Chapter 23

"I'm telling you, Wardes, it was the most incredible thing I've ever seen."

Viscount Wardes sat at his desk holding a sheaf of paper in hand. He was only partially listening to what Marrok was saying, with most of the subordinate knight's words going through one ear andout the other. It was not that Wardes did not place any value on Marrok's thoughts and opinions; simply that he had long since learned to place more trust in Marrok's written reports than his oral ones.

It was a peculiar quirk of Marrok's, that what he said could often be so exaggerated and divorced from the truth, whereas what he wrote was typically far more grounded and straightforward. Wardes hypothesized that this was because Marrok hated writing, and so tried to get his point across in as few words as possible whenever he was forced to do so. Wardes had to hold back a small, vindictive smile at that. He remembered how much of a struggle it had been to compel Marrok to learn how to read and write.

"... destroyed the entire army and... Wardes? Are you listening to me? Don't ignore me, you bastard."

"I am listening." Wardes sighed and set the last page of parchment down with the rest. His face was grim and stony, as he tapped a finger on the table. "But as usual, you are looking only at what lies closest to the surface, whilst failing to notice that which lays underneath."

"What are you talking about? The familiar is a threat to Reconquista. It singlehandedly destroyed the entire Germanian rebel army. If we don't find a way to kill it, it's going to do the same thing to us."

"You are correct, but before that there is an even more pressing matter to consider."

"Such as?"

Wardes picked up the topmost sheet of parchment again and gestured at it with his free hand. "In Aubergine, you said that a group of assassins made an attempt on the princess's life, and that after the familiar killed and devoured them, he went off in search of a man named Ingemar. A man whom you later report is the one responsible for hiring those assassins. Thus, the question is this: How did the familiar know of him before anyone else? I doubt he had ever met the man before. More to the point, how on earth could he have known that he was the assassins' employer?"

Marrok sucked in a breath, as realization dawned on his face. "You think he can... what... steal someone's memories by eating them?" The knight let out a low whistle. "That's useful."

"But not for us," Wardes replied somberly. "It does seem like the most likely explanation, however. Which is why, before anything else, we must confirm this ability of his. If we do not, all our plans may yet be discovered and undone before it is time for us to act."

"What do you plan to do?"

"Did you know that Fouquet was captured while you were away?" Wardes said. "It seems that my fiancee and a few of her peers chased her down and arrested her, after she made an attempt on a relic within the Academy's vault. Given the extent of her crimes, it is guaranteed that she will be tried and executed. Too many nobles would be outraged by anything less.

"To what lengths do you think she'll go to for her freedom?"

Henrietta stood on the balcony of her solar, which overlooked the lake behind the palace. Its calm, serene waters reflected the sunlight like an enormous mirror, transforming it into a brilliant sea of shining jewels. When it was like this, Henrietta found it difficult to believe that this peaceful lake might once have been made to house a ferocious water dragon. She smiled and breathed in deeply, letting it out with a satisfied sigh. Tristania's air had never tasted so sweet to her.

For the first time in years, Henrietta felt free again. Intellectually, she knew that so long as she wore the crown, she would never truly be free of her duties and obligations, but the enormous weight that had been pressing down on her ever since her engagement to Emperor Albrecht had been decided – in that one aspect, at least – had finally been lifted from her shoulders.

When was the last time I felt like this? Henrietta wondered. As far as she could recall, it would have had to have been during her childhood, when the most she had to worry about was who got to play the queen and who had to play the knight in her games of make-believe with Louise Valliere. She relished this moment, this sense of utter liberation, for as long as she could. Every second was a precious gift. But when the guard stationed outside the door of her solar knocked and announced the arrival of Cardinal Mazarin, she knew that it was time for this dream to end.

The Cardinal arrived with a manservant in tow, who carried in his arms sheaves of parchment and bundles of scrolls. These were deposited on Henrietta's desk, so high that as she came to sit down, she was almost hidden completely behind them. After bowing respectfully, the servant thus departed.

"Your Highness." Mazarin bowed in greeting. "I trust you slept well last night?"

"Better than I have in a very long time," Henrietta replied, pleased.

"That is good to hear. Now, the morning reports await."

Henrietta let the ghost of a smile flicker across her lips. "Several mornings, it looks like," she remarked.

"Unfortunately, the world does not stop moving just because we are no longer present in one location or the next," Mazarin said gravely. "Many things have happened while we were in Germania, and I thought that now that you've had a day to rest, it would be a good time to catch up on them all."

"I can't say that you're wrong," Henrietta said, sighing. "Very well. Let's get this over with."

"I will begin with the most recent, then." Mazarin picked up two stacks of open letters. He nodded towards the letters in his left hand. "These are the letters of complaint we have received from nobles and other notable, both within and without Tristain. They protest your decision to unilaterally break off your engagement to the emperor, and beg that you reconsider."

