A Green Sun Illuminates the Void
Epilogue: Le Roi est Fou
The city of Versailles was sweltering in the hot summer sun. The streets of the Gallian capital baked in the heat as it shone mercilessly down from on high. A heat haze shimmered above every scorching surface, and roof tiles hissed as the last remnants of the morning dampness evaporated from the grime and the muck which the smoke of the city deposited. The stench was grotesque. All along the river, dredgers and cleansers worked to try to keep the river clean, but all their efforts were failing to change it from a putrescent shade of green-brown.
It was for that reason that the royal palace was not located in the city. Instead, it was located two hours' ride upstream of the city, sprawling around and even over the river on stone pillars raised from the depths. It was the size of a small city in its own right, white stone topped with blue tiles rising from sprawling gardens and lakes.
Princess Charlotte Helene Orléans de Gallia, the duchess of Orleans, was in no place to appreciate the beauty of her environs. She knelt before her uncle on chill marble tiles, waiting for him to acknowledge her presence. The blue stained glass in the windows cast everything in this room in a somewhat surreal light, painting her pale skin a similar shade to her page-boy cut hair. She had been here for quarter of an hour, and her muscles were shaking with fatigue. Still, to address the king without permission would invite punishment, and she had no desire to be reprimanded at length.
She tried to focus on the fuzzy middle distance. She was not permitted, by the king's command, to wear her glasses in his presence. Maybe it was to prevent her from seeing things not permitted to her. More likely, it was just another petty indignity.
The king had one leg hooked over the arm of his throne, and had his chin propped on one hand while the other held a book. He was dressed in mid-blue, a shade darker than his hair, but the velvet was slightly mussed and there were food stains on his sleeves. In his pale, delicate features and blue hair and almond-shaped eyes, he was most distinctly a member of the Gallian royal family. He licked his thumb and forefinger, and turned the page. "Ah, Charlotte," he said, apparently only just noticing her, "there you are. Tell me, what do you think of the Bosque Strategy?"
Charlotte blinked, mind whirring. "I do not know, your majesty," she answered hesitantly.
"Oh, of course you do! You know, lead with an advance of your firemen down the right side of the board, to draw out their watermen, before sweeping in with your earthmen to deprive them of water and free-up a clear line of attack for fire. Of course, then they usually support their watermen with their windmen." He tapped the book. "It is a problem. If misjudged, your nobles and even your royal pieces might be exposed. But that might be part of your plan. Since the Bosque Strategy is a fairly conventional opening gambit, you might want to move your princess out, as she can break their water-wind supporting duet as long as they haven't moved a count or a dragon to prevent you from rolling up their water-wind footman lines from behind. Or possibly you might even be able to get your dextrous duke in to smash up their duet, if you sacrifice a footman to free up that line of attack. Of course, that risks your duke if they have counts or their prince in that line."
"I have not played crux since I was a little girl, your majesty," Charlotte said.
The king pouted. "Oh, you're so boring," he said childishly. "Why are you even here, if you don't want to talk about crux? Can't you see I was reading?"
Charlotte swallowed. She wasn't sure what he was doing, and he was so very mercurial. "Your majesty, you requested that I obtain certain things from Tristain for you. I have done so."
King Joseph frowned at her, and her heart sunk. "I did?" he said, before raising one finger. "Wait. Wait, no. No, I have it, yes. Yes! Yes I did! Hurrah! Oh, I do so hope that you are fine!"
Charlotte could safely say that this was both the safest and easiest task that the throne of Gallia had asked of her, and so murmured a quiet pleasantry to say that he was too kind to be concerned about her wellbeing.
"Of course I'm too kind," the king said happily. "I detest you," he said in the same tone of voice. "You know you're not always going to be this lucky. Someday, some moment, you're going to slip up, and that'll be it for you. I wonder if you'll die bleeding out in some foreign field, trying to hold your guts in, or whether your death will be quieter and closer to home, when those nobles who pretend to obey me get sick of you being someone who'll do what I say, and poison you. Either way, I doubt I'll care. Oh, and my dear niece," he added, as a casual afterthought. "Those things I just said about you?"
"Yes, your majesty," Tabitha said, trying not to shake. She felt the air shift, and was sure that someone had just entered the room behind her, moving quietly.
"That was just a joke. That's not what I feel at all! My goodness, well done! I am pleased with you!" He clapped his hands sharply. "So! My present! Diamant! Fetch!"
From behind his throne, something stirred. It resembled a hunting dog, but it was cast entirely in transparent crystal which revealed the earthstone organs within. Two rubies served as its eyes, and its teeth were steel blades. Crystal claws clicking on the marble floor, it approached the princess, growling like a finger on a wine glass.
