The tavern was nearly empty. A man and a woman sat at the bar, conversing with the bartender.
“I’m telling you both,” the woman said, her voice low, as though afraid that someone might hear her, although they were the only three in the bar, “and maybe I wouldn’t day say this if I were completely sober, but it’s time for a change in power.”
“You’re not talking treason in my tavern,” the barmaid warned. “Not against my Queen.”
The man scoffed. “Your queen? ‘Melly the Robot Queen’, they call her. Tell me; when was the last time you saw this queen of yours? When was the last time anyone saw this queen?” he asked, his voice rising. His words didn’t slur at all; he didn’t need the tavern’s famous ‘liquid courage’ in order to voice his opinions.
The barmaid was unfazed by his questions. “Even so, she’s a good queen.”
The sober man laughed. “A good queen? There have been invasions, Kae, invasions, where people are burned to death in their own homes, and your Queen has yet to do a blessed thing about it-”
He was cut off by a sob. “Shh,” the barmaid, Kae, whispered. “You’re upsetting Katie.” Kae helped the drunk woman out of the bar, and came back alone, sitting on the stool beside the man. “Katie lost her entire family in one of those fires, Davin. Don’t upset her like-”
The man, Davin, cut in loudly. “Katie deserves to be upset! We all deserve to be upset! We all deserve a Queen who will care about us!”
“You speak treason,” Kae warned him.
“I speak the truth,” Davin countered.
Kae stood and grabbed Davin’s jacket from the coat-rack beside the door. She held it out to him, saying, “Then, Davin, it’d be best to speak it somewhere else.”
“The people talk, Melly,” the Lady Ice informed the Queen. Weeks had passed since the first arson attack had been reported; and Melly was no closer to calming the unease that it had created.
Even so, the people talking didn’t bother her. “And what is it that the people are saying?”
“That their Queen is no longer fit to rule. That their Queen has no control over the affairs of the Kingdom anymore. That there will soon be a change of power.” Snowing Ice was careful to keep her voice calm and her face neutral. “Perhaps you should address the citizens?”
Melly leaned far back into her throne, trying to humor Ice, but not really considering it. She stared absentmindedly her tiara, which sat, untouched, on a pillow beside the throne. “The people have always talked,” she said slowly, taking the tiara in her hands and studying the jewels. She hadn’t worn it since her coronation. “And they’ll always talk. I cannot afford to waste time with how comfortable they are, when we’re busy fighting a war. I don’t care how comfortable they are when there are people dying to make sure that they’re alive.”
Ice stared at Melly. She lowered her voice. “I don’t care what you do, Melkyre, but you better do something, because people are being burned alive in their homes, and everyone thinks that they’re the next to go. These are people dying, Melly. Farmers, merchants, fishermen. Regular people. It’s not just the soldiers anymore.”
“And what do you propose I do about it, Snowy?”
“I’m not your military commander, Melly. Speak with Iris, and the two of you need to think of a way to stop this; or you need to speak to your people, and remind them that you do have their best interests at heart, to this day. That you’ve always-”
“Spare me, will you? I know how the speech goes. I wrote the speech, after all,” Melly said. “I don’t have time for this, Ice. I’m going to go see these mercenaries, and I’ll speak to them. The people can take care of themselves; they never seemed to like it when I was too far into their personal lives, anyway.”
“Melly, you can’t let what they did to you a hundred years ago cloud your judgment now–”
“This is not up for discussion,” Melly said, finality in her voice. She rose from her throne and pushed her hair out of her face. “I leave at dawn.”
The journey wasn’t pleasant, but not much travel these days for Melly was ever pleasant. She didn’t leave much, except to join her armies for a battle, or meet with her commanders. Contact with the other nations had become minimal after the war had begun and that idiot child Queen Coffee had refused Melkyre’s gracious offer to help her until she was ready for the throne.