"I expected as much. The Germanians we cannot do anything about. But do you think the Tristanian nobles might be satisfied if we told them of Alex's accomplishments?"

"Unlikely, Your Highness. Those rumors already circulate throughout the country, but who can be blamed for not believing in them? Even for we who were there and witnessed your familiar's strength with our own eyes find it difficult to accept. Easier to think that one's eyes are failing."

"Is that what you believe?" Henrietta asked in a neutral tone.

"Alas," Mazarin sighed, "I am not so old that my eyes have gone dim."

"What of the other letters?" Henrietta gestured to the stack in Mazarin's right hand.

"These are the opposite. The nobles who penned these letters commend you for your wisdom in not tying your bloodline to that of a foreign barbarian king's. Many have also invited you to a number of balls and feasts and the like that they wish to throw in your honor. I will spare you the details and simply tell you that they hope to win your hand in royal marriage."

Henrietta rolled her eyes. "Of course they do," she said. Then she frowned at Mazarin. "Cardinal, I had believed that you would be angrier for what I did." She still remembered the uproar she had caused in Vindobona when she announced that she was breaking off her engagement to Emperor Albrecht. Yet now that she thought about it again, she also recalled how unusually calm Mazarin had been all throughout the commotion and on their way back home.

"There is nothing to be angry about. You made the right decision."

That took Henrietta by surprise, so much so that she felt like she had been punched in the face. "You were the one who brokered the agreement in the first place," she blurted out. "How are you not angry?"

Mazarin shrugged. "It is true that I suggested the marriage alliance to Germania, but I did so then because at the time I believed it was the only way to keep Tristain safe from the predations of Reconquista. But circumstances have changed since then. Your familiar possesses strength enough to guard our nation from those rebels, such that we no longer must have Germania on our side. Of course, it would still have been preferable to be guarded by two wands rather than one, but the schism between your familiar and the emperor has made that all but an impossibility. Were you to marry the emperor, I fear you risk losing the heart of your familiar. Moreover, with Germania undergoing its own internal strife, it has simply become too costly for us to follow through on the original agreement."

"He has a name, you know," Henrietta said irritably. "It is not a particularly difficult one to say either."

"As you say, Your Highness." Mazarin bowed briefly. "But on that note, there is news I must share in regards to your familiar... Alex."

"Go on."

"Do you recall those rumors that surrounded him and his summoning before we left for Germania?" Mazarin said grimly. "It would appear that they never stopped. Far from it, they have only grown in our absence, like wildfire. From highest noble to lowest commoner, people whisper of a demon dwelling within the palace. Of the princess who consorts with that very demon. They speak of how it feasts upon the flesh of men, and that you have been satisfying its unholy appetite with your own people. Some have even suggested that the Church lead an investigation as to the veracity of these claims, though I doubt that this will lead anywhere."

"But that is ridiculous," Henrietta exclaimed. "What reason do they have to fear him so greatly when he has done them no harm?"

"I would imagine that a part of it is because of how human he appears to be. When a person knows that something is not human yet it looks so very much like one, it inspires in them a certain dread that is unlike anything else. But even so, you are not wrong to believe that these rumors have taken on an unusual life of their own. The degree to which they have spread leads me to believe that it may yet be possible that there is someone responsible for deliberately fanning these flames."

"You think that Reconquista may be involved?"

"They do seem like the most likely culprit," Mazarin said gravely. "There is no one else who would benefit as much as they from a weakened trust in the crown."

"Then we cannot let this stand," Henrietta declared. "Nor do I wish to let it. We must find a way to counter these rumors."

"That will prove difficult. People's minds are not so easily changed."

"Will it?" Henrietta tilted her head and smiled. "If the people believe Alex to be a demon, then all we need to do is prove that he is not. We can throw charities and festivals and have Alex be the one to lead them. He can be the face of it, and thus the people will come to understand that he is not someone they need to fear."

"That idea is not without promise. Yet even so, it will not work."

"And why is that?" Henrietta said, daring the Cardinal to prove her wrong.

"You know your familiar better than I, Your Highness. So ask yourself this: Is this something that he would truly be willing to do?"

Henrietta wilted almost instantly. "Oh," she said softly.

Mazarin was right. In all likelihood, Alex did not care a single copper coin about what the people thought of him. So while she could certainly still ask, there was not a single part of Henrietta's body that believed Alex would ever agree to throw a festival in his own name. "Fuck that," is what he would most likely say in response.

"Well, it is something to consider," Mazarin said. "I do have some good news to share, Your Highness. In fact, I believe you will be very pleased to hear it."

