Surrounded by the spoilage of yet another day’s battle—fourteen empty ewers, a stack of soiled platters, breadcrumbs, drained goblets, tapers burnt to the nubs—there was still no progress, no assent, and no additional confirmations for the konsel.
Much to Gwendolyn’s frustration, the task was proving to be far more onerous than it should have been, considering the dearth of eligible candidates.
Of the twelve aldermen who’d once served under her father, only four returned to resume their duties. The rest were all presumed dead, murdered by the apostates who’d deposed King Corineus.
Naturally, Morgelyn, Petroc, Merryn and Crwys would continue to serve, and Caradoc, Kelan and Lir would join them. But those were the simple choices—Caradoc, because in Gwendolyn’s absence, he would be called upon to lead; Kelan, because he came with experience after serving on his father’s konsel; and Lir, because as a Druid, he was already a lawful arbiter of this land.
A few days ago, one minor victory: After much discourse, they had also agreed to accept Taryn, a woman, to the konsel, only because Gwendolyn had insisted they must include a Durotrigan representative, and every Durotrigan elder was dead. Taryn, like Kelan, Gwendolyn had argued, also came with experience, thanks to her father. Beryan gave his life to save Gwendolyn’s, and this was her wish to honor him.
Sadly, that was where all accord ended, and disputations began.
Day after day, after day, after day…
All the shouting made Gwendolyn’s head ache.
First Caradoc, then Crwys, back to Taryn, then to Morgelyn, back to Petroc, now to Merryn—one after another. No one prepared to concede, each with an agenda, and everyone prepared to argue vehemently against every candidate put forth.
Sadly, neither Málik’s nor Bryn’s silence were remotely helpful at this point, and Gwendolyn was careful to acknowledge Málik as little as possible. To some, there would be only one thing worse than a queen cuckolding her husband, and that would be for her to cuckold him with an “Elf.”
Unlike Lir, not everyone was so enamored by Fae.
Closing her eyes, Gwendolyn pinched the bridge of her nose between her finger and thumb, listening to the clash of voices—as violent as weapons of war.
Never once had she envied her father his seat on this konsel, nor, until recently, had she aspired to rule on her own. But never had she one inkling how burdensome it would be to manage a gripe of old men—though, truth be told, some were not men, and some not so old. She was tempted to allow them to settle the matter on their own—preferably after her departure—but bearing in mind that there was no guarantee she would ever return; it was of vital importance they fill these remaining seats. The last time she’d found herself idle at this table, her silence had won her a mountain of grief. That day
so long ago while the aldermen were discussing her wedding to Loc, instead of speaking up like a grown woman should—as a leader should—she’d sat here dreaming all the while these bloody graybeards argued like fishwives.
As they were doing right now.
But woefully for them, unlike her mother, Gwendolyn had no artifice for negotiations. And finally, she’d had enough.
“I choose Ely,” she said, silencing the lot for the blink of an eye.
That’s as long as the reprieve lasted.
Immediately thereafter, the declaration sent everyone into another shouting match, wielding censure and protests like hammers and swords.
“This one aside,” argued Caradoc, flicking two fingers in Taryn’s direction, rudely dismissing his Durotrigan counterpart. “No woman has ever held an alderman’s seat. Must you now appoint two?”
Taryn was quick to defend herself, scarcely bothering to hide her distaste for the Catuvellauni chieftain. “If anyone should not serve here, Caradoc, it should be you!”
To no one’s surprise, Caradoc ignored her. But that vexed Gwendolyn. As a woman, Taryn’s presence in this konsel might defy convention, but she was every bit as capable as these men—perhaps more so. As a Durotrigan, her interests were bound to be aligned with Gwendolyn’s. Caradoc was not Dumnoni. His interests were Catuvellaunian. However, the statutes of the Brothers’ Pact governed this konsel—not the king, queen, or overlord. So long as all twelve seats were assigned, there would remain a balance of power. But with four seats remaining, and the military power favoring Caradoc, they needed more appointees and perhaps at least one dissenting voice who might carry sway with Caradoc’s son; Ely was the choice.
“Will you question my leadership?” Gwendolyn asked the Catuvellauni chieftain. “I am a woman,” she reminded him.
