An Unfolding Tale

an experimental fantasy fiction by M.D. Ward

An Uncomfortable Conversation Tiberius

Tiberius held a quiet hatred for the chairs in the Queen’s drawing room. He supposed that at least part of his dislike stemmed from their environment—it had never been one of his favourite places. But they were also far softer and plusher than he preferred. Every time he sat down, he felt as though he was being swallowed by a shifting mass of goose down that left him wondering how he would manage to pry himself free from the chair’s too-soft embrace. He found himself shifting constantly, never giving the seat a chance to lure him into its comforts. Though the Queen never said anything, he secretly suspected that she must find his restlessness extremely irritating.

The old sage found that thought to be oddly satisfying.

“So that’s it then?” she asked. Her voice held none of the burning anger from the morning of Jayslen’s death. It was calm, composed and as smooth as Mesinian silk. “You have only the word of this one girl, who claims to have seen my son?”

“Yes, your Majesty,” responded Tiberius.

“It seems like scant proof.”

“I agree, but it is the strongest lead we have at the moment. The investigation should not take long.”

“And what if you find nothing? What if this girl is lying, or witnessed something other than what she thought she saw?”

“Then we will have eliminated at least one possibility,” said Tiberius. “Nathaneal will remain here, searching for any others. He and Finnius are already drafting letters to be sent to Gayven Renitheon and Lady Mallory of Summerfield, both of whom were known to be friends of Jayslen’s. The letters should be finished before we leave for Ronnex, should you wish to see them.”

“No need for that. Do have them sent to Navarius for review, however.”

Tiberius fought back the urge to sneer. Over the past few days, he had already had more contact with the Master of Whispers than he would have been comfortable with in an entire year—possibly even a lifetime. He would never understand what possessed the Queen to put her continued trust in that man.

“As you wish,” he replied.

“I also understand that you have enlisted the aid of one of my Winged Guard.”

“Yes, your majesty. I had asked Finnius to speak to Captain Avendor about finding some capable footmen. I never meant for him to seek aid from the Winged Guard itself.” His aide was a brilliant scholar, blessed with a keen analytical mind that could calculate complex sums and memorize vast amounts of history, but somehow seemed to trip over more mundane tasks. It had long been a source of tension, but as Finnius had somehow managed to bumble his way securing an elite, highly trained swordsman to accompany them on the journey to Ronnex, Tiberius found it difficult to be too angry.

“That will raise some eyebrows, I think,” said the Queen, “but it’s nothing that cannot be explained away. It may be a wise decision, in any case and, despite what Captain Avendor might think, I doubt that we should miss a single guardsman.”

“Thank you, your Majesty.”

“That concludes your report?”

“It does.” For a moment, thoughts of the man called Kelven and his fever dream flashed through his mind. No. It’s not time to tell her that. Not yet. There are still too many unanswered questions. There was a long moment during which the Queen said nothing. Tiberius shifted again, more beneath the weight of her silence than because of the chair itself. Am I giving myself away? Can she read the secret on my face? Can she read it in my mind?

No, he admonished himself. He had dedicated the better part of his life to the study of the Auratorch and the Flame. If the ability to read minds existed in the world, it was not a gift given to the Flameborn. The Queen could no more read his mind than he could see the colour of her eyes.

“Very well,” she said at last. “You are dismissed. But I do expect a full and detailed account of everything that happens upon your return.”

“Of course, your Majesty.” Somehow, Tiberius managed to free himself from the chair, which he then used to orient himself towards the door. He had only taken a few steps before the Queen spoke again.

“Did he truly hated me?” she asked quietly. For a moment, Tiberius was certain that someone else had entered the room. In all the long years that he had been hearing the Queen’s voice, it had always been strong, commanding and authoritative. It was the sort of voice that held itself above reproach, that did not merely demand subservience, but expected it. Now, however, it sounded frighteningly different. For this one fleeting moment, it was a voice that echoed with the vast emptiness of desperation.

“I’m sorry, your Majesty?”

“Jayslen. You might have known him better than anyone. Did he truly hate me?”

Tiberius did not know how to respond. Though he suspected that no living person on this side of the Yeartide had ever known Jayslen well, only a day ago Tiberius would have said that he was familiar enough with his pupil. After listening to the words that had risen from the Whisper Glass, he was not so certain. Now he wondered if he had really known Jayslen at all.

Of course, he could not tell the Queen about any of this. He could not tell her what he had only just discovered for himself—that her son had come to lead a secret group that he should not have even known existed. To do so would be to threaten the entire existence of the Society. Still, the Queen had asked him a question. She was waiting on his response. If there had been time to think about it, he might have been able to devise an answer that skirted around the question, an answer subtly crafted to ease her doubts and reinforce her own sense of her world.

He did not have that time. Instead, he found that he could offer her the only thing he did have—the truth.

“Yes,” he said softly. “I believe he did, though perhaps not so much as you might believe, your Majesty. He had a great deal of his father in him, and like your late husband, Jayslen was always fiercely emotional. The loss of both his father and his brother weighed on him. I’m not sure he ever really got passed it.”

“And he blamed it all on me?”

“He had limited options in that regard, I think. To blame it on fate or the will of the Nine would have been too abstract for Jayslen. He needed something real, something tangible against which he could hurl all of his sizable anger.”

“And he chose me,” said the Queen.

“I am sorry,” Tiberius responded. He was surprised to find that he actually meant it.

“It was never supposed to be like this,” she continued. “Growing up in my father’s castle, I used to play at being Queen. I could never have imagined anything like this. A husband who never truly loved me, executed by my own command. My two sons are lost. One dead, the other exiled beyond my reach. Even my own daughter has been all but taken from me, stolen away by her own madness. There’s nothing left for me… nothing left after me.”

Those last words, spoken so quietly that he could barely hear them, struck Tiberius with all of the force of a late summer storm. Somehow, with all of his attention focused on Jayslen and the whereabouts of the Auratorch, he had managed to overlook the one, simple truth that now threatened to sap all the strength from his knees. There was nothing left after the Queen.

She had no heir.

Jayslen was dead, Carvesh was exiled, and there was no chance that the House of Lords would ever allow the Realm to be handed over to the rule of Mad Vahnna Rayderon. Even the late King’s brother, Torshen was gone, slain while putting down an uprising in the southern province of Sanghar, less than a year after Merek’s own execution. The Queen, Tiberius suddenly realized, stood on a narrow precipice that stretched out over a great, empty void of nothingness. In some ways, perhaps, it was a void of her own making, the culmination of how own choices. In other ways, he began to recognize that it was nothing more than the twisting entrapment of a cruel fate.

“You may go now,” said the Queen. Her words remained soft, little more than a whisper. And yet, some of the iron had come back into her voice. “I am sorry you had to answer that question for me, but I think you are the only one who could. Still, I must forbid you from breathing a word of what you heard here to anyone. I still have a Realm to rule and a Council over which to preside. Both are full of Lords who will already be at my throat. I will not be appear weak or vulnerable before them.”

“Yes, your Majesty. I understand.”

“Very good. I trust you will have a productive journey.”

Tiberius nodded, turned again and departed. This time, no voice called after him. And so he went quickly and quietly, content to leave Alleriana Rayderon alone with what he now recognized as the sorrow of a grieving mother.

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