Charlotte reached down to the purse at her belt, and the growling intensified. Carefully, she unhooked the pouch, and proffered it to the crystal dog. It tilted its head at her, still snarling, then took it. Heading back to its master, it deposited the purse obediently in his hand before returning to its quiescent, statue-like rest state.
Sprawled out on his throne, the king put down his book and fished out the contents of the pouch. A few pink strands of hair flopped out limply.
"Is that all?" he asked.
"That was all I could find, your majesty," the princess said, inclining her head.
"Very nice! Very nice indeed." Joseph glanced at Charlotte for just a moment, before returning his gaze to his prize. "You can go. Do whatever you want to. Although I think your cousin will want to talk to you before you can go back to silly smelly provincial Tristain."
"I will," Princess Isabella said in her clipped, accented tone from behind Charlotte. "But not right now. I'm sure," she added, her voice dripping with sarcasm as she glared down at Charlotte, "my sweet cousin will be more than willing to drop in to visit me, after she has changed into something more comfortable, but I am afraid I must talk with you first, father."
Joseph blew a raspberry. "Why do people keep on distracting me?" he proclaimed to the ceiling. "You're no fun. None of you!" he said, jabbing his finger at Isabella and Charlotte.
"I am most dreadfully sorry, father," Isabella said, "but I fear it is indeed necessary."
"Well… drat!" the king announced. "Drat it all! Fine! Go! Shoo!" he told Charlotte, who gratefully rose. "Go on and head back to Tristain when you are done. And, you know," Joseph called out gleefully, "while you are there, if you find another one of those strange golem-men again, I will do very very nice things for you! Next time make sure to keep the head, though! It looks dreadfully ugly in my toy cabinet if it doesn't have a head! It makes it entirely asymmetrical! It looks terrible when posed waltzing with an Albionese grenadier!"
Princess Charlotte returned to her quarters, where she hastily changed into an almost painfully austere dress and mantle. The keeper of the royal wardrobe already had a servant outside her door, to take back the borrowed finery. By the time she was changed, resettling her glasses on the bridge of her nose, she was Tabitha once more.
Taking the basin from one of the servants, she tapped it with her wand, and splashed now ice-cold water over her face. Drying it, she handed the towel back, and headed down to the carnivores' wing of the royal stables.
"Here you are, good girl," she whispered to her dragon in High Gallian, who was busy tearing into a horse carcass. The dragon glared at her, and redoubled her consumption, wolfing down the remnants while daring Tabitha to try to disrupt her meal.
"She's a right beast," one of the handlers said, standing beside her. "Beautiful wind dragon, but has that kinda nasty streak of an overgrown kitten." The woman shook her head. "If she wasn't your familiar, I'd say she's too hard to handle for a new dragoon like you."
"Sylphid?" Tabitha asked, shifting to Low Gallian. "No. She is just playful."
"Yes," the handler said darkly. "Playful dragons break bones. Will you be wanting to go, your grace?"
"Just for a short flight, once Sylphid has finished eating," Tabitha said.
"Of course, your grace. I'll prepare the courtyard for a takeoff."
Standing there, listening to the roars and snarls of the animals, Tabitha wished she could stay here. She wished that no one would find her. She wished she was far, far away from Versailles, that she was back at the Academy of Magic in Tristain.
But no. There were duties she had to carry out. Oaths she had sworn. Proprieties which had to be obeyed.
She heard the clattering of her approaching dragon before she saw her, bounding along ahead of the ostlers nervously trailing behind with little care to their attempts to keep her under control. Dragons could not smile, but the beast's expressive eyes crinkled up, and Tabitha nearly smiled too. Picking her way over the courtyard, she mounted, and the handlers scattered.
Without a word from her, her dragon took off in a beating of wings which left the banners dancing madly on their poles. Sylphid headed nearly vertically upwards to circle above the royal palace, up in the blue summer sun. It was cooler up here, and Tabitha was thankful. She muttered a spell, which to the untrained eye would only serve to protect her from the wind, but also served to veil her speech.
She felt so much better up here, surrounded by the wind. Down on the ground, she had always felt trapped, limited, constrained. Only since she had summoned her familiar, called Irukuwa in her own tongue, had she realised what she was missing.
"Are you in trouble?" her dragon asked, in her accented High Gallian.
"I'm fine," Tabitha replied.
Irukuwu exhaled, shuddering beneath her. "Really?" she asked, twisting her head back. "Because you don't sound fine. Are you just lying to me and saying that you're fine when you're really not fine? Because if you're not really fine you should tell me. Oooh! Did they find out that you kept the head of the golem-man?"
