by AJ Marks
Part 17: A Lucky Loose End
Gwen walked through the palace seeing little things she had not seen last time she had been here. People were working and many seemed to smile. Under her uncle things always seemed tense, as if there was something going on and perhaps there had been and she had been too busy wrapped up in her own world to see the problems.
Turning the corner she spotted her lover sitting on a stool in the kitchen listening in on some story that the cooks were telling her. Gwen shook her head and made her way on over.
“You’re not telling any embarrassing stories?” Gwen asked looking at them all.
“To tell an embarrassing story I‘d have to have one of you,” the cook replied with a smile, causing Gwen to groan at the situation.
She wondered if it was too late to rule by fear and make the people quiver at her very approach. It had its appeal in that no stories of her would be told of her.
“No, she was telling me of some things you did as a child,” Zoe replied, taking a bit of some bread.
“Spoiling your lunch?” Gwen asked looking at the bread in Zoe’s hands.
“It’s good, want some,” Zoe said, offering Gwen some. “It’s a new recipe they wanted me to try.”
Gwen reluctantly took the offered bite, chewing for several seconds. “Not bad,” she finally managed to say unsure what else to say. It tasted like bread to her.
“Don’t mind her, she only has skill when it comes to being able to defend people,” Zoe said to the cook. “It tastes great.”
“She always did prefer the training grounds to the kitchen, always came in needing a bath,” the cook said.
“Are you saying I need one now?” Gwen asked.
“No, we took one this morning, I know,” Zoe said leaving Gwen’s mouth hanging open.
“Empress, a word,” Renold said walking up to him interrupting anything else which might have been said.
“Yes,” Gwen said, once again ignoring the ‘empress’ part yet glad for the distraction.
“The gate guards’ state there is an ambassador from the Imperial Empire here to see you,” Renold told her waiting.
That news shocked her a bit, she didn’t expect to have an ambassador anytime soon, and was thinking of ways to engage in talks with the other empire. In a way, this only made things easier for her.
“All right, tell him,” she paused seeing Renold’s nod yes before continuing, “that I’ll be right there. And have him settled in, see if he wants to freshen up first.”
“Of course empress,” Renold said, bowing to her.
“And stop that, I’m not the real ruler,” Gwen said watching as he grinned and left leaving her wondering how she could get that across to people.
She looked over at Zoe who had a smile on her face but said nothing else, even the cook merely grinned but continued her work causing Gwen to wonder how long it would take before they stopped calling her that. She only stepped in to the position to fill a vacuum in power and ensure a civil war didn’t start.
“Be good,” she said, looking at Zoe before heading off down the corridor to change into something which would be more fitting for meeting with an ambassador with the empire.
Gwen walked into the main room having been informed by Tinis that the ambassador was ready to meet with her. Tinis had no information about why the ambassador was here, but Gwen had a good idea, he wanted to know the state of the Realm, and its new ruler. Could they invade easily or would it be more of a fight than they wanted, that was a trick she had to appear stronger then he was.
She looked over the ambassador, a bit short, even shorter than Tinis, bald, and appeared to be a very low level fighting power, stronger than normal, but the lowest level fighting power at best. She watched him as he looked back at her, each studying the other for some sign.
Sitting down at the table she placed her elbows on the table, leaned forward and waited a few seconds for him to finally say something.
“Ah, I am ambassador Benard of the Imperial Empire, King Terrance had heard many rumors lately which is why I’m here,” Benard stated diplomatically, but said nothing which Gwen didn’t already know.
“I’m Empress Gwen,” she replied not stating that her being empress was a temporary thing, something they did not need to know.
“So, some of the rumors are true,” Benard said. “There has been an overthrow of the king.”
“He brought it on himself, and I’m aware of the Imperial Empire massing troops along our border,” Gwen said seeing slight shock in Benard’s eyes even as they narrowed slightly at her.
“I have no idea what you are talking about,” he said.
“Don’t you, I know you know, and you know I know you know,” Gwen said calmly waiting a few seconds for them both to understand what she said. “I am not my uncle.”
“You are of royal blood?” Benard said, his tone a bit shocked, so he had not heard about that at all.
