A Daughter's Choice

by

Nick Capo




A ruler must not be governed by emotion, Isabellaís father had once told her, but the truth was that she despised her chief counselor and, with each passing day, was less and less able to hide her hatred. She could almost hear her fatherís despairing sigh as she privately admitted her failure.

But her counselor was so easy to hate. Isabella had ample time to list his obvious shortcomings while strolling down the hallway toward the council room, and the list was long. Yet it could easily have been brief, if she included only the items that truly mattered. She suspected that Simon DíKite wanted her dead. Set against that unpalatable probability, his disloyalty, condescension, and crassness were small matters. His oily civility and ridiculous black goatee were almost too trivial to note. Almost.

The fact that they were technically related, only fourth cousins but still members of the same family, merely intensified her disgust. Her great-great-great-grandparents would have been embarrassed to witness the degeneration of his side of the family, she believed.

Thin slices of sunlight brightened the dull gray stones beneath her feet, and the quiet tranquillity of dawn offered her scant comfort. Four guards marched in pairs ahead of and behind her -- their presence was as normal to her existence as was breathing -- and Orlando Sorenson, the captain of her royal guard, walked beside her. His presence was a rarity. The captain spent most of his time supervising the soldiers of her guard and training on the practice fields to hone the edge of his skills, which his age increasingly worked to dull. But his presence, although unusual, was necessary.

At eighteen, when she became Queen of the Kingdom of Baden, Isabella had frightened nobody; one year later, she fared no better. Seeing Captain Sorenson, though, always reminded her powerful enemies of how easily they could wind up serving as food for maggots, and his coldly efficient slaughter of her fatherís enemies over two decades had earned him wary respect from people throughout Baden. His loyalty to her father had been absolute, and after her fatherís death, Captain Sorenson had transferred it to Isabella, who felt like she had received a deadly viper for a birthday present. She had yet to ask the captain to bloody his hands, but she was wise enough to keep him close when she met privately with Duke Simon.

She halted, and then waited while the captain opened the tall oak door and preceded her into the chamber. When he glanced back and nodded, she followed in his footsteps.

Across the room, Duke Simon stood from his seat at the council table. He was a waspish man, but almost a foot taller than she was, and his black hair was salted liberally with gray. Her father and the duke had been the same age, and one of the dukeís conceits was to act as the supportive uncle. He greeted her, bowing, and said, "I am grateful, Majesty, that you could meet with me on such short notice."

Only the light tapping of her shoes on the stone floor and the scraping of wood on stone as the captain pulled her chair back from the table rippled through the sea of quiet that filled the room. It was technically rude, Isabella knew, to ignore his bow. "It was always my fatherís practice to take seriously requests from his council," she said in a cool voice. "I see no reason yet to stop doing so."

The duke waited until she sat before taking his seat. He lifted a sheet of vellum and swept one hand toward it, as if presenting it and disowning it simultaneously. "Your father was a wise man," he said, "but I bear more of a warning than a request. A proposal has been raised at the council table, and I fear that its content will disturb you." The worry in his voice might be real, Isabella decided, but whether it was worry for her or for Baden as a distinct entity was an open question. She thought it was the later, which meant that she was ... dispensable in his mind.

Isabella placed her hands on the tableís edge. She had learned that having something to grip made maintaining her composure slightly easier. Tendons stood out on the back of her hands -- the tension and worries of the last year were consuming her. But she met his impassive gaze without letting too much emotion show on her face. "Disturbing?"

He nodded and stroked his goatee. "There is great concern on the council about the kingdomís defenses," he said. "Reports have arrived that Roland of Poulona is mustering his army, perhaps for an attack against us. And the council worries that, after your fatherís death, no experienced hand is guiding the army and city militia, or at sea with the ships of the kingdomís navy. Many want to appoint a commander to see to your protection and the protection of the city."

Where, she wondered, was the line between dutiful worry and nascent ambition? When had he realized that she was far less dangerous than her father had been?

