“Your beauty knows no bounds, your majesty.”
“It is not my beauty that should be your concern right now, Count Zeurion,” the Queen said dismissively. “It is my compassion. And unfortunately for you that knows very restrictive bounds. Your incompetence will not go unpunished.”
“But, your majesty what else could you have expected me to do?” Count Zeurion cried, scrabbling to the edge of the dais on his hands and knees. “Standar berries are out of season everywhere except for the Shimmering Isles.”
The Queen extended a bare foot and forced the Count backwards by pressing the ball of her foot against his forehead.
“What I expected you to do was bring me what I asked for. Especially when you know where to source them from.”
The Count rocked back and sat up on his knees so that he was out of the Queen’s reach. “Knowing where to get them and actually accomplishing that feat are a world apart, your majesty. You better than most should know that the Shimmering Isles have been outside of our reach since you went to war with Kercia.”
The Queen looked aghast and after making an almost invisible gesture with her left hand one of the two men at the corners of the dais brought his spear down on the Count’s knuckles. It was an impressive strike seeing as how animated the Count’s arms were and he cried out with surprise and pain.
“Don’t you dare imply that my actions caused this situation. I know definitively that we still trade with the Shimmering Isles.”
“Your majesty, the only trade conducted with them is the illegal goods being shipped without your authorisation,” the Count interrupted and earned another slap on the knuckles.
“Firstly do not ever interrupt me again,” the Queen threatened, glaring down her nose. “Secondly I don’t care what is being shipped. That is a resource that you can and should have used to get me what I’ve asked for.”
“The black market trade routes are not something I can easily influence. Even for you, your majesty.”
“I don’t care how easy it is to do. Just do it or the next time you kneel before me it will be to have your head lopped off. I won’t allow you to get away with incompetence twice.”
The Count dropped his head to hide the fear seeping into his features.
“What are you waiting for?” the Queen barked and threw an orange forcefully at the Count. It missed and skidded across the marble floor before rolling all the way out of the open doors. “Get out of here and find me my standar berries.”
The Count scampered to his feet faster than the Queen had ever seen the rotund man move and he disappeared through the oaken doors.
“Let’s see if whoever is next can delay their fate as successfully as Count Zeurion,” Prince Agdard, one of the two guards protecting the Queen mused.
“I only gave him a stay of execution because I can’t afford to lose his experience right now, brother. Do not sass me or I will happily have the slaves clean you up from the floor instead.”
“Idle threats, little sister. Idle threats.”
The next complainant, Magister Rulio, entered the chamber before the Queen could put her lowly brother in his place. The uneven wheels of the cart he was pushing filled the sudden silence with a low metallic screech that didn’t stop until he reached the dais.
“Your majesty,” he said, bowing so low his head almost touched the ground and brushing the back of his fingers across the pristine marble floor.
The Queen waved him off nonchalantly, paying more attention to the thick woolen sheet draped over the cart. “What ill tidings do you bring me, Fenati?”
The Magister grabbed one corner of the sheet and yanked it off of the cart without preamble. He had learned very early not to dance around when delivering bad news. Bluntness was the best strategy with her and it had helped him become one of her most trusted advisers.
A cloud of dust billowed out of the cart which was otherwise empty.
“This is all that remains of your coffers, your majesty,” Fenati reported.
“So much for being the Queen of the Emerald Islands,” Prince Agdard said. “More like the Queen of Dust.”
The glare the Queen gave her brother was almost enough to turn him into another puff of dust. She held his gaze unflinchingly for almost a minute before facing Fenati.
“How could this have happened? You told me that the Cvuca mines had a limitless supply.”
“No, I definitely said limited,” Fenati responded and shrugged apologetically with his hands upturned. “And with all of your requests of late, like requesting standar berries from the Shimmering Isles, we’ve been delving further into the castle’s treasure reserves. Like Prince Agdard joked about all that remains is dust.”
The Queen opened her mouth but before she could utter a sound Fenati continued.
“Before you ask what I plan to do about it, I’ve already introduced some radical taxes and pushed both Jhaj and Eflihl to increase their support in the war against Kercia. That will of course require you to hand over more land to ensure their added support, but better to keep some of your land and maintain power than to be overthrown because you bankrupted your nation.”
“Watch how far you push your luck, Fenati. Somebody is going to pay for letting it get this far without my knowledge and I think we’d both prefer if it wasn’t you.”
“Too right, your majesty. Apologies for overstepping my bounds. My point is simply that the matter will be sorted with due haste and you will be able to resume your luxurious lifestyle.”
“There will be no resumption necessary because I am not putting a halt to anything,” the Queen said and plucked a grape from the fruit bowl beside her. “Sort this mess out without stopping Count Zeurion’s efforts to attain my standar berries and without this Queen of the Dust moniker reaching the outside world.”
“Yes, your majesty,” Fenati said and performed another impressive bow. “As you desire.”
He wheeled the cart around and left the chambers, shutting the doors behind him.
The Queen instantly glared at Agdard and warned him. “Don’t you even think of mentioning the word dust or you’ll join your older brother in Kercia.”
Agdard raised his hands into the air and acted abashed that the Queen would even suggest he would do such a thing. A grape flew at his head and he snatched it out of mid air, chewing it with a wild grin.