“I am the king’s niece, people knew me as Ruth,” Gwen said. “But I prefer Gwen now.”
The name had the desired effect as his eyes widened in shock at the name. He probably knew of her, heard the rumors of everything which had gone on before she had come back, the Queen, her own parents and how she died in a fire two years ago. She watched as he professionally recovered knowing he had given up some information in the discussions.
She looked up Tinis walked into the room looking very nervous about something. She focused her attention on him waiting.
“Sorry to interrupt empress, but there is something which you should be informed of right away,” he said to her.
“All right,” she said, waiting as Tinis looked at her then back at Benard who she ignored before finally Tinis sighed.
“An ambassador from the Hargrang Empire has arrived to speak with you,” Tinis said.
“Okay, offer him a place to stay, bath and food so he can clean up before I see him,” Gwen replied giving the other ambassador the same treatment she was giving Benard.
“Of course,” he said, bowing and leaving the room as Gwen turned to look back at Benard who seemed to have taken this latest news in stride, revealing nothing about the fact another ambassador had arrived to speak with her.
“Where were we,” Gwen said, thinking back to before Tinis entered the room and recalling that Benard had seemed shocked at her name. “Right, I’m the current empress, of Royal blood, and I have everything well in hand.”
The simple statement seemed to catch Benard off guard for several seconds before he finally replied. “I, are you sure, there is always unrest after such a takeover,” he said to her. “Things can be, delicate, when a new ruler comes to power like yourself.”
“And you felt that unrest when you walked into the town?” Gwen asked.
“Such things can be hidden very well,” Benard replied back to her.
“So, why exactly are you here, to confirm rumors?” Gwen asked looking at the man.
“Rumors of kings or queens being overthrown are, at best, disturbing to us. You must understand that having an unstable neighbor can cause rebellion and violence to spill over to into our empire, that we cannot allow,” he said to her.
“A bit like I can’t allow an invading force to threaten my lands,” Gwen said growing tired of this political debate. “Why don’t you take some time to rest and get your story straightened out back home.”
With that she stood and walked out rubbing her temple at the thought of having to do this all over again with the other ambassador. Appearances seemed to be so important to these men. A strong ruler and army would be needed if the threat of invasion was to be avoided. All she had to do now was create the appearance that they were stronger than they were at the moment.
Gwen sat down at the table feeling hands on her shoulders. Turning she looked up to see Zoe standing there.
“That feels nice,” Gwen said as Zoe massaged her shoulders.
“You looked tense,” Zoe replied. “What’s the problem?’
“What isn’t,” Gwen replied. “These ambassadors are looking for signs of weakness in anything so I can’t afford to be soft, and I have to look like I’m actually in charge.”
“You are in charge,” Zoe replied, moving to sit down next to her.
“I never wanted to be the empress, or queen, or whatever,” Gwen replied.
“The best never do want power,” Zoe replied. “It’s why you’ll be so good.”
“Are you trying to make me feel good?” Gwen asked.
“Is it working?” she replied continuing her massage.
“I shouldn’t admit it, but yes,” Gwen replied back to her allowing a few minutes to enjoy the sensations.
“Ah, Valerie says she wanted to see you,” Zoe said.
“Yeah, she’s still here?” Gwen said, forgetting that the woman was still here.
“She stated something about a business opportunity which came up,” Zoe replied moving around to the front which Gwen used as an opportunity to pull the girl down onto her lap.
“There, much better,” Gwen said earning a slight chuckle from Zoe.
“I could get used to this,” Zoe said finally.
“Yeah?” Gwen said, knowing she had been giving it some thought as well. She didn’t feel comfortable just turning over power to someone she didn’t know. There was a lot at stake this time, her uncle and cousin were both gone now. What would her parents want her to do?
She pushed that thought away knowing what they would have wanted. They were honorable and loyal to the people and probably wouldn’t have stood for what happened in the past couple of years. Gwen took several moments to consider her next decision.
“Come on, we can meet up with her and have something to eat,” Zoe said, getting back up and dragging Gwen with her.
Gwen found herself led outside the palace and to a tavern where she spotted Valerie along with the others in her group, and surprisingly she noticed Sven and Otto also with her.