The duke had led her Privy Council for the past year, and he had served in the same role for the last five years of her fatherís reign. Saying that he was capable was like saying that ice was cold, but she had not expected him to be so, so, relentless. With each passing month, he nibbled away at more of her power as sovereign queen. He was careful, though, and she had not noticed his machinations during the early months after her fatherís death. She should have; her allies had thought that, as her fatherís daughter, she certainly would notice and order his execution. Her blindness was only the first time she had disappointed them.

Now, Duke Simonís boldness was so pronounced that even a blind, ignorant beggar would have recognized his machinations. Only this morning he had requested that Isabella join him for this private meeting, and that simple fact -- he had requested her presence -- showed how different matters stood with Isabella as Queen than they had with her father as King.

"That will not be necessary." Her tone was as cold as the melting remnants of ice on the ponds outside.

His was equally frigid, although he masked the chill with what she perceived as an insincere smile. A kindly father saying no to a beloved daughterís request to marry an untitled junior officer might wear the same expression. "I understand, Majesty," he said, shrugging. "But they are resolved. A clear majority of the council seems to support the change. They have scheduled a vote for tomorrow morning. I wanted to warn you so that you had time to consider your response. It might be to your advantage to endorse, rather than oppose, the change. Doing so will win you more allies on the council. And you are short of such allies."

Isabella silently considered her next words. She knew what her father would have said -- what he would have done -- if he had been in her place. As a child, she had witnessed the carnage that stemmed from such confrontations as assassins and guards raged through the palace; on occasion, she still awoke from nightmares filled with disembodied limbs and young corpses with gaping belly and throat wounds.

The city of Baden, where her family lived and ruled, was one of the largest ports on the Southern Seaís west coast. Because it was rich with the gold and silver generated by trade, it stood out as a tempting target for audacious, or sometimes suicidal -- depending on the cityís strength at any particular time -- nobles, generals, or raiders from the neighboring duchies and kingdoms. And since the collapse of the Old Empire had given Badenís nobles and merchants a taste of life without the crushing imperial taxes, they had displayed a surprising unanimity about the need for a strong army and navy. They knew that such strength was essential to discourage the other rulers who bordered the kingdom or controlled ports from which an invasion fleet might be launched. Where Badenís ruling elite failed to agree was the question of control over its infantry and cavalry, its archers and crossbowmen, its cogs and galleys.

"I thank you for bringing this matter to my attention," Isabella finally said. The tension must have boosted her paranoia, because she imagined she heard a frustrated sigh from Captain Sorenson and the captain never sighed. Never. "This evening, I will consider your advice and prepare my questions for the council meeting."

His lips pressed into a frown. "Of course, Majesty," he said. "But will you have one of your pages bear word of your decision to me as soon as you reach it? I will need to prepare your allies on the council if you decide to speak in opposition to its will."

She arose, and then waited as Duke Simon mirrored her action. A thin smile pulled up the corners of her lips. "I will, if time permits," she told him. "I would not want to leave you at a loss before this meeting commences."

Duke Simon bowed quickly and held his position until she turned away. If he were in any way similar to her, he had moved so quickly to prevent her from seeing the expression on his face.

The silk brocade of Isabellaís white and gold dress swished audibly over the floorís stones as she marched from the council chamber. Captain Sorenson apparently had gauged her mood after one glimpse of her face, and as they walked away from the council roomís door, he closed the distance until he marched along even closer to her right side. He said nothing. But he knew that she drew comfort from his presence. He had guarded her or her father for her entire life, while rising through the ranks from guardsman to captain.

"That snake!" She spoke in something more than a whisper. She should have acted more like her father would have. She should have forced the duke to pledge his opposition to the proposal. Or she should have listened to her tutor Elazar, who was really more advisor than teacher, and shortened Simon DíKite by the length of his head as soon as the duke had first overstepped his boundaries.

Captain Sorenson coughed, and ostentatiously looked behind them.

Isabella nodded. "I know, Captain," she said, "but he and his cronies infuriate me."

When the captain spoke, his voice was soft. A listener twenty feet away would have been ten feet too far away for hearing. But his voice held the deep power that could raise it loud enough to be heard through a battleís din. "Give the order, Majesty, and he will not trouble you again."