“Nay,” he said, though his body language belied his denial. He sat forward, his arms aggressively extended across the table, where every so oft he would slam a fist and rattle the dishes. “I am only suggesting there is no need to burden the poor girl any more than she is already ladened—newlywed and grieving?” He shook his head. “She works too hard as it is! Last night my son ate cold gruel. Why should we include her when I have perfectly good men in the Cods Wold who would gladly answer my summons?”
“Your summons, your men?” Gwendolyn replied.
It wasn’t an accusation. She simply wanted him to know that she did not consider it to her advantage. A man would not mince words; neither would she.
As for Ely, she was working hard. Gwendolyn appreciated all that she was doing, but this would also give her a voice to accomplish more of what she wished to do, instead of begging the konsel for support, as Queen Eseld was forced to do.
Caradoc’s dark eyes glinted as sharply as his tongue. “Good men, regardless,” he groused, and his gaze rounded the table, seeking support, settling upon his son.
Much to Gwendolyn’s surprise, Kelan averted his gaze—perhaps because the appointee in question was his own wife.
She would be lying if she said she wasn’t counting on this. Despite knowing it was the right thing to do, she couldn’t leave a former enemy with the keys to her city without also leaving him with a konsel that was willing and able to oppose him. Ely would serve as a voice of reason. Even if Kelan wasn’t predisposed to oppose his father, Gwendolyn had already determined he was devoted to his wife and would respect her enough to allow her to vote her heart.
“We need good men in the Cods Wold, too,” Gwendolyn allowed. “I must insist Ely serves here with her husband.” She looked pointedly at Kelan to ask, “Have you any issue with this, Kelan?”
“Nay, Majesty,” he responded at once. “My wife will serve with honor.”
Gwendolyn offered the young man a smile, hopeful for the changing guard. There might be fewer men like her father and Beryan, whose knowledge came from age and experience, but she was certain that, working together, this konsel would eventually prevail—even with Caradoc at the helm. “Very well,” she concluded. “Ely will serve, and the matter is closed—on to the next.”
“Majesty,” interjected Lir, as he fiddled nervously with one of his ear sheathes—silver leaflets emulating Fae ears to the point. “Do you think that prudent? It could be your good friend will side with her husband, and what good will it do to have Ely serve this konsel if she will not come with her own voice?”
Gwendolyn lifted a brow. “I can assure you my good friend has no reluctance to speak
her mind.” She tilted Lir a questioning look. “What about you? You are neither Dumnoni, nor Catuvellauni, nor even Pretanian. As a Druid, you may consider yourself above our ilk.” She’d said it without condemnation, but his cheeks flushed red, and still Gwendolyn persisted. “Should I presume you will side with your Druid interests over those of my Cornish people?” Gwendolyn needed these men to understand whose interests were of utmost concern here. She meant to follow in her father’s footsteps and unite Pretania’s tribes, but Trevena’s interests were Trevena’s.
“Nay, Majesty. I would not.”
“And please do tell; do you believe it only a man’s prerogative to adjudicate fairly and objectively?”
For a moment, the Druid did not respond and Gwendolyn knew he resisted answering because Druidkind believed in the dominion of men. And despite this, she and Lir had been through more than enough together that she trusted he would do what was right for this realm, just as she trusted Ely to do so as well. “Well?”
At long last, he shook his head, and Gwendolyn smiled. “You must trust the process,” she told the men. “It is my opinion that regardless of a man’s—or a woman’s—personal views, once seated at this table, we must all serve the good of the people.”
Shifting her gaze from Lir to Caradoc, she added. “No matter how unjust this may sound to you, I will insist upon filling this seat with a native-born Trevenian. Your good men should remain in the Cods Wold where they’ve chosen to be.”
“You do not trust us?” said Caradoc.
Opting for honesty, Gwendolyn replied, “Allied though we might be, Caradoc, you must agree your interests are not my interests. It is my intention to see this city returned to my people after we have removed the Usurper from his extemporary throne. You and I, we have a bargain, and I’ll not fail to reward you for your loyalty.”
Caradoc smiled ruefully. “My father once told me that any man who’ll not trust cannot himself be trusted. Have you heard this?”
Gwendolyn returned his smile. “It is also said a wise woman should trust but give force to her interests. Wise words from my mother,” she countered with a nod.
He sat back at last, exhaling, relenting at last, though not without a last jab. “Lamentably
, I am reminded of another bit of sage advice my father gave me.”
