Steel and Stone: Prologue
Oueen Sari of Landen and Satera slept fitfully, the blankets knotted in her fists. In truth, the "Landen and Satera" in her title was a misnomer, as the kingdom of Satera had been overrun by the monstrous armies led by Lune, its population forced to flee its farms and hamlets, its castle a shattered ruin.
This was why Sari's sleep was troubled.
Sari's mother had been Queen Lena of Satera. She had no claim to the throne of Landen at all; the role had been thrust upon her by Landen's nobles. She was the last person with Orakian royal blood in this world, and the people needed that, a champion, a figurehead to rally them if they were to muster some kind of defense against Lune's hordes. Sari, because of her duty to the remnants of the Sateran people but more because of who she was, had taken on the mantle of a true ruler, no figurehead, leading the battle against the Layan monsters.
It was a heavy burden for a girl of seventeen to bear.
She gave a little cry and sat bolt upright in bed, the fragments of a nightmare flitting at the edges of her mind. It was all blood and pain, images from the fall of Satera merging with images from war, buildings consumed by flame as children screamed and died in the upper stories, soldiers going down as orange-scaled lizrds clawed at their throats and the wind razors conjured by their Zan techniques cleaved the limbs from their bodies. And there were faces--the face of her mother, weeping, and the face of Rhys, Prince of Landen, who had abandoned his throne, abandoned his engagement to Lena, abandoned his people to chase after a woman from another world, a Layan woman at that. "Give all for love"--and now where was he when his people needed his leadership?
Gone, Sari thought, with only me to carry on in his place.
The royal bedchamber, she thought, was too big, too empty, the canopied bed only a reminder of how alone she was. It didn't suit her anyway; she was a fighter, not some pampered featherhead. Silk sheets, feather mattress and pillows, brocade curtains--Sari would have preferred a bedroll under the stars.
Then she heard it.
Now awareness took over, chasing the last of her dreams. The noise was coming from one of the windows. Sari listened carefully, hearing the soft, repeated noises, and then she realized that it was the sound of metal on metal.
Her hand slipped beneath her pillow and closed around the hilt of the steel fighting knife she kept there. She drew the blade from its sheath, ready for what might happen.
Then, she saw a glint in the moonlight as one of the diamond-shaped window panes fell away, no doubt to shatter in the courtyard below. Sari doubted it would attract attention; that side of the castle backed against the mountains and so was insulated from enemy attack. Obviously it wasn't safe from a stealthy invader slipping into the castle and circling around back inside the grounds. The queen made a mental note to speak with the guard captain about increasing the patrols as she watched a hand snake inside and unlock the window.
She could have shouted for the guards at any time, of course; that would have been the easy way to deal with the intruder. Or, Sari could have attacked then, while he was trying to enter the room. That would have made the outcome all but a certainty. She held back, though, waiting to see what the intruder was after. Was it a cowardly assassination attempt, or something else?
The window swung open, and a figure slithered into the room. He was agile; she had to give him that. Climbing the tower was no easy task. His clothing was dark, and there was a small blade in his hand--a tool, not a weapon, Sari realized as he put it away.
He did not move towards the bed, did not even look at where the queen waited, shadowed by the canopy. Instead, he went over to the vanity, and began to search through the small boxes that contained Sari's inherited-but-rarely-worn collection of jewelry.
A common thief? Stealing from the queen during a war? The idea was almost comical.
It was also wrong, she realized. He wasn't taking anything, despite the fact that there were valuable pieces. Nor did he snatch up any of the meseta kept in one of the boxes, what Sari thought of as her petty cash fund. Instead, he abandoned the vanity without taking anything at all.
Patience was not one of Sari's better qualities, but as a general of Landen's armies she was learning tactics. One of those lessons was to know when to wait even if she didn't feel like it. She'd chosen her course, so she continued to watch and observe.
The intruder caught sight of the settee on which Sari had tossed her day-clothes: loose shirt and trousers, shoes, and an armored chestplate. Deft hands flicked though them and pulled out her belt. The glint of the stone set in her buckle caught his eye; he ran his fingertips over it, then began to free the jewel from its setting.
Sari's leap made no more noise than a whisper, and the man had no idea she was anything but asleep until she crashed into him, her momentum carrying them both into and over the settee. Sari twisted her body, making sure the would-be thief hit the floor first, and contrived to ram an elbow into his midsection.
He wasn't a bad fighter, Sari realized as the man got his feet up and tried to push her off him. The knife was in her hand, ready to use, but instead she held on to the intruder, anticipated his attack, and used the momentum to continue into an over-the-shoulder flip that left him right back where he started, flat on his back on the floor. Sari called for the guards even as she drove her foot into the man's solar plexus.
The bedchamber door flew open and four armored soldiers rushed in.
"My lady Queen, what is it?"
"One of Lune's lackeys stopped by to visit. Take him to the dungeon for questioning. Keep a close hold on him; he's slippery." She looked over the three men and their sole female companion. "Oh, and next time, when you hear furniture being knocked around, don't wait for me to invite you in."
The senior guard flushed at the rebuke, but she was right and he knew it. In a situation when Sari might really need their help, she might not be able to call out.
"Yes, your Majesty."
As the guards hustled the intruder away, Sari bent and picked up the belt he'd been so interested in. The stone in the buckle was an heirloom of the Sateran royal family called the Power Topaz, a large yellow-amber gem of immense value. The idea that the intruder--definitely a Layan, to judge by the fighting staff he'd worn at his belt--would want it for its monetary worth seemed absurd.
But why else?
Other heirloom jewels had proven to have unusual attributes. The traitor Rhys had used the Sapphire of Landen to open a passage to the world of Aquatica. Sari's mother had told her of how gems called the Moon Stone and Moon Tear had possessed literal power over the twin moons, drawing them closer to the surface during Rhys' quest for his lady Maia. Perhaps the Power Topaz could do something similar, or Lune suspected it could.
Unfortunately, no one had seen fit to tell Sari about it; if the thief remained silent, the secret of the Power Topaz was likely to remain just that.
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