"Oh, that's good," Irukuwa said happily. "I like the head. It's the bestest best head ever! The tongue was very very tasty, and the way you can see things in the dark when you wear it is so nice! We should go find more of those armoured funny-men! That way, I can get my own one!"
"You're a dragon," Tabitha said, a faint smile creeping onto her lips despite herself. "It wouldn't fit you."
The great beast nodded. "Mmm hmm!" she said. "Except when I was being a fake human, and imagine what I could steal for you if I was invisible! Anyway, that would mean I had scales when I was being a human, and that's properly natural." Irukuwa harrumphed, then huffed excitedly. "Oh! Oh! If you're not in trouble because you kept the head, that means your cousin was mean to you again! Or does she have a new mission thing?"
Tabitha sighed, and hugged her dragon's neck. "Yes," she said, simply.
"You don't like her. Well, that's good. I don't like her too!" Irukuwa gave the series of rising and falling cries which was her laughter. "She's got a really big forehead! It's as big as the moon! It's as big as the blue moon when it's being the closer moon and being bigger than the red moon when it's being the closer one! And I bet she has a big tasty brain in there. I could eat her brain for you!"
"No eating my cousin." Tabitha paused for a moment. "I'd get in trouble," she added, sadly.
"Aww. Not even a little bit? I wouldn't eat all of her! Like… hardly any of her!"
"Just the nice bits?"
Irukuwa was silent for a moment, trying to decide if this was a trick question. "Yes?" she tried. "I mean, why would I eat the icky bits?"
"Because you were hungry?" Tabitha said drily. Despite that, there was a faint smile on her lips. "You can eat her when I say. But only if you don't ask until I tell you to," she said.
"Oooh! Heart and tongue and brain yay! I promise promise promise you won't hear a word from me about it until it's time!" Irukuwa said happily, banking. "Can I eat her familiar, then? It'd just be a mouthful and it's an annoying little monkey-thing! I bet we could even replace it with another jabbering little monkey-thing and she wouldn't know the difference!"
"Aww." She paused. "Are you feeling better?" she asked. "Flying always makes you feel better, but we're going to have land at some point or you'll get in more trouble. And you keep saying you don't want to come back to my home and live there instead."
Tabitha just hung onto her neck. "I'm as ready as I'll be," she said, quietly.
The dragon banked, and descended once more, smoothly landing in the courtyard in front of a heavy stone fortification which could not disguise its nature with whitewash and delicate blue tiles on the roof. There were no guards to welcome her, no ostlers to take her dragon to the stables. There was a high wall, covered in brambles and thorns which surrounded this fortification. It was the oldest building, the one which the rest of the palace had grown from, and it showed its age.
Few servants dwelt inside this building. Of them, most were crippled and maimed in some way, their loyalty and silence bought by the generous treatment the highest families of Gallia gave them. An old soldier, one eye covered by an eyepatch and one hand a hook, waited at the entrance, clumsily inclining his head to Tabitha. She did not acknowledge him. She paused at the entrance, took a single quick breath, and stepped in.
The building smelt of soap and lime and just a hint of mildew and old rust.
"I am here," she said to the man waiting for her inside. His formal dress was twenty years out of date, and shiny with age. It barely fit him, because he was built like a brick wall, and had developed a paunch since he originally had purchased it. It made him look a little like a clown, Tabitha considered, and that was an impression not helped by his unfashionable pointed shoes.
"Welcome, your grace," the man who kept the royal madhouse said. "You were not expected until later."
Tabitha did not let any of her emotions show on her face. "I am here," she repeated.
"Josette! Josette!" the madhouse keeper called out. "Get down here, girl!"
"Coming, father!" A teenage girl clattered down the stairs in cogs, and her eyes widened at the sight of Tabitha. She quickly curtseyed, reddened hands coarsened by cheap soap lifting her painfully clean and simple skirts. "Oh… um, your highness, welcome. Will you," she swallowed, "want to be going up to the Optican Tower?"
"Yes," Tabitha said tersely. "Immediately. Please do not call me 'your highness'. It is not correct."
The other girl nodded, her short brown hair bouncing in its bun. They were much of a height, but her skin was the pale of someone who didn't see enough sunlight, while Tabitha's was the almost-translucent paleness which was a mark of the Gallian royal family. "As you wish, your hi… I mean, milady? Your grace?"
"That will do."
Picking up a lantern, the girl Josette led Tabitha up to a solid double gate, where an old woman with wooden stumps for legs sat at a desk.
"Two heading to the Optican, Sali," the girl told her.
