘Things are said and done during war that are best left there. I offer a different vision of the future for all my subjects.’
Sophia noted the rehearsed quality of the sentiment. Without the echo of the great hall and the response of the people, her words had lost none of their power. Sophia thrilled that her boldness had earned candour.
‘I would hear more of this, your highness.’
Miranda shook her head which sent a stab of frustration through Sophia’s heart.
‘No, not today. We are two women renewing an alliance.’
Miranda clapped her hands. A servant came forward with a package, bundled in green silk the same shade as the queen’s eyes.
‘I have a parting gift for you, Lady Sophia.’
Sophia flushed with surprise and concern. She looked at the package and went to unwrap it. Miranda shook her head.
‘I ask that you open it when halfway between my home and yours. As much as I will regret not seeing your expression, Lady Sophia, my imagination will suffice.’
Sophie demurred to Miranda with a now.
‘As you wish.’
Sophia held onto the package. The coach rattled her bones with each mile. She came closer to opening her gift before the agreed distance but flares of suspicion were there each time she closed her eyes.
Perhaps she was as dim as rumour had it. Without her patchwork knight, she was all too vulnerable.
She imagined that the gift would be embroidery, jewellery. She would wear it to the queen’s defeat, regardless.
It was a sheaf of papers bound in a ribbon and sealed with mark of Sophia’s house. She put her hand to her mouth, afraid all that rich food might come hurtling up.
Letters from Sophia to other nobles who resented Miranda’s victory.
A detailed list of Horace, her father’s bodyguard, in procuring mercenaries from merchants outside the kitchen.
Accounts of monies spent and accrued. Bribes, Alliances. Materials.
Confessions written in shaking cursive, on blood stained paper. Full and frank admissions of complicity and conspiracy. Names.
All the names.
Sophia wiped away hot, bitter tears as she continued to read. Sophia had not believed that Miranda had anything in mind other than a tepid peace.
I had mistaken her kindness for weakness, she thought. Her gift was implied, not stated.
I knew every detail of your treachery and spared you. I fed you, knowing that you sought me dead.
Serve at my side or suffer the consequences.
Sophia was charged with bitter admiration at Miranda’s feint. She would need to be loyal without question.
She closed her eyes, endured the jarring thump of the coach as her physical punishment as a way to escape the awful grief of her defeat.
Miranda laid in Eilhu’s arms, petting the hair on his chest. She had imagined Sophia’s expression but took little pleasure in it. Eilhu gauged her detachment and made a bruising, primal love to her in order to release her from her thoughts.
He had said something to her as the fires of the last battle died.
War held a purity that peace lacked.
She held that missive as close as her lover before sleep came.