"It might come to that," she said, "but I do not like the odds we face."

They walked beside each other for a dozen strides. "The odds can be adjusted in your favor," he eventually said. "But if you wait too long, Majesty, you may run out of time. Duke Simon is only the tip of the spear; many of the nobles are unsettled. Many."

"I know it," she said. "I do know it."

In the palaceís main hallway, servants went about their tasks, and guards and court officials passed in both directions. A young peasant maid in a gray linen dress knelt next to a bucket of water, scrubbing at mud stains on the floor and picking up small pieces of leaves and twigs. The girl blushed and doubled her efforts after Isabella broke with protocol to wish her a good morning. None of the palace servants ever initiated conversation with a member of the nobility, but Isabella was aware that her courtesies toward the servants had won her their love and loyalty. Floating through the hallway in a bubble of silence, she smiled ruefully at the irony: she had secured the loyalty of the powerless, instead of the powerful. Her father had had enemies among the powerful, too, but Duke Simon had not been one of them. Yet with the duke as her nemesis, all other enemies had a standard bearer to line up behind.

She inhaled the cool spring air drifting into the corridor from the narrow slits in the palaceís eastern wall. It was still too early in the season for the flower gardens to perfume the air surrounding the palace, but the day still was beautiful. Or she would have perceived it as such if she were not still disturbed by her meeting with Duke Simon.

He had been the second most powerful noble in the kingdom for more than a decade, and his family had been yearning for the opportunity to rule instead of serve for more than two. Like at least two dozens of other nobles, Duke Simon could trace a path of ancestry that gave him a plausible claim to the throne, so long as everyone else with a better claim was dead or exiled. But ruling in Baden had always required allies and wealth. So for the past decade, and particularly since her fatherís death, Simon and his family had been accumulating allies and ruthlessly crushing, one by one, those who contested with them for control of the kingdomís wealth. Isabella had no doubt now that they controlled vastly more resources than her family did and that they were in a position to strangle her tax revenues whenever they wished.

Ruling also required a hardness of heart that her father and the duke most certainly possessed. She doubted that she belonged in their company in this respect. And the second time she had disappointed her allies was her long hesitation once her eyes had been opened to Duke Simonís maneuvers.

This hesitation was still in progress.

And although she spent the next several hours in the great hall, signing papers and orders, meeting with an ambassador from the Tiberian Empire, and hearing petitions from some of her subjects, she kept reviewing her conversation with the captain. Sorenson, probably unknowingly, had closely echoed her fatherís last words to her during a conversation only three days before his death.

They had been sitting at the table in the small dining room, and Elazar, one of her fatherís oldest friends, had been their only companion. Her father had been pale with what seemed like simple exhaustion, and the lack of color, when paired with his graying hair, reminded her that he had not been a young man when she was born. His eyes, though, were still sharp as freshly honed daggers, and his mind was always in motion.

"If you are going to rule when I am gone, you must be harder than you are now," her father had said, "and you must always act decisively. Hesitation will be perceived as weakness, and the rats will smell your blood and come out of hiding. But you still ... dither, Isabella." In his voice, she heard a faint trace of the dispassionate judgment that he exercised over his courts of high justice.

She remembered forcing herself to smile and replying, "I will be as hard as I need to be."

"The words are easy to say," her father muttered. He leaned back in his chair, with a relieved sigh as the warm contentment of a good meal relaxed him.

She tried to remember when he had aged, when the thick muscles of his shoulders and chest had withered. It might have occurred after her older brotherís, his only sonís, death in a riding accident. Isabella had long ago made her peace with her realization that her brother was the heir and, therefore, the most important child. Still, children had not come easily to her father, and it was a sign of his regard that he did not marry her off and adopt a new male heir.

"They are not so easy to follow up on," her father added after draining his wine cup. "I must see that you are better prepared, so I am assigning Elazar as one of your tutors and I will plan some changes to your duties."

Elazar was a decade older than her father, but seemed a decade younger. His face resembled brown leather, the skin weathered by exposure to sun and wind. A former soldier who had been knighted for battlefield bravery, he had been, for as long as Isabella could remember, one of the few men her father trusted absolutely. He rarely spoke, and when he did, his words usually contained only hard, biting wisdom. He was not going to be an easy tutor to please.