"Right you are," the old woman said, her pen scratching as she wrote down the entries in the log book. She pulled a lever, unbolting the first gate.
It was old routine for Tabitha by now. Still, the slamming of the iron door behind them was like the closing of a jail cell. In a sense, it was. The arrangement was such that even if an inmate got loose, there was no way they could slip through the double-layer of doors.
God help someone trapped in with the dirty little secrets of the lords of Gallia, for no one else would.
Princess Isabella resisted the urge to rub her temples as she stared at the board before her. She was a passable crux player, and considering the skills of the gentlemen she usually played against, that made her pretty good by any objective standard.
Her father, however, was in an entirely different league. And was being difficult, because he was insisting that she needed to beat him before he would discuss the simple matter she wanted his approval for.
This was a problem. She could usually only manage to beat him two games out of nine, and suspected strongly that at least one of those victories was because he let her win. This was both insulting to her ego, and rather worrying when she just wanted his dratted approval for something.
Also, he was humming. The same part of one ditty, over and over again.
And he was tapping his fingers on the arm of his chair in an oddly lilting, not quite rhythmical pattern. Tap-tappa-tap-tap-pause-tap-tap. Tap-tappa-tap-tap-pause-tap-tap. Tap-tappa-tap-tap-pause-tap-pause-pause-pause-tap.
It was doing her head in.
"Come on!" her father drawled. "Hurry up!"
Biting her lip, Isabella moved one of her dukes up, to threaten the wind-reinforced firemen he was placing on the right flank.
Click-click. His hand lashed out without a second's pause for thought, moving his prince to threaten her duke. She moved the piece to safety, only for another swift movement to follow as the prince picked off one of her earthmen she'd been trying to reinforce with a waterman.
Isabella sighed. She only had one earthman left, and now she could see the shape of the advancing front of watermen which were going to press her earthless left flank.
"Your mind really isn't on your game today, daughter dearest," her father said happily. "You normally wouldn't be so sloppy!" He paused. "Your position isn't all that secure, my daughter," King Joseph said. His attempt to be stern was somewhat ruined by the foolish grin still on his face. "I choose my heir, and should you treat me like some doddering idiot, I could choose your cousin instead."
"I understand, respected father," Isabella said chillily, inclining her head.
"Of course, I won't," Joseph said, his smile widening, "but please try to act as if that's an outside possibility. It makes those wretched lumber barons and those silly little merchants happy."
Isabella managed to recover slightly, but the lack of earth on her left flank was a gaping weak spot and her father pushed it for everything he had. The flank collapsed, and it wasn't long before he took her princess.
Smiling, he deliberately picked the bone figure up. His long fingers cradled it. And then entirely deliberately, he broke its head off.
"Oops," Joseph said, still smiling. "Do you want to concede now, my dear, or are you going to keep going?"
Her mind whirred. What was he doing? What did he expect her to say and would it be better for her if she did what he expected or if he surprised her? What did hewant her to say?
She took a risk, and knocked her own king over. "I can't win," she said bluntly. "I was trying to move her to assassinate that bishop which is supporting the water advance, but," she shrugged, "I did badly."
Joseph laughed, and clapped his hands together. "Yes! Such a tragedy, there. A princess murdered by invaders. I wonder if her father will weep before his capital falls, but no – you had him kill himself! What a touching tale." He rose, and swept away from the crux board, showing it no more attention. Isabella rose, smoothing down her skirts, and followed him.
"Father," she said, "I wished to talk to you about the activities which certain marquises on the border with Tristain had been getting up to. They have been…"
"Uh uh uh," he said.
"But father," she said, pressing on, "they are getting too close to certain inexprimé houses. I suspect that the inexprimé houses are acting on behalf of Mazarin's spies, and with the greatest respect, the border there is…"
"Look! Would you just look at this?" Joseph leant over another one of his game boards. This one had taller, ornamental dolls, shaped to look like various personages of repute from Halkeginia. Joseph picked up his figurine, and held it close to his face, squinting. His expression soured. "I think they got the eyes wrong! In fact, since the eyes used to be right, someone has been sneaking in and changing the eyes! I know it!" He thrust the doll at Isabella. "Look at me!" he said, assuming the same posture as the model. "My eyes don't look like that!"
"No, father," Princess Isabella said. "That would be because your eyes are not tiny sapphires."
"Even though the ladies say they are?" He jutted out his chest. "It's one of my better features. The Madam de Molliere always says so!"
The princess shuddered. "Father, please do not regale me with tales of your mistresses again."
"They really are a lot of fun, though," Joseph said, slumping back down. "You should look to getting some. In fact, consider that a royal order. To be carried out on pain of pain!" He giggled at his joke.