“Ah, the elusive one appears,” Valerie said to her.
“Just been busy,” Gwen said, taking a seat at the table earning a few stares at her presence. They obviously never expected the current ruler to enter.
“I have heard,” Valerie said, as Gwen turned her attention to the other two.
“Well you looked very different dressed like that,” Otto said causing Gwen to look down at her state of dress. She had forgone her leathers and armor when meeting with the ambassadors on the advice of Tinis. He seemed to think the leathers might be too much intimidation and Gwen had allowed herself to agree never expecting to come out here.
Gwen watched as he was slapped on the back of the head by Sven.
“Never learns,” Sven said earning a chuckle from Zoe.
“So, I hear you have gained some business?” Gwen said, turning the conversation to something else rather than the state of her dress.
“Yes, a good opportunity to expand into the Realm,” Valerie stated. “Something I had not expected when I came here.”
Gwen had to agree, she expected to rescue Zoe and head back to the rebellion unsure what might happen next, never expecting what had happened or to be looked upon as ruler.
She looked up as another person entered the tavern, surprised to see Cilia walking towards them. Gwen felt a bit off about her lately knowing what group she had been a part of, and the fact she wanted Zoe didn’t help things out.
“Figured I’d find you here,” Celia said, looking around at the group. “Not the typical group royalty should hang around.”
“They’ve been better friends than anyone else I’ve known,” Gwen said truthfully.
“Gwen’s proven her loyalty to me,” Sven said speaking up.
“She has a better heart than most I know,” Lori said speaking up for the first time sitting next to Valerie.
Celia looked over at Lori and seemed angered by the fact a slave had dared question her. Gwen sighed before deciding it was time.
“Who are you really?” she asked. “You don’t act like a proper merchant, and your actions lately make me wonder if you’re not some long lost relative or something.”
“My mother was Annabelle,” she finally said shocking Gwen, who stood unable to say anything for several seconds until she felt Zoe nudge her.
“Annabelle?” Gwen finally managed to say.
“Yes, we cousins,” Celia said. “Though I never expected you to recognize me.”
Gwen took a second to look at the woman again and finally realized why she looked so familiar to her. “You look like your mother,” Gwen finally said, startling Celia.
“Not what I expected,” she said finally.
“So you wanted to take over?” Sven asked.
“No,” Celia said surprising Gwen. “I wanted revenge!”
The way she said the words surprised Gwen, such malice as Gwen thought about what happened with Annabelle. She had disappeared when Gwen was about four and she was never told. She heard hushed rumors as she got older, about Annabelle who had left, had an affair with some peasant. Now she wondered how much of the rumor was true.
“My mother was hunted by the king, and finally she was killed when I was six,” Celia said.
“The king’s sister was popular, a lot of people liked her,” Sven said speaking up. “I can recall hearing about it a bit when I was younger. There were some rumors that people thought she should have been given the throne instead of Rick.”
That was a first to Gwen.
“So you dedicated everything for revenge?” Zoe asked. “Sounds lonely.”
“I only wish I could have been there when he died,” Celia said.
“It doesn’t really bring closure, does it,” Gwen finally said seeing Celia’s eyes.
“No, it doesn’t,” her eyes going to the floor.
Gwen noticed Sven seemed to understand as well, and wondered what was in his background which he had gone after revenge as well.
They looked up as another person entered the tavern, and they watched a nervous looking Tinis walk over to where they sat.
“Empress, the ambassador of Hargrang is asking to see you now,” he said nervously, looking around at room.
“I’ll be right there,” Gwen said, standing and heading back to the palace, before making a decision. “Inform him I just need to change.”
“Yes, after being in that filth, I would as well,” Tinis replied, not catching what Gwen meant.
Gwen strode into the room dressed in her normal armor leathers much to the shock of Tinis, who sputtered as she walked by. The ambassador of Hargring appeared shocked upon her arrival and appearance.
“I’m told you wish to speak with me,” she said to him. “Be quick, I’m training the guards next.”
“Um, yes, the queen should know how to defend herself,” the ambassador said.