The Merc’s homeland was beautiful, part of one of the few areas on the entire continent of Strappato that she’d never explored herself. Everything was warm, there was sand instead of the dirt that she was accoustomed to, and there was nothing green in sight. Back in her own country, everywhere the Queen looked there was a tree, or a bush, or grass, and it was cold or raining. Depressing, to be frank. The Queen loved her people; but she’d much rather rule a region that was a bit more… tropical.
Before long, she left her mount and approached the place where she had been led to understand she’d find what she was looking for. If the leader wasn’t there, then she wouldn’t know where else to look. Melly would have to go back and address her subjects, and it was a cold day in hell whenever Melly had to bend to Lady Snowing Ice’s will.
Melly knocked. There was a short silence.
“Password?” a voice from behind the door asked.
“I don’t need a password. I’m Queen Melkyre,” she said, her voice assertive. “Let me in. I need to speak with your superior.”
The man snickered. “You’re good,” he said.
“That I am,” she acknowledged. “Open the door.”
The door swung open, the man holding it open giving her a nod. “The Queen Melkyre, is it? Pleasure to meet you.”
Melly was a little taken aback. Civility was not what she had expected, but she’d learned a long time ago to take everything in stride. “And you are?” she asked finally, trying her best to be civil.
“Brian. You’re here to see our Head Merc?” he asked, still smirking a bit. Melly squinted at him. He looked vaguely familiar, like she’d known him in a past life. Not that she believed in that sort of rubbish.
He was young, not looking to have lived much past two decades, and bearing look of an adolescent. But when he began to lead Melly away, she noticed the elegance in which he walked. He wasn’t an ordinary mercenary, that much was clear.
She didn’t give it much thought, though; she was here to speak with the person in charge, and she couldn’t afford to be distracted.
She let herself into the small office. Its insides were sparse, having no windows and being furnished with only a few chairs and a large desk, which was cluttered with paperwork. Behind this desk, an older gentleman sat in a large chair, his gaze remaining fixed on his work as Melly entered the room. She could see right away he wasn’t the same as the mercenaries that she’d encountered on her way to the headquarters of the Guild, nor was he like the Brian boy that she’d met just moments earlier. He didn’t have the same rugged, hardened posture that the others had. He was more regal, like a king upon his throne.
“Queen Melkyre,” the man said, still not glancing up from his papers. She couldn’t get a good look at his face. He reached down and picked up a file folder, flipping through it. His voice was dry, pleasant but not friendly. “Ah, yes, here we go. Queen Melkyre. Melly the Robot Queen, they call you. Cursed with immortality at the age of twenty-two, ruler of Salvatore for 201 years. It seems like this is your first time coming here.” He set the folder down as he stood up.
Melly’s breath caught. “Lectin?” she said, taking in his appearance. She hadn’t seen him since she’d first been to visit the child Coffee’s court. Back then, she’d taken a liking to him, as he seemed to have been the only one that had any sense at all in that entire blasted country. It was strange, though; he looked younger, almost. Melly’s memory of the time before was blurred at best.
Lectin smiled. “Always a pleasure, Your Highness.” He gave a small bow. “And, if I may be permitted to say, for someone who has lived for two hundred years, we don’t have very much on you. A testament to your ability.” he said.
“When you keep out of the public eye, that is how it works,” she said, trying to reign in her surprise. “Lectin. You’re a sore sight for the eyes. You’re leader of the Mercs?” she asked.
“Obviously,” Lectin replied. “So, Your Highness, what is the intention of your visit? To hire? I’d do well to warn you that our services are pricey, to say the least, and we don’t kill royalty. Unless, of course, you can make an offer that we just can’t refuse.”
“I’m not here to hire you –” Melly began.
“No?” Lectin abruptly cut in. His voice acquired cool cast. “Well, then, there is no point in you staying. You know where the exit is.” Lectin sat down once more, leaning back into his chair, picking up folders and dismissing Melly within the space of seconds.