Isabella blinked. "You are ordering me to… acquire mistresses," she said cautiously. "Knowing that I… uh." She coughed. Being the crown princess of Gallia was a wearisome role. "Do you have any… uh, wishes as to how many I should have?" she asked.
"Oh, two or three should be enough," King Joseph said carelessly. "Just make sure you don't get any of them pregnant. Bastards are such an inconvenience. And expensive. You have to go and give the mother a stipend to keep her quiet, and then make sure your daughter doesn't have the child smothered and it's just one inconvenience after another."
His daughter's face was mask-like. "Certainly, father. I will try my utmost to avoid getting any of my mistresses pregnant," she said drily. "I will go seek out some of my friends from school and see if they would be interested in entering my – ahem – service," she added. "Would that be considered sufficient?"
"Sufficient for what?" the king asked, taking off his crown and tossing it from hand to hand. "What was I even talking about?"
"You wanted me to replace the figurine of you," Isabella said quickly. "You were of the well-judged opinion that its eyes look nothing like yours."
"No, I don't think so. I'm quite fond of it." He picked up a dice, and rolled it idly. "Hmm. Five. Isabella, have five of those marquises taken out." He rolled again. "Two. Yes, have two of them publically tried. Have the others murdered."
She blinked. "Excuse me?"
"Don't be silly, girl. I'll give you sugared plums if you can frame the ones who you arrest so you can confiscate their lands. Oh, and the ones you have murdered should be the ones with the worst fashion taste, or failing that, no heirs. Do you understand?"
"Yes, father," Isabella said, curtseying.
"Go! Be gone! Leave me to my games!"
Gracefully, Isabella let herself out, and managed not to sigh in relief as the door closed behind her. A smile crept onto her lip as a white-furred monkey clambered up onto her shoulder and chittered at her.
"Yes, I suppose it did take longer than expected," she told her familiar, heading towards her offices.
Princess Isabella sighed, and pinched her brow. With care, she shut the doors to her office behind her and unfastened her mantle, carefully hanging it up. Her tiara, she rested on her desk. And having done that, she flopped down into her chair. Her familiar leapt up onto the table, picking up an apple.
"Bother," she muttered to herself. "Bother bother bother. He was in a bad state today." She opened her eyes. "Thank you, Gaston," she told the monkey, who chittered in response.
It wasn't that he was crazy. It would have been all too easy if he was crazy. The Gallian royal family had married cousin to cousin and uncle to niece for too long, and even the occasional influx of new blood from various other families left them prone to various deformities – both of the mind and the flesh. The thirteen great ducal houses of Gallia were all so intermarried and related that they formed one extended family, and Isabella knew her mother's status as not coming from those bloodlines left her a nigh-usurper in the eyes of some of the old nobility. Those dratted old men and women liked her father's alleged insanity, and would no doubt equally like her weak, pliable, all-so-perfect pureblooded cousin on the throne.
Isabella's face wrinkled in a momentary sneer. Charlotte might have been her superior at magic, but that was all she was. She would be a terrible queen… and that was just what those damnable dukes would like.
No, her father played at being feeble-minded, but it was more that he didn't quite seem to be reading from the same book as the rest of the world. And that scared Isabella. It scared her deeply, to her very heart. What if the same madness lived in her? He sometimes threatened her; was he doing it just to keep her off balance, or did he mean it? She didn't know. He had been better, once. Then he changed, and suddenly everything was different. And that was just another change in a life full of them.
Isabella had not been raised at court. She had been raised by her mother until the age of five, and had rarely seen her father – and it had certainly not been a conventional childhood for a princess, even one who was the child of the dullard younger brother who few expected to get the crown. Her mother had not been a Gallian, though she had the look of the family. And then she had been sent away from her mother, to court, and everything had changed.
She had hated this place. She hated that she couldn't speak a word of Gallian and even now still had traces of her mother's accent. She certainly hated her new playmates, who whispered about her behind her back and – when she had finally got some of them to like her – said that their parents said she was her father's bastard, that her real mother was not her father's wife.
She hated them because they weren't precisely wrong. Her mother had married her father, but it hadn't been a Brimiric marriage – and thus was on somewhat shaky grounds in the eyes of the Church. And he had been married to someone else at the time.
Isabella had shown them, though. She'd made her own friends; ones worth associating with even if they weren't the most popular sorts, and then when her father had become king, she had laughed in the faces of all those panicked girls who now wanted to be friends with the crown princess.
She had certainly shown her mean cousin, the perfect little daughter of the glorious warrior prince who had retaken Iberia, what happened when the tables were turned. Charlotte didn't even remember what she had done – for months and months and months – to make Isabella detest her, and she wasn't about to remind her. She wouldn't show weakness in that way.