"I will be grateful to receive his wisdom," she said.

Elazar snorted. "Highness, let us not start on the wrong foot. Iíve spoken with your other tutors. Patience is almost become a vice in you. I want you to argue with me."

She masked her annoyance behind her cup and bent her head, like a chastened daughter might.

Her father had listened to the exchange, sipping from his wine cup, and she heard his amusement when he finally spoke again. "You do not get off quite that easily, daughter," he said. "You will sit beside me when I dispense high and low justice. It is time for you to take a more active role in the kingdomís affairs."

"Then you should implement your plans now, father," she said. "Youíre so fragile that you never know how many days you have left. A stiff wind might do for you."

She had been joking, or perhaps gently prodding him to eat a bit less or ride his favorite horse a bit more frequently. But she had been joking.

Her father died a week later on the dirt of the exercise yards. The healers believed the cause was a massive heart attack. A natural death.

Captain Sorenson, she knew, was not so certain. He suspected poison -- some supposedly could mimic the effects of a natural death -- and he had doubled her guard as well as placed a guard on her food tasters.

She was still considering this last conversation with her father, when she entered her private suite. A much greater amount of fresh spring air and sunlight drifted into her dressing chamber than did in the corridors of the palace, and she preferred to spend much of her time in this room or her adjoining sitting room for that reason. The luxury disturbed Captain Sorensonís sense of security, but she had insisted that he deal with his concern by placing additional guards below the windows and on the roof. There were limits to the concessions she was willing to make for safetyís sake -- they had made little difference in her brother and fatherís cases. But her sleeping chamber had only one narrow slit window, which made it warmer during the winter months and, according to her father and the captain, far safer during all months.

After Micaela, her body servant, undressed her and began to brush her hair, Isabella studied herself in the small mirror on the table. She still had smooth unwrinkled skin and only the lightest dusting of freckles from occasional unprotected exposure to the strong sun that shone over Baden. Symmetrical features, long brown hair, and brown eyes usually drew the attention of men, and some women, but she was far from one of the great beauties of the kingdom. And she looked worse than she usually did. Her skin was bled white with worry and fatigue, and she was reluctant to rely as heavily on cosmetics as would be necessary to conceal the signs.

Far too much of her existence was already fakery.

****

One day earlier, Isabella had journeyed to the exercise fields, a large rectangle of packed dirt, scoured clear of grass by decades of boots. The fields were sprawled behind the west wing of the palace. This placement left undisturbed the beauty of the gardens leading into the palace -- the conventional trappings of leisure and power. The fields, though, were where the sinews, muscles, and bones of her houseís power were tested and strengthened. Even the swords these soldiers used here were different than the ones carried by so many members of her court -- whether the wooden practice swords or the actual steel, the swords were shorter and thicker, built to withstand the rough hacking of the battlefield. These swords, her father often had said, were the heart of power.

Captain Sorenson soon pulled away from the men on the field and joined the four-man guard detail that was surrounding her.

Isabella smiled at him. "Captain, if I may be blunt, you wear the look of a man who badly wants to labor upon a different task. I recognize it well, for I see it in my own mirror each morning. I am well protected here. Feel free to return to your men."

His eyes widened in a tanned face framed by cropped hair, and he shook his head. "I fear you misunderstand what you see, Majesty," he said. "I do not want a different job; I want you to release me to do this one." He lifted one hand to his swordís hilt and motioned approximately in the direction of the windows to the council room with the other. "Most of the nobles on the council are your enemies, and dealing with such is the service I can offer you."

"I see." She dipped her chin and stared for a minute at the worn dirt beneath her feet. The pacing, shuffling, and stamping of three decades of her familyís guards had pounded the ground into a hard crust. This power was not an illusion; a faker lost the bouts or died on the battlefield. Sighing, she looked at him. "Your sword will undoubtedly be needed one day, Captain. But not yet."

He nodded. "But it should be soon, Majesty."

"I am not my father," she said. Her voice was soft and for his ears only. "I am not so quick to kill."