Melly paused for a second. As it wasn’t often that someone so easily brushed her aside, it was almost surprising. Not to mention that she’d forgotten Lectin was someone who was more concerned with business than other matters. “No.” She said, once more. “There is every reason for me to come here. The murders in my country have been your doing, of that I’m sure. I’m simply going to tell you to stop them.”
Lectin didn’t bother looking up. “Your Highness, I’m afraid I have nothing to do with whatever has been going on in your kingdom.”
Melly didn’t even hesitate. “I don’t believe that for a moment. Lectin, you will stop whatever it is that you’re doing. And you’ll do it at once.”
Lectin flicked through a few of his reports. “Melly, I am going to have to say no. I do not run the Mercenary Guild with an iron fist. If my charges are running around, setting fire, and causing havoc in the streets, it is not my business.”
“Your indifference isn’t becoming, Lectin,” Melly said coolly. “Real people are being killed for no reason other than your ‘charges’ don’t like me.” She paused. “All I can ask is that you trust me when I say that I am the one that is bent on stopping this war, and if the Queen Kit has you in her employ-“
“Never,” Lectin interrupted, “have I had Queen Kit as my client.” Lectin looked up, staring directly at Melly with frankness. “The elusive Queen Kit has yet to make a visit to me, and I have my own suspicions why.”
Now Melly paused. Lectin had let something slip, whether purposely or unconsciously, and Melly couldn’t let it pass. Any information on Kit was useful. “What, exactly, might those suspicions be?” she asked bluntly. He was silent. “I want this war to be over with, Lectin; and, as much as it pains me to say it, I fear that I can’t do that without your help. So, tell me your suspicions, Lectin. Please.”
Lectin internally smiled. He had averted a potentially disastrous topic. If Melly had figured out that his guild was working for Coffee… He shuddered to think of what the consequences would be. He forged onwards, albeit with a touch of doubt to color his voice. “Queen Kit has been out of the public eye for a goodly number of years. While that is never too suspicious, there have been signs that certain things have been going awry in Kit’s kingdom. My Mercenaries have reported that the royal palace have had… strange incidents going on.”
“What sorts of things?” Melly asked. She had always been aware of Kit’s rather eccentric qualities, and she’d known that they’d only begun after the war had started. Before, she had always been the flower of every inter-country ball, and the envy of every woman she’d met. It had seemed odd when war was waged, but if there was a more reasonable explanation, Melkyre needed to hear it.
“One thing is the over reliance on her serving maid. I do believe her name is Wrampage. The reliance on this particular servant was never a cause of interest for me, seeing as they have been close for a long time. However, recently the amount of control that Wrampage has incurred in stead of managing Queen Kit’s is… troubling. Another thing is the constant illness that seems to plague Queen Kit. Us Immortals cannot fall ill, as you know well enough. But it has been enough to pull Queen Kit from her routine. She doesn’t even appear at important Court events, like she previously did.” Lectin said. “Needless to say, it is troubling.”
“Troubling, no doubt,” Melly said. “I’m afraid that I don’t, however, understand what you’re implying. Faking illness and allowing a servant to control her kingdom? And, tell me, if this servant really does seem to have such a steadfast hold on the queen’s ear, how is it that we’ve not yet won the war? Is a mere maid’s battle strategies better than our trained professionals?”
“It is a precisely why a crown of shadows is so dangerous.” Lectin said. “While Kit still appears to hold on to her power, who is to say that this maid, Wrampage, wouldn’t seek to influence her actions? Soft persuasion does far more damage than demonstrations of power. Altering the politics and agendas of the nation, nudging certain things in a certain direction…”
“So you’re telling me that this woman, this Wrampage, is the reason that our countries have been at war for the last 200 years? And can you present any theories as to her motivation? Surely, she can’t be profiting from this war. She’s only a maid.” Melly wasn’t sure that she believed him, and her voice betrayed that feeling.
“It’s worth checking out, and that’s all I have to say. You can either take that information and look into it yourself, or you can choose to ignore it.” Lectin said, returning to his papers. “I myself will be looking into this situation to assess what is going on, and I encourage you to do so as well.”