She was the heir, this was going to be her kingdom, and no one was going to be allowed to get in her way. No cousins or bastard half-siblings or troublesome dukes oranyone at all.
Isabella sighed, staring out at the window at the sliver of the blue moon visible during the day sky. She idly stroked her familiar. Sometimes she wished she was a little girl again, and didn't have to step carefully in a court of vipers that to a man waited for her to take a step wrong. Things had been better then, when she had been living with her mother and her father hadn't been crazy.
Then she got back to the reports. Her familiar poured her a glass of fruit juice as she read the personal correspondence of the widow of the sadly deceased duc d'Aquitaine.
Lantern in hand, Josette led Tabitha through the madhouse of the high aristocracy.
"Let me out," whispered a woman, scratching at the door. Her voice was breathy, and every time she inhaled she wheezed. "Let me out. Where is the sun? Why can't I see it? Who took the light?" The pale wrinkled face seen through the bars on the cell had milky cataracts and filthy blue hair. One arm was withered and crippled, the fingers on the hand little more than malformed buddings. "Why is everything so quiet?"
Tabitha did not look at the blind old woman, her great aunt, and trailed behind the madhouse keeper's daughter. Other relatives scratched at the walls and whispered through the doors as she passed.
It was so quiet in here. So very quiet. The madmen and madwomen kept their voices down. The two girls walked through white stone corridors. Much of the royal palace was built from the white stone beloved of the dragon-cultists who predated the Brimiric peoples and this asylum was no exception. It swallowed what little sound there was.
"Look what we have here," a young man hissed through cell bars. Josette took a step away from the door, and Tabitha followed her lead. "One little gust. Come join us."
"I don't know what has them so agitated," Josette said, relaxing a little now they had arrived at the stairs which led to the Optican Tower. "They don't usually come to the doors."
It was a long climb up the steep stairs, and the madhouse keeper's daughter was breathing heavily by the time they reached the top. Tabitha was not. She turned, tilting her head. "Sit," she told the other girl, pointing at the chair by the door. "Wait. I may be some time."
"Th-thank you, milady," Josette said, sagging in something which might have been a curtsey. "Thank you for not making me go in there."
Tabitha froze. "What do you mean?" she asked flatly.
"It's… it's not my place to say," Josette stuttered.
Her gaze dropped. "She scares me the most," Josette said, staring at the floor. "She… she talks more than the others. She t-talks to me. In a way she doesn't talk to f-father."
Tabitha's eyes narrowed. "She is not mad in the same way as the others," she said. "Open the door."
"Yes, milady," Josette said obediently.
This room was rather less sparse than the rest of the madhouse. There was a bed, a chair, a table with the remnants of lunch sitting on it, and most prominently a harpsichord. There was a pale-skinned, blue-haired woman sitting at the instrument. Perhaps she had once been beautiful, but her skin and hands were pockmarked by some disease. She never seemed to stop playing, and did not turn around to look at the newcomer. Even when she could not think of a melody, she played – to make noise, if nothing else.
A worn doll sat on top of the harpsichord, its button eyes watching towards the door.
The blue-haired woman pursed her haggard lips, but kept on playing. "Do you hear the girl, Charlotte?" she said to the doll sitting on top of the harpsichord. "What a strange little girl she is. She broke her heart in two when she sipped when she shouldn't have and shattered her cup, and now she drinks from little glass fragments. Her lips are bleeding. Why does she do that?" Up and down her fingers danced, playing perfunctory assonances.
"I have returned, mother," Tabitha said formally. "How are you?"
"Joseph's pet murderer," her mother said coldly. "I won't let you take my Charlotte. I'll kill you if you try." Her fingers danced an angry tune on the harpsichord. "I might not have my wand, but I'll die to keep her safe."
"M-mother, I…" Tabitha swallowed, and tried not to flinch.
"Why doesn't Gallia bear wind? Our emblem should be a bear made out of wind. Or maybe a bear made out of bare earth. Up in my tower, all I can hear is the wind and the singing of birds. Sometimes they scream below, but only for a short while. They silence themselves."
Her mother lowered her head to the doll, talking to it in a stage whisper.
"Maybe she wonders why I keep on talking, Charlotte, even when I know I'm not making any sense. I bet she does. Oh wait, yes, I remember, indeed she does. Don't you, strange little girl? You asked me several times why I kept on talking like this. I have to keep on talking, you see, or I'll end up like the people in the rooms below and really end up crazy. I have to pretend to be insane but not really be crazy, so they'll keep me in this safe place. They tried to poison me first, didn't they Charlotte?" She took one hand from her harpsichord, and rubbed her doll's face. The doll was threadbare and worn, from all the times she had done that before. "Maybe Joseph's pet killer will leave us alone then."
