".....a village was burned to ashes in the night," the advisor said. "Apparently, the culprits left something burned into the ground." He hesitated, a flicker of wariness crossing his face.
From her position in the corner of the throne room, Fallon monitored the man's every movement with unwavering vigilance. Graying hair, hunched back, the soft hands of a person who had never held a sword or dagger. He certainly didn't appear to be a threat, and the two royal guards stationed outside the burnished double doors had allowed him entrance without protest or comment. Yet she had never seen him before — unusual for a member of Queen Rhiannon's cabinet.
"Spit it out," the queen ordered curtly, her steely gaze boring into the man. A hawk's fierce gaze, one that even hardened warriors would quail beneath.
The advisor took an involuntary step back, not daring to meet that piercing stare. The footstep rang out in the forbidding silence of the throne room, echoing from the gilded floor and walls. The advisor swallowed, licking his lips nervously. "Y-your Majesty —"
"Spit. It. Out." Each word was sharp as a knife blade, enunciated with the precision of one well accustomed to wielding her words as weapons. Brooking no complaint, no insubordination.
Another step back, nearly tripping over his own feet in the process. "Yes, Y-your Majesty. O-of course, Your Majesty," the advisor stammered. He quickly cleared his throat, scratching restlessly at his collar. "A symbol was burned into the ground. Two swords, crossed in an X. And they were —"
"Set on fire." Queen Rhiannon's words were quiet, hollow. She lifted her head, ebony hair rippling in glossy rivulets over her shoulders. "They were wreathed in tongues of flame."
The advisor nodded. "Yes, Your Majesty," he affirmed. Gone was the stutter; in its place was a grim finality, an ominous hidden meaning underlying his words.
Fallon stifled a gasp. The Imperial symbol — the king's symbol. Impossible. Centuries of peace had passed between the kingdom of Merine and its powerful neighbor, the Imperial Dynasty. While dozens of other kingdoms fell beneath the might of the infamous Imperial army, Merine had remained untouched and ignored. Safe, protected by the Border Treaty negotiated so many years ago by the first rulers of the tiny kingdom. Yet now, for Imperial soldiers to be trespassing in Merinian territory, leaving the king's sigil burnt into the ground.... The implications were too terrible to consider.
The queen's slender fingers tightened on the armrests of her throne, digging into the gold-lacquered wood. Fallon watched the play of emotions across her face: anger, fear, dread — culminating in lethal, icy calm. A deadly sort of promise.
"Send soldiers to the other villages on the border," Queen Rhiannon commanded, "and tell them to take any Imperial soldiers they find captive."
The advisor inclined his head in mute deference. "Yes, my queen," he murmured. "Will that be all?"
But the queen held up her hand to forestall him. "One more thing," she said, and in her eyes there was only rage. Cold, unending rage.
"Tell the soldiers to burn their captives alive, so that they will feel the same pain that the villagers whom they killed did."
The advisor blinked — his only reaction to the command. Then he bowed again, lower this time. "Your Majesty."
"That will be all," Queen Rhiannon informed him, her words an obvious dismissal. The advisor turned swiftly, hurrying out of the throne room.
No sooner had the double doors slammed shut behind him than the queen said, "Emissary."
One word, and Fallon pushed off the wall, approaching the throne. She did not bow, did not kneel or curtsy. She stared — just stared.
Into the face of her mother.
Those features, that caramel-brown complexion and high cheekbones, dark curls and full mouth. And those eyes — a brilliant amber-gold, the color of honey. Her eyes.
"The Imperial king has a son," the queen said. "Only nineteen. The heir to the throne."
Fallon met that cold gaze, searching for something in their liquid gold depths. She did not know what she was looking for — only that it was not there.
"You know what you must do." Soft words, spoken in the barest hint of a whisper. Yet they sent such a chill through her, prickling over her skin, icing her blood.
"Yes," Fallon replied. "I do."