Gwendolyn lifted a hand palm up. “Please do share.”
“Never argue with a woman,” he said, after which the room erupted with laughter. And then Bryn interjected, “Indeed, my brother, if you are fool enough to argue with a woman and you win, you still lose.”
Gwendolyn tried not to take offense, though she thought it rude on both men’s accounts. Still, she held her smile—until Bryn slid her a sheepish grin, and declared, “Especially with this one.”
Her smile faded entirely.
Blood and bones. Leave it to Bryn to interject a word of caution in a manner that no man could take issue with. But, even laced with good humor, there was an undercurrent of discourtesy to his warning. Her gaze sought her dear friend’s and he smiled, though the smile never reached his eyes. It tempered Gwendolyn’s response. She felt a prick of regret for his sorrows, including the fact that he had once loved her, and she could not love him in return. Unfortunately, Bryn had changed, and she understood the fault was partly her own. Although, if she had it all to do all over again, she would make all the same choices.
She couldn’t even regret their swim at Porth Pool because if she had not swum there with Bryn that day, and her mother had not discovered them together… and her father had not demoted Bryn, only to assign Málik as her Shadow… well… she would not have known Málik.
And yet, these past months had taken a toll on her friendship with Bryn—so much so that she sometimes questioned his loyalty. For the tiniest, most-terrible moment after discovering Talwyn in her father’s chamber, when Bryn arrived behind her… she’d feared him a turncoat. It wasn’t until he’d spoken that she’d rested easier. But it could so easily have gone another way, and now that she had his father’s blood on her hands, she sometimes wondered if he would come to regret his choices. So far, neither brother nor sister seemed inclined to lay the fault for Talwyn’s death on Gwendolyn’s shoulders, despite that it was her blade that took his life, but she could not tolerate insolence—not in this room. There was a fine line between Bryn’s ease of comportment with her and the appearance of disrespect, and Gwendolyn could not afford for there to be any doubt about who was in command.
“No more quibbling,” she announced, and taking a lesson from her late mother, she
added, with a nod toward Caradoc. “You’ve one more seat to fill and you have my blessing to fill it with whomever you wish.”
It was Taryn who responded, clearly confused. “But… even with Ely, there are still three seats remaining, are there not?”
Gwendolyn looked first toward Taryn, then again to Caradoc. “One,” she asserted. “To fill the other two, I have sent a request to the Temple of the Dead.”
“Not the Awenydds!” Caradoc exclaimed.
“I did not misspeak,” said Gwendolyn. “And please do not tell me you fear the prospect of arguing against four women, even with a majority of fellows on your konsel? Certainly not a man like you?”
The Awenydds were female philosophers who sought inspiration through bardic arts. Her mother had favored them for a reason. While the Gwyddons had similar affinities, the Awenydds had a greater understanding of the past, and therefore, a stronger inkling of what they might need to return this city to its former glory.
Caradoc growled in response, the sound feral.
“Make no mistake, Dragon Queen, I am your liege, but I will be heartily pleased to see the back of you! This city is too small for the both of us!”
He tilted his head then, a flash of cunning in his nearly black eyes. “Unless you care to seal our allegiance with a torc?”
The thought turned Gwendolyn’s stomach, but this was hardly the first time Caradoc had suggested it. Regardless, she did not believe for a moment that he wished to marry her any more than she wished to marry him. “Are you asking me to defy the Druid’s Law?” she said gently, referring to her existing marriage.
There was no way in Creation she would ever marry Caradoc, but she couldn’t say so without embarrassing him for a second time today. Fortunately, her marriage to Locrinus had at least one good use. She was already married to the faithless charlatan, so she couldn’t marry anyone else—not even the one she wished to wed.
Without meaning to betray so much, Gwendolyn cast a curious glance toward Málik, only to find him unmoved by Caradoc’s question. All this while, he had sat there in his chair, listening to the discourse, saying not one
Following her gaze, Caradoc added with a gleam in his eyes, “What you need, My Queen, is a real man.”
And still Málik did not stir.
Instead, he took a sudden interest in the condition of his fingernails—fingers that were too long to be human, and far stronger than they appeared. The claws alone, short though they were, could gut a man as easily as a cat disemboweling a field mouse.
For a moment, Gwendolyn allowed her gaze to linger upon his too handsome face, ...