He stared at her. "No, Majesty," he said. "You are not your father. But you are certainly his daughter, and you have your own merits. My men and I are honored to be in your service, as we were to be in his." Captain Sorenson hesitated again. "But you must lead, or others will reach to take what is rightfully yours."

The guardsmen continued their sparring matches, oblivious to the conversation that might decide their fates. She knew what the captain wanted her to say. She also knew that one reason for his hesitation was that he had never had such a conversation with her father. "I thank you for your honesty, Captain."

Those words had not been the ones he had hoped to hear. And for the first time since she had known him, an unconcealed expression shaped his face. Interpreting the expression, though, was harder than she had expected it would be. Fond frustration. Horrified dismay. Nascent anger. Perhaps all of those mingled into an almost frantic disappointment.

The sight had sent a cold shiver through her.

A day later, as her attention return to the mirror in front of her, she matched the grimace she had then witnessed on the captainís face yesterday with one of her own.

Micaela stopped her brushing. "What is wrong, Majesty?"

"Nothing that you can correct, Micaela," Isabella said. "I am simply missing my father, and wishing that he was still alive. I want to honor him now that he is gone."

Micaela was young, but wise enough to remain silent and concentrate on her brushing, and for that wisdom Isabella was thankful.

Thankful, because in the privacy of her own mind she was honest enough to admit that she feared becoming her father. Isabellaís pleasant childhood memories of her father had curdled like spoiled milk with each passing year of his reign. He had become harder, ruthless, and more distant each day. Only three people -- her mother, her brother, and her -- had seen his true worth and had seen the man who had laughed frequently and easily die slowly hour by hour as he grew in power and protected them from all enemies.

****

On the morning after Simon DíKite had given her what was essentially a private ultimatum, Isabella still hesitated. Oppose the council, and face an unknown future, the possibility of her death, and the certainty of death for many who served her. Or submit docilely to its demand, avoid bloodshed, and start the rapid decent into a shallow grave or flight into a hurried exile. She perceived the choice as a true dilemma.

The normal rhythm of her life continued. Micaela entered just after dawn to help her bathe and dress. This rhythm would be likely to continue if she allowed the men on her council to have their way. Baden had a long tradition of figurehead monarchs. Her familyís long rule had been an anomaly in the normal pattern.

It was an anomaly willed into existence by her grandfather and father. Her father, in particular, had ruled with both stern wisdom and a sword held in a gauntleted fist, a sword that he had not hesitated to bloody whenever necessary. And men like Captain Sorenson were, and had always been, drawn to such leaders. Leaders like Simon DíKite drew their special breed of followers, too, but she knew without doubt whom she would rather have in her camp on the morning before a battle.

It was an anomaly that she had always despised, although she had not realized how much until the rule had passed to her. To her mind, her father the king had become both more and less than the man he once had been. And she had inherited everything he left behind him.

"Majesty, your father would have loved to see you as you are now," Micaela said. "He would have been so proud of you."

Isabella, after a brief pause, forced herself to smile, even as she shook her head. "No," she said softly, "he would not have been." She ran her hand along the silken smoothness of the blue dress Micaela had placed before her. To hold the loyalty of men like Captain Sorenson, she would need to act in ways that they understood and respected. So. "But after today, I think that he might be. And I can live with that."

"Majesty?"

"You have served me well, Micaela," Isabella told her maid, standing, and letting her nightgown drop to the floor. "No matter what happens, I will try to see you to safety after the trouble starts."

Micaela hurriedly stepped back and showed the top of her blond head to Isabella as she curtsied. "I will not leave your side, Majesty. I will see you through it."

Isabella sighed. "Then I have another task for you." She motioned for Micaela to resume her dressing and waited until the wrestling was over. "Bring Elazar to me. Secretly. But quickly. I should return from the council meeting shortly, and he and I must talk."

A brilliant smile lit Micaelaís face. It was a poorly concealed secret that Elazar had been pressing Isabella for months to take a husband. As Isabella had rejected one possible suitor after another, sometimes after a tense conversation with Elazar and sometimes after a brief audience with a potential husband, Micaela and the rest of her ladies had become more and more certain that her husband would be Captain Sorenson, the man who had protected all of them since they were young girls.