Tabitha squeezed her eyes shut, her courage failing her. "Please," she whispered under her breath. "Mother, please."
"Of course, now I'm here, at least I'm close to all my children. How many did I lose to this place? One? Two? Three? I don't remember. I gave them to this place, all bar one. One way or another. Where do you hide your dirty little secrets, Gallia? Why, here. Why here? And the girl isn't listening, Charlotte," she told the doll. "Why doesn't she listen? She has very good hearing, I know that for a fact, but she doesn't listen.
"She didn't listen to what I told her about Iberia last time. Iberia, I told her about, yes, but she always comes back to take more secrets about what my poor sweet Charles and I found there. Oh, how I wish I was there right now, with Charles." She slammed her hands down on the harpsichord's keys. "I hate this place," she whispered through the dying echoes. "It wants me to be quiet. Or maybe they do. It gets hard to tell sometimes, when she's looking through the door and I remember what I should forget and forget what I should remember and it all runs together like molten wax. There's madness in our family. We've married niece to uncle and cousin to cousin for far, far too long. We wanted to keep the blood of Saint Orieris pure, but there are wicked heretical tales which tell us that she was touched by madness too."
Tabitha smiled a soft, sad smile. It was a smile she would never show outside of this room. "I am sorry for disturbing you," she said formally.
"He killed Charles, didn't he?" her mother said, in the silence. "I remember. Your master. He came back with his strange little girl and he was different. And then Charles' father made your master the heir, not my Charles, even when he was the eldest and the hero of Iberia. And then Charles died."
Tabitha bowed her head. "He killed Father, yes," she admitted. "I'm sure of it."
"Poor, poor Charlotte", her mother told the doll. "A dead father and a crazy mother. I don't know why that strange little girl is crying. Her life can't be as bad as yours. Or mine. Just… just leave us to our grief!" Bringing her hands down, she started to play again.
"Thank you, mother," Tabitha said. "I will go now."
The woman did not turn around, or say another word.
The king of Gallia, the largest of the Brimiric nations, was working with glue and ivory. Holding his breath, he carefully eased with tweezers the strand of pink hair onto the ivory of the painted figurine, and held it there. It blended in perfectly with the pink-dyed cloth fibres already glued to the scalp. He placed the model down, and busied himself tidying away until the glue had dried.
Joseph picked up his brand new piece. A tiny facsimile of Louise de la Vallière, short-haired and scarred, stood on an emerald base. "Now, where are you going to go?" he asked the figurine.
"I don't know, your majesty," he said, raising his voice into a falsetto. "Tee hee. I mean, I know where I am, but I'm not telling."
"That's very impolite, to defy a king in this manner," he told the doll.
"You're not my king, your majesty," he responded.
Joseph laughed. "Well, I suppose that's true enough," he said. "And at least you're somewhat well-mannered in how you address me. I suppose you'll just have to go in the 'out of play' place for now, until I hear where you are again. I was so looking forwards to meeting you, but Sheffield had to let me down."
"I'm not sorry," he said.
"Well, of course you aren't. You were jolly inconvenient, you know that," he scolded the doll. "Such an unrepentant little chit."
Carefully, he placed his Louise de la Vallière outside the board, and stood back. His eyes flicked over his sculpted board. To the east, he picked out the movements of Germanian armies, led by generals and elector-khans alike. The Germanian Emperor, the Khan-of-Khans, posed on a tiny winged horse, his base pyrope and lapis lazuli. Tristain was stacked with figures. To the north-east, two figures stood on smoky quartz and lapis lazuli, their eyes turned to the east. In Bruxelles, the figure of Princess Henrietta loomed over her mother, but Cardinal Mazarin was taller than either of them.
"You're an inconvenient man," Joseph told the cardinal. "Or maybe you're not. Maybe you're playing right into my hands. Do you think I'd oppose the marriage of Henrietta de Tristain to the Iron Dragon. Well, maybe." He picked up a dice, and rolled it, snorting. "Yes, you're right for now. I shall take three actions to oppose it, and then we can roll again. It's always so enchanting to match wits with you. Your queen is such a dull opponent."
"Oh, woe is me, for my husband is dead. I will sit here and cry. Boo hoo hoo," he said in a falsetto.
"See! That's all she ever does," he said in his normal voice. "Hmm. I wonder if Henrietta is so dreadfully dull. Oh well. I'll need to think up a wedding present for her. What do you think she'd like?"