“I’m doing the training,” Gwen replied back correcting the ambassador. “Now, what do you need?”
The statement caught the ambassador off guard even more which was perfect for Gwen.
“You thought I was someone who doesn’t know how to fight,” Gwen said. “I have no problem leading my army to protect the Realm against all threats.”
“A-Are you saying the Hargrang Empire is a threat to the Realm?” he replied, suddenly sounding insulted.
“You, along with the Imperial Empire have amassed armies along my border,” Gwen said as the door opened. “Yes?” she asked looking at Tinis but noticed who was behind him, Brice.
“He states he has some information for you,” Tinis said.
“Very well,” Gwen said, standing and heading out of the room leaving the ambassador stunned. She watched as Tinis looked horrified and Brice amused but headed to another room.
“What do you have?” Gwen asked.
“Is it true that both the Hargring and Imperial Empires have ambassadors here?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said, not questioning his information gathering abilities.
“Then I think you’ll like this,” he said, handing her a message which held the seal of the Hargring Empire.
She unrolled it reading the message, her eyes going wide at what was in it before looking up at him.
“We intercepted a messenger with that on him, thought you might like to know about it,” Brice said giving her a small grin.
Gwen fanned herself with the parchment before considering the way to deal with this, but first.
“Give the hunter’s guild a thousand creds for this information, Brice can split it to who he sees fit to earn it from this,” Gwen said much to Tinis’ dismay.
“Most generous empress,” he said, adding the last part with a grin and earning a glare from her.
“Good information is always welcome, and I know the risks you took in the past couple of days,” Gwen said as they stood and left leaving only Tinis in the room. “I think I should meet with both ambassadors.”
“Are you sure?” he asked, his tone implying he felt the decision was unwise.
“I think this will prove most enlightening,” Gwen replied back to him watching him finally bow and leave the room.
Gwen walked into the room seeing both ambassadors already in the room. She wondered if either of them knew what was about to happen and figured probably not. They had no way of knowing she knew their secret.
“Well, I thank you for seeing me, but I would have preferred it alone and without you suddenly leaving in the middle of our conversation,” the Hargrang ambassador said and Gwen had to recall his name, Patrick.
“Patrick, there is a reason why I’m seeing you both at the same time,” she said looking at both of them. She thought she saw Benard look down, almost as if he knew what was going to happen.
“I highly doubt that,” Patrick replied back while Benard remained silent.
“I received some interesting news,” Gwen said, using the parchment to fan herself. She noticed Benard’s eyes drawn to the paper, but Patrick seemed oblivious to it. “In fact, I think King Charles would be most interested in this piece of paper, and what your two empires have agreed to.”
“You’re bluffing,” Patrick said finally.
“Bluffing, it’s possible,” Gwen replied before unrolling the parchment on the table in front of them. “Or, my people intercepted a message between your empires stating invasion plans for against the Realm and the Green Empires. I think I can easily get an alliance with Charles with this information.”
“I doubt King Charles would listen to the Realm,” Benard finally said, speaking up for the first time.
“I’m not my uncle,” Gwen finally said. “And I knew some of the royal family in the Green Empire from when I was part of the Royal Guard. I’m sure they would remember me and considering recent events and the political nature recently between all the Empires. Are you sure he wouldn’t listen? Are you willing to make that bet?”
Gwen waited a few heartbeats as neither one said anything.
“Considering I’ve already sent a messenger off to meet with him and a copy of this note,” she said watching as they now both panicked at the thought of what that might do. “Or I could stop my messenger, and you can move your troops away from massing along the Realm’s boarder.”
She watched as they took a lot longer to actually think about the situation and she decided to up the pressure.
“Or, you can allow this invasion to start, then panic when the Green Empire invades yours easily as your armies are engaged with mine,” Gwen said. That thought seemed to have the desired effect.
“Very well,” Benard said. “The Imperial Empire will back down.”
“What!” Patrick said.
“I will not allow my Empire to be used by yours,” Benard said. “I am sending off the message now.”
With that he stood and walked out of the room.
“Our armies will be waiting,” Gwen said to Patrick, and left the room as well heading to find Zoe and perhaps something real to eat finally.
End part 17