If Micaela had heard Elazarís words during the confrontation he and Isabella had had only last week, she might have struggled to muster such a smile. "Are you trying to commit suicide," Elazar had roared in a momentary fit of temper, "to get all of us killed in our beds?" Isabella had managed to calm him only by agreeing to yet another audience with a potential husband.

Now, she was about to disappoint him once again. She had no intention of marrying just yet, but she did need help to make sure that she was still alive to choose a husband. And Elazar had been the route through which her father had tried to deliver help to her.

After Isabella did what she was about to do, she was going to need every last bit of it, she suspected.

****

Captain Sorenson was waiting for her outside the door to her chambers.

As he straightened from his bow, she smiled thinly at him. "I have one final scene to play in this farce, Captain," she said, "but then I suspect that I will need you and your men."

A fierce eagerness broke through the captainís disciplined impassivity, and she knew that he was hearing his own echoes now. The decision had been made, the die had been cast, and now events were moving into his realm. "We will be ready for whatever you ask us to do, Majesty," he murmured. "You may be certain of it."

"I am," she said, before quieting as the two of them walked the long distance to the council room. She paused at the door. "This may get out of my hands. If someone oversteps his bounds ... do what you do. But do not kill anyone if you can avoid it."

He nodded, perhaps not eagerly but certainly not unhappily.

All of the members were already seated when she entered, and yet all still stood from their seats. Of the ten men looking back at her, however, only three or four showed any welcome or concern on their faces.

Impassive stares from Simon DíKite, Harold Bivot, and Desmond DíTarlec. Two dukes and one wealthy baron-merchant. Three undoubted enemies.

She took her seat, comforted by the captainís looming presence behind her chair, and briefly scanned the faces of four other men. Four probable enemies. Amery, Laris, Terence, and Ignatius. The men were all baronets or merchants, and all were still wealthy because they had cooperated with her enemies over the past few years.

Only three men seated around the table might still be called allies, she thought. Horton, another of her fatherís loyal soldiers from the campaigns against the duchies to the south and now a loyal baron. Waring, her first cousin and the head of a small but still powerful family that had several marriage ties to her family. Fabian, a wealthy merchant who always offered the royal family favorable terms in any dealings.

Is this how it will be, Father? She wondered briefly if he had seen the world, even his own family, as she was seeing these men now. Allies. Potential Assets. Enemies. Had he assessed all human interaction, every conversation, by this simple balancing equation? A focus on reaching such judgments might explain why he grew quieter as he aged -- why waste breath on people who had already revealed themselves by their actions? Enemies were removed. Allies were rewarded. Others were presented with a choice.

She smiled again at the thought as Simon DíKite started to speak. Words might suffice to offer all of the men at the table one final choice -- she was not her father, and unwilling to let men risk hanging themselves with the clear awareness that they were being judged. So she waited until just after he had brought a motion to the table -- DíTarlec was the one willing to lend his name openly to it -- before interrupting.

"I will not support this," she said, meeting the eyes of every man in the room. "My father would have told you the same, and he would not, I know, have been as patient as I have been. But my patience is at its end, my lords. Think carefully about the decisions you make once Duke Simon calls the vote. If you stand behind Duke Desmondís proposal, you will be standing against me. And that could mean a civil war."

"Majesty," Simon DíKite said, speaking slowly but not sounding reluctant at all to dispute with her, "once a proposal had been brought before the council, the council always votes on it. That tradition has endured for over a hundred years."

"Very well," she said, pausing and touching her lips with a finger. "Then I insist on a voice vote."

Her request triggered an explosion of protests and outraged declamations. Desmond DíTarlec actually jumped up from his seat and approached her. She doubted that he actually intended to lay hands upon her. He probably merely wanted to intimidate her with his proximity; he was a foot taller than she was and twice as wide. In any case, his motives did not truly matter.