There was a pause.
"Ah, excellent game face, Cardinal," Joseph complimented the figurine. "You really are a worthy adversary."
"A little lacking in courtesy to a king, though," he said, sniffing. "I do understand it is the prerogative of a cardinal to remain silent even in the face of the questioning of a ruling monarch, but there is such thing as manners."
The silence dragged on.
"Ah! You're no fun at all!" he said, carefully placing the figurine down and pouting. "You are not getting into the spirit of things, sir! I have a good mind to burn your wretched little kingdom to the ground!" He sighed. "Though I'd have to execute your queen too, because she'd be exceptionally annoying with her whole 'boo hoo hoo you burned down my capital' and then the Pope would get on my case and I simply cannot be having with that aggravation. Very well! You win this round, cardinal! But I can beat you at the being silent game! If I win, you will surrender immediately; if you win, I shall not invade."
The contest had reached the thirty minute mark when there came a soft knock at the door. After a suitable pause, a beautiful woman entered, clad in blue so pale it was almost white.
"Ah, King Joseph, your most wonderful – and handsome – majesty," the Madam de Molliere, lady of the court and Joseph's official unofficial mistress said. "You wished to see me?"
"Damnation!" he declared. "You win, Cardinal! Very well, I will not invade you. Yet. I didn't say for how long you would remain safe from my armies! Ah ha, got you there!"
"I beg your pardon?"
Joseph flapped his hand. "Oh, never mind."
"My lady sends her greetings and hopes all is well with you," the Madam de Molliere said, curtseying before the king slumped on his throne.
"Ah, madam!" Joseph said, perking up. "So good to see you!" He smiled, and pointed at the little figure of Louise de la Vallière. "Have you seen my new figurine?"
"I have not, and I had thought I was the one who obtained new ones for you," the woman said, frowning.
"I can do things for myself," Joseph said, pouting.
De Molliere smiled. "But it's so much more fun when I do them for you," she told him in a sultry tone, which vanished as her expression shifted to a frown. "I don't recognise who that is," she admitted. "May I?"
"Feel free, madam."
The woman stooped and picked up the pink-haired figure. Her nostrils flared. "One of the daughters of Karin de la Vallière?" she asked. "She has the hair, at least, and something about the face."
"I know! It really is a wonderful little piece of work! As is she, I might add!" Joseph said.
"But what does the emerald mean?" she asked. "I thought I knew your key."
"I know! It's fantastic!"
"I don't follow your meaning, your majesty."
Joseph clapped. "Madam, why don't you look for her place in the plan? Perhaps you can even ask your lady – though I think she would not like the answer! Ah ha! Madam, Louise de la Vallière is something outside your plan! She's something new! Something unpredictable! A force of chaos who makes things better by wrecking everything! She burned Londinium and Port's Mouth, and I almost felt a smidgeon of sadness at such a tragedy!"
He cast his hand over his board. His own figure stood in Versailles, standing on obsidian. So, too, did the Pope stand in the holy city of Roma, in Romalia. And in Albion, the figure of Sheffield stood, holding the banner of Gallia, Princess Sophia of Albion in her custody. "My agent knows the most anyone does about the nature of Louise de la Vallière," he said, smiling. "Why, I'm sure I would share with your lady, if she was just a little more generous with the grants of her servants." He pouted. "I'm a weak king whose subjects are impudent and disobedient. I need things unflinchingly loyal for the wonders and tragedies which are yet to come."
The Madam de Molliere glowered, her beautiful face flickering. "It is not wise to play with milady," she said. "Whatever affection she may hold for you, she sent me to… how shall we say it? Protect her interests. And you are one of her interests, but you are not her only interest upon this orb."
"Oh, I know I'm being dreadfully rude and playing with fire by doing this," Joseph said, a broad smile on his face. "I feel flickers of something which almost might be excitement when you show your fangs and stop being so soft and graceful." He clapped again. "Oh, do it again, do it again."
A smile crept onto her lips. "You're incorrigible," she said. "Very well, your majesty. I will talk with milady."
Joseph pulled himself upright, working his shoulders. "Wonderful," he said. Drawing his wand, he began to chant. His worlds built to a fever pitch, and with a slash, he cut a hole in the world. He bowed. "After you, madam," he said. "Shall we begin?"
"Why, thank you. You can be quite the charmer, considering the flaws of your nature," said his mistress.
Joseph laughed, a high-pitched mirthless titter. "Perhaps, perhaps," he said. "But where would you be without men like me to make the world a more – how shall we put it – interesting place?" He laughed again. "Yes, interesting times are coming indeed."