"What is it?"

"Near a fortnight ago, Fouquet has at last been captured," Mazarin said. "And the youngest daughter of the Valliere family was among those who caught her."

"Is that true?" Henrietta was on her feet in an instant. "Louise did? Truly?"

"Yes. And from what I'm given to understand, she played a major role in catching the thief."

"Why, that's wonderful news!" Henrietta cheered. "Cardinal, surely it would be remiss for us to not reward her for this accomplishment. A public ceremony. She could be granted a title of her own. Perhaps a chevalier?"

"If that is what you wish, then I have no reason to protest," Mazarin said, chuckling in a grandfatherly sort of way. "Fouquet has been a thorn in the side of all nobles across Halkeginia, not just in Tristain, so I doubt that anyone would contest granting her a title."

"Excellent. I want you to begin the preparations at once. There ceremony is to be held at the end of this month. Oh, I must write to Louise and congratulate her... and perhaps one to her family as well."

"You seem more excited about this than Ms. Valliere herself." Mazarin smiled. "By all accounts, she has apparently been quite stoic about the matter."

"She's too dignified to boast so shamelessly, after all," Henrietta declared.

"In that case, wouldn't a public ceremony go against her wishes?"

"Perhaps," Henrietta allowed. "But, Cardinal, I want to do this for her. Louise has never been afforded the recognition she deserves. This is a chance to change all of that. To prove to the world that she is far more than the failure, the zero, they believe her to be. If it means going against her personal wishes, then I will simply have to apologize once it is over. But she deserves this, Cardinal. She truly does."

"I understand, Your Highness."

"Oh, and before I forget, you mentioned that there were others who helped capture Fouquet? Who are they? They must be properly rewarded as well."

"I was wondering when you would ask me that, or if you planned to at all." Mazarin's lips twitched briefly. "There were two others. You've met them already, in fact. They are Tabitha and Kirche von Zerbst."

"Then I must send a letter to Joanna as well," Henrietta decided. "She and her husband will be quite pleased to hear the news, I'm sure."

"Yes, though I must confess how strange it is to hear that a Zerbst and a Valliere would work together like this." Mazarin stroked his long, grey beard. "Let alone that they are to be celebrated in the same place, at the same time. Do you plan on extending an invitation to the Zerbst as well?"

"I must." Henrietta grimaced at the thought, now that Mazarin had planted it in her head. The two families had historically been rivals, so she could only hope that they would not come to blows. "Well, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it."

"As you say."

"In any event, is there anything else?"

"None so pressing that it cannot wait. That was the last of the matters that require your immediate attention."

"Then you are excused."

Mazarin nodded, bowed one last time, and left the room. Henrietta went over to the balcony again to cast one last look at the lake that lay beyond, and smiled. But slowly her smile began to fade, and once it had disappeared entirely, she turned and left the room herself.

From her solar, she made her way through the hallways until she arrived at an enormous set of doors. They were carved from pure white oak and with a blooming lily engraved in the center, split in half where the two doors met. She knocked and waited, then knocked and waited.

"Mother?" Henrietta said softly. "Are you in there?"

"Leave me be, Daughter. I'm tired."

Henrietta pursed her lips tightly. Queen Marianne's voice was no longer as strong as it had been before they left for Germania – not that it was strong then either – but now, in addition to the grief and sorrow that was fraught within her words, a sense of utter defeat bled through her tone as well. Henrietta couldn't help but to wonder how much of it was because she had not been here to daily try to lift her spirits. She knew that was being unnecessarily harsh on herself, though.

Her mother had been on this decline regardless of what she did or didn't do.

"Mother, so much has happened in Germania," Henrietta said, placing as much energy as she could in her voice. "Please open this door so I may tell you about them."

"I don't care about Germania, nor do I care about what happened there. Now leave me be."

"I will not. You cannot stay in there forever, Mother. Please come out, or else let me in."

"My room, my tomb, my crypt. There is little difference in my eyes."

"Mother!" Henrietta cried out. She was on the verge of pounding on the door with her fists, or even drawing her wand and breaking it down by force. But by now the queen had stopped responding, and Henrietta could not bring herself to act on that impulse. With a defeated sigh, she turned and left her mother be.

However, just because she had given up on reaching her mother today did not mean she had given up entirely. Instead, as Henrietta's heels clicked on the marble floor, she found herself filled with renewed resolve. Her mother's grief and the rumors surrounding Alex. These were not matters that would fix themselves with enough time, nor were the people in question willing to do anything about them. So the task fell to her. She would show her mother that there were yet things to live for in this world. She would show the people of Tristain that they were wrong about Alex. He was not a demon they needed to fear.

Her engagement was ended, but there was still much work left for her to do.

It was time to get to it.