Taking two quick steps, Captain Sorenson interposed himself between her and DíTarlec. Then ramming the heels of both hands into the dukeís shoulders, Captain Sorenson drove DíTarlec back and off of his feet. His hand fell to his sword, and he clearly was willing to draw it.

Shocked silence fell around the table.

"Nobody approaches the Queen that way," Captain Sorenson said. His voice cut through the silence like a surgeonís knife sliced through skin. "How quickly people forget simple truths."

Even Desmond DíTarlec repressed his anger after hearing the hissing rage in the captainís voice. A hurricane of wrath only barely restrained, and for the first time, it occurred to some of the men in the room that only the will of the small woman in the room with them was restraining Sorensonís freedom of action.

"Yes, gentlemen," Isabella said, staring around the room. "The gloves are off. I repeat: I demand a voice vote. Stand up and be counted if you are going to oppose the throne in this."

A few surprised grunts and whispered side conversations followed, but she was well within her rights to call for such a vote. And despite her strong showing here today, her enemies could calculate the odds as well as she could. Simon DíKite nodded impassively and transmuted her request into a procedure.

The vote held only one surprise for her. Gray-bearded and stocky, Baronet Ignatius seemed impervious to the tension as he voted with her allies, instead of with her enemies. She exchanged a nod with him, impressed that he maintained a grave and calm expression despite the ferocious glares of his former peers. But the tally was still clear. The vote was six to four for the motion and against her.

Rising to her feet, Isabella rose to a world in which the Council now officially controlled the army and navy of the kingdom of Baden.

****

Fear.

That was her chief emotion as she left the council chamber. But it was a different kind of fear than that she had felt yesterday. Behind her was a room filled with proud men. Arrogant men. Powerful men. Six had openly declared themselves as her enemies, and they were unlikely to back down from the confrontation that they had brought into existence. And now neither was she. She held no illusions about what might happen to people like Captain Sorenson or Micaela or Elazar in a kingdom ruled by such men. They would be killed or used ruthlessly and discarded like trash when they no longer held any value. Her father had used people, too, and many had died in his service, but then he never wasted people.

At an intersection where the hallway turned and continued toward her chambers, she reached out and halted the captainís progress.

"No, Captain Sorenson," she said. "Take me to the barracks compound. Now."

The rippling wave of surprise and delight that flowed across his face was almost enough to push back her fear. "Audacity is almost always the best course, Majesty," he said, "but it is an unpredictable path. Are you sure?"

"If they want a war," she whispered, "let us see if I can give them one."

A nod was his only response before he turned and headed in the opposite direction.

****

The council technically controlled the army. But the army did not know that yet. And as Isabella had learned well over the past twelve months, official control is not the same as actual control. There were three regiments permanently stationed in the city, and all were still commanded by officers hand-picked by her father. When she and Captain Sorenson arrived at the first barracks, with the assembled Royal Guard at their backs, she would offer the officers and soldiers of the regiment a simple choice: Remain loyal and follow a queen, or commit treason and follow her enemies.

Their decision was out of her control, but with only a little luck, all three regiments would choose her side. Some of the regiments quartered away from the city might well side with Duke Simon and his allies, but with Captain Sorensonís men and three regiments, she could hold the city. And whoever held the city, her father said, held all of the most important cards in the game.

Isabella strode along the level surface of the palace floor, but she felt as if she was taking her first steps down a long slope. From now on, the pace of events would only quicken until all of them reached the bottom. Violent confrontation, probably. Submission to her will, unlikely. Death, possibly.

Perhaps assassins would arrive first, or perhaps her enemies would dispense with subtlety and simply try to overwhelm Captain Sorensonís men and the men in any loyal regiments.

Acting first would be best, she knew, but she also knew now that the future was out of her hands. Life must be lived day by day. She might still influence the course of events, might still find new allies, might surprise her enemies with a few stratagems, but she had cast her die. It would fall as it fell.

And she would become whatever it was necessary for her to become to make the die fall according to her will.

THE END



© 2005 by Nick Capo

Nick Capo says, "I live in Illinois with Beth, my wife, and Clio, our dog. When not dodging tornadoes, I spend a lot of time reading and writing.

E-mail: Nick Capo

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